There is a special group of cognitive skills called Executive Functions. Executive Functions are the directive capacities of our brains – how we manage information, plan and decide, act or stop ourselves from acting, adapt to unexpected situations… Sometimes people use the analogy of the orchestra conductor where the brain’s processes are the instruments in the orchestra, all coordinated by the conductor. Another analogy is an air traffic control center.
Executive Functions are developed; we are not born with them. We are born with the ability to develop them but it takes some time for these processes to mature. Neuroscientists now say that the frontal lobes of our brains (the part of the brain right behind our foreheads), where Executive Functions are carried out, don’t fully develop until our mid-20s.
Many parents and teachers think of Executive Functions as self-regulation, and that is an important aspect of these types of cognitive skills, but there is a lot more to it than that. And like all cognitive skills, Executive Functions play a role in learning and just about everything we do in our lives.
One of the most important things to understand about Executive Functions is that they are essential in reading, math, and other academic subjects, as well as in building social and emotional competence. In other words, Working Memory is the same mental process whether we are using it to comprehend what we are reading, to solve a complex math problem, or to consider what someone else is saying and what might be causing them to say it.
There are three core Executive Functions:
The ability to hold and manipulate information consciously in the mind.
The ability to suppress a thought or idea and to refrain from doing something one otherwise would do.
The ability to change our mindset when the rules of the world around us change, to shift between mental processes.
The chart below provides a quick overview of the role Executive Functions play in academics and social and emotional learning.
In reading, working memory is where we think about what we are reading, as we are reading. It is how we hold onto the beginning of the sentence or paragraph until we get to the end. It is how we compare what we are reading to what we already know, which is how we give something meaning. It is vital for comprehension, and limited working memory capacity is a culprit in many a student’s ability to read fluently but seem to have little idea afterward what they read.
In math, working memory is involved in everything from copying a problem from the board or the math book to one’s paper — to counting and keeping track of which items have been counted and which haven’t — to keeping track of the steps of a complex problem.
In social situations, working memory helps us follow the train of a conversation — who has said what –as well as the general flow. It is also where we hold onto a set of instructions that someone gives us while we carry them out. Poor working memory capacity can look like a lack of attention or caring. If a child can’t remember what they were supposed to do, it can look like they don’t care, weren’t paying attention, or are just plain lazy or even obstinate.
In reading, inhibitory control is involved in selecting among word candidates in decoding (identifying words from their written form). “Blurting” words out is due more to a lack of inhibitory control than of mere guessing, according to the research.
In math, inhibitory control is what helps us wait to multiply numbers until we’ve added the ones in parentheses or to treat a negative number differently from a positive one. It is critical for math that is non-intuitive, where we have to suppress what we think makes sense to do the mathematical analysis or apply the principle that will help us get the appropriate solution.
In social/emotional learning, inhibitory control is the quintessence of self-regulation. It keeps us from blowing out the candles on someone else’s birthday cake or from punching someone in the face when we get mad at them. It is also important in the longer-term, when we postpone immediate self-gratification for a greater goal. (Put down that dougnut!)
In reading, cognitive flexibility is what enables us to switch smoothly between the brain systems we use to sound out words and to recognize sight words, to switch our attention between word meaning, grammar, syntax and overall meaning, and adapt to different characters within a narrative.
In math, cognitive flexibility is what helps us adjust when an initial approach to solving a problem doesn’t work, or to choose among a variety or possible ways to solve a problem, depending on whether we are emphasizing speed or accuracy. It is also important when the relationship to be solved for is not intuitive.
In social behavior, cognitive flexibility is what helps us stop an activity we are involved in and transition to another activity. It allows us to change our minds when we learn new information (the world is round, not flat), and to make the relevant cognitive adjustments and recognize the implications. It is what helps us recognize our mental models and consider alternative explanations for what we see happening in the world.
Measuring and Developing Executive Functions
Executive Functions are predictive of how students do academically, how much money they will learn in their careers, how healthy they will be as adults and whether or not they will have trouble with the law. And they can be assessed and developed.
In this webinar, we explore the core executive functions – working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility – understanding what they are and how they relate to both academic and social and emotional learning. We will show how executive functions can be measured using the Mindprint Cognitive Assessment and how they can be developed using BrainWare SAFARI cognitive training software.