How Executive Functions Play A Role in Student Success

I recently came across this article about how to help students improve their 'Executive Functioning' abilities. The author, Stephen Merrill, interviewed two education + psychology researchers, Angela Duckworth and Ethan Kross. You probably know Duckworth from her research on the role grit plays in success. (If you're interested in her work, I highly recommend listening to her episode of Stephen Levitt's People I mostly Admire podcast. It was a delightfully nuanced conversation about research that has been a bit polarizing in education and academic circles. I walked away with a much richer understanding of her thinking and the work itself.)

Executive Functioning is one of those terms that scare people off because it sounds simultaneously too sciency and too jargony in a way that makes it seem devoid of any real meaning. What makes it more challenging, Kross + Duckworth admit, is that there are LOTS of different definitions and understandings of Executive Functioning based on the discipline from which you are approaching the concept. When discussing E.F. in the context of student success, the closest productive definition, Kross says, is to think about it in terms of 'Self-Control' which he defines as a "person's ability to align their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors with their goals." 

And if you are a human in the world, you know that is both super important for succeeding in life, AND it doesn't come easily to most people. For example, I want to write this blog by Sunday, but I'm desperately fighting the urge to (RE)watch the whole second season of ANTM. I know it's Yoanna, but I'm pretty sure the laws of quantum physics enable me to change this result with the power of intense observation. Anyway, this type of conflict between goals and actions can be especially acute for high school students who are overwhelmed with new stimuli and competing incentives from friends, school, sports, social media, and relationships. And all this while they're trying to cultivate a unique identity as a young adult.

We know Self Control is an essential capacity to develop AND that it can be challenging to do so, especially during this heightened developmental stage. On top of all of that, Duckworth explains, Self Control can be hard to talk about with teenagers because it sounds punitive and compliance-based. She proposes a helpful conceptual shift for people who work with teens (or live with teens) and want to help them develop this ability: it's not about control but about autonomy and agency.  And I don't think that's just a semantic or persuasive technique; helping students think about their decisions in the context of their goals can be incredibly powerful. 

So how do we help young people develop this capacity? 

Merrill outlines three best practices and helpfully includes evidence-based strategies for those interested in integrating the practices into their teaching or parenting. The best practices include:

Best Practice #1: Equip teenagers with different strategies to put a little distance between themselves and the problem they are facing.

Sometimes when we're faced with a stressful situation or a problem, we're just *in it*. And when we're in the middle of the storm, so to speak, it can be hard to take a step back and say, "Hey, maybe it's not as bad as I think." or "Hey, maybe there is a better solution." 

Kross suggests helping students take a step back by using one or more of the following strategies: 

  1. Encourage "inner-speech" or reflection: Silent pep talks or internal words of encouragement can be constructive. A 2019 study found "that when 9- to 13-year-old students took five minutes before a test and "silently spoke words of encouragement to themselves that were focused on effort," math scores improved." 
  2. Writing: Journaling or reflection exercises have a similar impact as the internal monologues mentioned above. Provide short prompts to help students reflect on challenges that arise in adolescence- making new friends, transitioning to high school, relationships, academic stress, etc. These reflective activities provide space for students to gain perspective on the issues they face.
  3. Empower teens to become peer advisors: Provide opportunities for teens to dispense advice on issues that they face (planning for tests, preparing for college applications, etc.). Putting students in the position of a coach or advisor has benefits for both the person receiving AND dispensing the advice. I see this one a lot in my work, and it makes sense because, as Kross puts it, "you're actually wiser when you're counseling someone else."

Best Practice #2: Create purposeful and relevant learning. 

The teenage years are about autonomy, choice, and identity development. Teens explore identities, experiment with different interests, and build meaningful relationships with peers. Educators can leverage this period of personal exploration to create purposeful learning experiences. How?

  1. Ask students what they are interested in and use those interests (music, sports, technology) as leverage to create learning connections. If students see the relevance in their learning, they will be much more motivated to see the work as worth doing and start to practice those aspects of self-control. 
  2. Make connections between the classroom and career pathways or societal concerns. There are many ways to do this, but a simple strategy is just journaling! Educators can block out 5 minutes at the end of a lesson or a unit to have students write about how the topic connects to real-life or their future goals. Check out this excellent activity from Character Lab for one example!
  3. Make learning experiences authentic and rigorous. Enter: Project-Based Learning (PBL). PBL is a teaching method in which students learn by actively engaging in real-world and personally meaningful projects. It's an enormously powerful mechanism which I'll share more about in future posts. If you're new to it, check out PBLWorks for more information or follow the John Spencer's phenomenal work. Why does Duckworth advocate for this strategy in the context of developing self-control? "Good Project-based learning asks kids to articulate a real-world problem they'd like to solve, often in their own communities, and "wraps itself around" questions of student passion and agency." When students are motivated by something beyond test scores and feel agency and autonomy in the process, the learning can be incredibly powerful. I'll also talk more about this in the context of entrepreneurship education in a future post!

Best Practice #3: Make sure to integrate + scaffold planning into the curriculum.

Many of us 'Olds' live and die by our planning tools. Whether you prefer Gcal, ToDoist, Things, Notion, or just an old-fashioned paper planner- we all know the feeling of exporting our entire brain onto a sacred tool. But we love our tools because they are indispensable for the daily operation of our real everyday lives. We should keep that in mind when thinking about teaching students organization and planning. Kross explains, "Self-control actually has two parts: motivation and ability. There are all these tools and hacks out there: self-distancing, perspective-broadening, calendars, other organizers, and that's one piece of the puzzle. But you can have all the tools that exist—if a student isn't motivated to use the tools, they're not going to achieve anything." So how do educators motivate students to adopt these tools?

According to Duckworth, "The key lies in making things like calendars and long-term planning an integral part of your curriculum—a habit that's indispensable to success.... so that the "skill or the habit will be rewarded" and students will be more "receptive and eager" to learn the skills." A couple of strategies Merrill outlines include:

  1. Educators should model good organizational habits by using and referring to a consistent set of tools (master calendars, etc.) and make their use an expected and valuable part of the everyday classroom experience.
  2. Make time to introduce and explain the tech tools you're using. This is especially important in a remote setting. I personally recommend making short videos or fun one-pagers accessible to students who need to reference them throughout the year.

My big takeaways from this article?

It's helpful to think about Executive Functioning in the context of 'Self-Control.'

Self-control can be defined as a "person's ability to align their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors with their goals" and should be thought of more as a way for teenagers to achieve a sense of autonomy rather than a way to keep them compliant.

Three ways to help teenagers develop Self-Control are:

1) Help students put distance between themselves and a given problem by giving them opportunities to talk about it, write about it, or advise peers on similar issues.

2)Create learning experiences that are student-centered, authentic, and connected to the real world. Learning environments grounded in student interest and rigorous, real-world problem solving are more likely to motivate students and enable them to practice goal-setting and planning that lead to self-control.

3) Don't teach 'planning' and 'organizing' in a vacuum. Integrate organizational skills and planning tools into the everyday learning experience and curriculum. Ensure you show students how to use the tools and connect them to tangible and productive outcomes.

I'll be covering lots more on PBL and learning frameworks in an upcoming series. Sign up below to stay in the loop. :)