How Do Executive Functions Impact Academic Performance?

How do thinking skills impact academic performance?

Executive functions, or thinking skills, are essentially self-management skills that rely upon the prefrontal cortex and connections to other parts of our brain to help kids and adults set goals, get stuff done, and adapt as necessary. Kids can be highly verbal, creative, and have excellent academic skills but struggle to get it together or reach their potential, often due to difficulties with executive functioning skills. In fact, many kids whose academic performance does not meet the appropriate expectations of parents and teachers experience delays in executive functioning skills.

Executive functioning skills are crucial to classroom success. Simple skills like organization and planning help students to be able to write down their homework, remember to do it, and then return to class the following day. Executive functions are directly related to the development of many academic skills. For example, the  working memory skill is used when a child is able to keep different segments of a word in mind while sounding it out (word decoding) and for reading comprehension, when a child needs to hold in mind what has happened in the previous sentence and put it together with new sentence is to form a cohesive understanding of text.

Executive functions are also important for learning 21st-century skills that involve thinking and working creatively and collaboratively. Skills such as planning, organization, social awareness, metacognition (thinking about one’s own thinking), and flexibility are core components of 21st-century skills.

There have been many compelling studies that describe how teaching executive functioning skills to preschool and elementary school students is more important to long-term academic success than teaching specific academic skills. Longitudinal studies that examine the impact of teaching preschool and elementary school students self management and planning skills indicate that the students do far better than their peers throughout the academic careers and then those who are not taught these skills.

Here are a few examples of how executive functions impact specific academic skills:

Writing:

Organization impacts the content of writing. Putting ideas in a logical order, transitioning between ideas and paragraphs, figuring out which content is most important and what should be included where.

Working Memory helps to keep multiple ideas in mind at once, remember organizational rules of writing paragraphs/papers with intro, supportive paragraphs, conclusion. Keeping the larger picture in mind while trying to work through every idea and supporting detail, thinking about the sentence that was just written while writing the next sentence in order to ensure clarity and flow.

Self-Awareness help to recognize how you are thinking about the organization of the content, recognizing when something you wrote sounds awkward or needs to be re-worded, self-analysis/evaluation/correcting.

Reading

Working Memory helps students with the basics and complexities of reading, from word decoding to reading comprehension. Identifying main ideas in text requires students to keep track of individual details and determine what all of those details have in common. Nearly all components of reading involve processing multiple pieces of information at once.

Organization helps kids with reading comprehension by enabling them to categorize thoughts and ideas and make connections within the text.

Mathematics:

Planning occurs when thinking ahead about what kind of problem this is, and what options you have for solving it, planning the steps you will use to solve the problem)

Working Memory is used while keeping different steps to solving a problem in mind, and recalling which formulas to use to solve which problems.

 

To learn more about how executive functioning skills are used across many other academic subjects see our teacher’s guide to executive functions in the classroom.

 

Featured image: Flickr user Vanguard Visions

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