Our Intentional Learning team recently completed an in-depth session on research advancements in Executive Function. This exciting field holds some secrets to student success, which can have an outsized benefit on low-income students and other students in need. Here is a brief summary of their findings.

“We’re not going to play the shape game anymore. Now, we’re going to play the color game.” An eager three-year-old listens intently to the new instructions. In the shape game, she dropped cards into one of two boxes based on the shape drawn on the card. Boats went to the box on the left, rabbits went to the right. But in the new color game, cards were to be sorted by color instead of by shape. Blue drawings go left, red to the right. When handed an image of a red boat, the young girl quickly and confidently places the red card in the box on the left. Even after being reminded of the new game and acknowledging the new rule – blue left, red right – she places a blue rabbit to the right.

It’s called the Dimensional Change Card Sort test. Other than being a cute game to watch toddlers play, it’s one of several activities that test Executive Function. Executive Function (EF) refers to a set of effortful skills involved in producing conscious, goal-directed behavior. The field is still maturing, but it is clear that everyone can improve these skills with training. And perhaps the most compelling finding is that the benefits of intervention are greatest for those most in need.

Experts in the field usually break down Executive Function into three simple skills:

  • Inhibitory control (IC), the ability to override impulses to exercise control over attention, thoughts, and behavior.
  • Cognitive flexibility (CF), the capacity to adapt our thinking and behavior, often in response to new information.
  • Working memory (WM), the ability to hold information in our minds that is not perceptually present and simultaneously analyze or manipulate it.1

These simple skills intertwine and support complex skills, like planning, problem-solving, and reflection. They help us manage multiple pieces of information, filter distractions, and prioritize our actions.  

What we know so far

EF skills predict academic outcomes. EF skills have been shown to be better predictors of academic outcomes than both intelligent quotient (IQ) and socioeconomic status (SES). In the K-12 years, EF has predicted math and reading in higher grade levels.2 A student must be able to successfully avoid distractions, pay attention, remember rules, and manage emotional reactions. These skills are essential for learning in a classroom setting.

EFs can be improved with training. Children with higher EF capacity have been shown to learn more efficiently.3 Like any other skill, the amount of time spent practicing these skills as well as progressively increasing challenge levels impacts EF development. Benefits have been shown to decrease once practicing stops.

Benefits of training are greatest for those most in need. Whether it be ADHD, low SES, or aging-related cognitive declines, intervention programs overwhelmingly benefit those with low EFs.4  Some research suggests that Executive Function may have a protective effect on students in poverty.5  This evidence points to the potential for early EF programs to level the playing field for children most in need.

What we still need to learn

So, why isn’t Executive Function a standard element of curriculum design or after-school programs? Three outstanding questions need to be answered to propel the field forward.

  • Does skill training translate to changes in day-to-day behaviors? This is called “far transfer,” and is a high bar that many interventions fail to pass.
  • How long do impacts last after training? This opens up its own set of questions. How long should training programs last? How often and how intensely should Executive Function be trained to maximize benefits? How should these approaches change throughout a child’s lifetime?
  • Most importantly, which component of an intervention is responsible for impact? A number of approaches are underway, and identifying the exact mechanism that causes EF will be crucial. What we do know is that it is important to keep increasing challenge level over time.

Moving forward

While the field isn’t quite ready to make causal claims, there are important correlations that deserve our attention. We know that strong EF development in early childhood is associated with positive academic and social outcomes all the way through adulthood. We know that it’s possible to improve these skills at any time through direct intervention. And we know that the benefits are disproportionately larger for disadvantaged populations.

While we wait for the research to catch up, there is something we can do to support healthy EF development in children. Be the patient voice reminding the child of the new rules when tasks types change. Encourage reflection and provide a supportive, caring relationship that instills self-confidence. If you’d like to learn more, the Center for the Developing Child has resources to help understand and enhance Executive Function.

1 Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2011
2 Blair & Razza, 2007
3 Benson et al, 2013
4 Diamond & Ling, 2016
5 Masten, et al. 2012; Obradovic, 2010 (as cited in Zelazo, et al. 2016)