If executive functioning is well developed early in life, children will have a better chance to construct the lives they want.
--Walter Mischel, The Marshmallow Test
One of the biggest questions parents and educators face is how to unlock the full potential of each and every child in our care. Current debate about vouchers and charter schools and public versus private schools actually distracts from the bottom line: if we don't figure out how to help students put their innate potential into practice, it won't matter what kind of school they are in. As most of us know from our own experience, there is nothing more frustrating, nothing more discouraging, than to face a challenge and not have the skills needed to meet it. To fulfill our true potential in life we must all, at some point, learn how to effectively apply ourselves. We must learn to persevere, to organize our thoughts, to formulate plans and figure out how to execute on them. Without these capacities, much latent potential within us will inevitably remain untapped throughout our lives.
Fortunately, we have never understood more about the important life skills that allow us to accomplish things, both great and small. In psychology, these abilities are collectively referred to as our executivefunctions. Ten years ago, not many parents had even heard of the term executive functioning. Today it is not uncommon for parents to express concern specifically about their child’s executive skills, while an increasing number of researchers warn that deficits in executive functioning lead to difficulties not just in childhood and adolescence, but up through college and beyond (1, 2).
For more on Executive Functioning check out the first episode of our brand new LifeWorks Podcast!
Even though most people by now have heard of executive functioning, the reality is few possess a comprehensive understanding of it. Far fewer understand how to effectively support its development.
This is not surprising given the complex nature of the adolescent brain. After all, when a child struggles with executive functioning, what most people see are problematic behaviors. It is much harder to see the root causes of those behaviors, for to truly understand where these behaviors come from requires a certain amount of education.
One of the tragic results stemming from a lack of understanding of executive functioning is that it so often leads us to misinterpret academic performance issues as character flaws. We end up mislabeling struggling students as lazy, disengaged, or even rebellious, when in reality they are running into their own developmental limitations. When we mistake developmental challenges for character deficits we not only end up burdening students with negative self-images, but we also end up going down the wrong path in terms of interventions.
By clarifying exactly what executive functioning is and articulating how best to support its healthy development, we hope to empower both parents and educators to help students thrive inside and outside the classroom and, ultimately, to help children fulfill their full potential in life.
Throughout this series, we will be taking a detailed look at ten subskills that, together, comprise executive functioning. As you will see, simply being aware of these various subskills will go a long way toward explaining the true nature of many performance issues. For example, instead of seeing your child as lazy, you will be more likely to realize she is struggling with the ability to initiate, the subskill related to starting projects and generating new ideas. Instead of assuming that your child who seems to be "spacing out" in class is not working hard enough to pay attention, you may instead realize that he is actually having trouble with his working memory, the subskill related to holding multiple concepts in mind at the same time. When this occurs, each new idea presented overwrites the one before it making it difficult for children to construct complex ideas.
These more psychologically accurate ways of understanding learning challenges not only lead to more objective interpretations of our children's struggles, but they also serve to remind us that executive skills are learnable. Children who suffer from deficits in executive functioning are not doomed. On the contrary, with some diligent effort and informed guidance, children can dramatically strengthen these capacities and improve their performance.
As parents and educators, it is particularly important for us to develop a fuller understanding of executive functioning because it helps us employ more targeted interventions. Insisting that struggling students “do their homework” will only go so far when developmental deficits stand in the way. On the other hand, helping students cultivate specific executive skills not only leads to meaningful long term improvement in performance, but is also far more empowering for the student.
Toward a Fuller Understanding
Executive functioning is not, as many believe, a singular phenomenon but rather a set of distinct subskills that can be divided into three categories: Behavioral, Emotional, and Cognitive. These three categories mirror three stages of human development that unfold more or less sequentially.
Early on, for example, as the socialization process begins, children must learn to inhibit basic impulsive behaviors like grabbing toys away from other children or talking out of turn in school. These are examples of what is called Behavioral Regulation.
As children grow older, they must learn to regulate not just their behavior, but their emotions as well. They must figure out how to express feelings “in constructive rather than impulsive or hurtful ways.” (3) When we admonish children to “use their words,” we are challenging them to exercise Emotional Regulation.
Finally, when children enter adolescence, they must go beyond both behavioral and emotional regulation and engage in more complex cognitive activities such as planning, staying organized, and generating original ideas. These are all examples of Cognitive Regulation.
In our subsequent pieces we will be discussing the most effective means for supporting the healthy development of these crucial life skills. And in the process, we hope to empower both parents and educators in helping adolescents live up to their highest potential.
In our next installment, join us as we begin our exploration of the foundation of all executive functioning: Behavioral Regulation.