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Students who flex their executive-functioning muscles learn better

By Jerry Fingal
August 26, 2019
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For neuroscientist Dr. Philip Zelazo, a simple game like Simon Says or a few deep breaths can go a long way in helping children develop the skills they need to learn.

Zelazo, a researcher at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, has focused his work on the role of executive functioning skills in relation to the development of the brain. Those skills provide the foundation for learning. And their absence can lead to learning difficulties that are sometimes misdiagnosed as dyslexia or ADHD.

“Executive functioning skills aren't something we're born with,” he said. “They are acquired through experience by facing challenges and trying to overcome them.” At the basis of learning, Zelazo says, is metacognition or the reflective reprocessing of information. It’s “the process of thinking twice about something, recognizing what you're thinking and considering it relative to a broader set of considerations.”

Our executive functioning skills allow us to do that by regulating our attention.

Executive functioning skills are broken down into three subskills:

  • Working memory, which allows us to keep information in mind and work with it.
  • Cognitive flexibility, which enables us to see something from more than one perspective.
  • Inhibitory control, which gives us the ability to ignore distracting information so it doesn’t interfere with the task at hand.

Like a muscle, those skills need to be used in order to develop.

“Every time we use them, there are changes that take place in the brain in the neural circuitry that allows you to use those skills. And the neurocircuitry becomes more efficient and more effective.”

Decrease stress to boost creativity

There are several ways for teachers to create an environment that supports executive functioning skills. Having a safe and supportive classroom is essential, Zelazo says.

“Stress is the enemy of executive function and reflection. Stress hijacks your attention and draws it to whatever the perceived source of stress is. It makes it hard for you to step back and put things in perspective and regulate your attention in a goal-directed fashion.”

One way to address stress is through mindfulness exercises.

“Frankly, just taking some deep breaths goes a long way toward helping people relax in a particular setting,” he said.

Another exercise for young children is to have them ring a hand bell and listen until they can no longer hear it ringing. It helps children to extend their attention spans as well as addressing stress.

“Focusing intently on one thing in the present moment precludes the possibility of ruminating about past sources of anxiety or worrying about some future event,” he said. “Just the basic physiology of taking slow, deep breaths can really reduce stress levels and help children to calm down so that they're in a better position to be reflective, to display their executive function skills to provide a foundation for effective learning.”

Resist the urge to help students too much

Teachers can also promote executive functioning skills by paying attention to the nature of their interactions with students.

“When you throw a question out there, it can be tempting for a teacher to maybe wait a beat and then say, ‘What, nobody knows the answer?’ Or call on somebody or just answer the question themselves. It requires executive function skills on the part of the teacher to sit with the uncertainty and allow children to formulate a response. It may take longer than one would think for children to do that.”

It’s an example of autonomy-supportive interaction, Zelazo said.

“You might be solving a puzzle with the child and the child's getting stuck, can't find a piece or something. You could be overly controlling and grab the piece and put it in the right place. But that really robs the child of the opportunity to discover the piece herself or himself. An autonomy-supportive response might be to gently, unobtrusively nudge that piece a little bit closer to the child's area of vision. So, then they can discover it and say, ‘Oh, I found it.’ Then they get a feeling of ‘I'm learning something’ and ‘I have some ownership over what I'm learning.’

“Autonomy-supportive teaching practices and being patient can really leave children with a feeling that they're being accepted for who they are and where they are with their immature knowledge and immature executive function skills. The teacher is gently helping them to get to the next level of skill.”

The game of Simon Says can help build skills, too. The game requires children to reflect before they act.

“We believe that there are a lot of kids out there who have been misdiagnosed as having learning difficulties like dyslexia or dyscalculia or maybe even ADHD who in fact simply have not been provided with appropriate, supported scaffolded opportunities to practice and acquire basic executive function skills."

“You have to inhibit the tendency to just do what the person said, even though usually when somebody gives you an order, like touch your nose, you do it,” he said.

“It's possible to focus on the cultivation of executive function skills directly as a precursor, providing a foundation for the teaching other skills. Once children have some proficiency at paying attention and thinking about what they're learning, then it's a lot easier to teach them how to read and write and other stuff.”

For teachers of older students, just being mindful of executive-function demands inherent in a math or reading lesson can be important. It’s possible that a student’s difficulties have profound roots.

“We believe that there are a lot of kids out there who have been misdiagnosed as having learning difficulties like dyslexia or dyscalculia or maybe even ADHD who in fact simply have not been provided with appropriate, supported scaffolded opportunities to practice and acquire basic executive function skills,” he said.

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Jerry Fingal is a freelance writer who focuses on education, business and finance.