Executive Functions and How They Impact a Student’s Social and Academic Success

You might be wondering, what are Executive Functions (EF) and how do they influence a child’s academic and social success? We’re going to give you a rundown on what executive functions imply and the impact they can have on your child’s development.

What Are Executive Functions and How Do They Affect a Child’s Life?

Executive functioning skills play an integral part in an individual’s success in school, as well as in social situations. Our executive function abilities basically help us complete everyday tasks.
The reality is that children who struggle with executive functioning skills often have a difficult time keeping up with their school work. Moreover, they may even have a difficult time developing and maintaining friendships.

But what are these ‘functions,’ exactly? Executive function skills include planning, organization, time management, initiating tasks, emotional regulation, self-monitoring, and cognitive flexibility. Each of these skills contributes to helping a child accomplish everyday tasks, as well as achieving long-term goals. The successful application of these skills requires them to work in conjunction with each other.

A Real-Life Example of How Executive Functions Work

Meet Alex— At first glance, a seemingly typical, teenage boy.

Now, look closer. You may catch him bounding down the hall carrying a pile of books, papers sticking and descending to the ground as he walks. If you open his backpack you’ll find papers from last month’s book fair or tests from three months ago squished into small balls at the bottom. He always seems to be rushing from one place to the next and has a look of “stress” on his face at most times.

Science is a passion for Alex and he has extensive knowledge of all things molecular and cellular. Math is another strong area for Alex. He loves to talk about numbers and formulas! At times, it was the only topic he wanted to talk about with his peers, which would often turn them away.

The problem: Recently, Alex was taken out of the honors Math and Science classes that he loved so much. The decision was made by his parents and school personnel, as Alex was failing his classes and couldn’t keep up with the workload. How is it that a student that is above average intelligence and excels in these areas could be failing?

The answer: Alex’s skill deficits were not in reading or math. He struggled with Executive Functioning Skills. Alex simply couldn’t remember to do his homework and had a difficult time initiating independent tasks. He couldn’t make a plan when he had long-term assignments and always left them for the night before, which made for an unpleasant evening at home and most times resulted in an incomplete assignment. He struggled to maintain friendships due to his inability to listen and share conversation topics.

How many students have you come across that struggled in similar ways as Alex? Do you have a child who just can’t seem to get out of his or her own way? How can you solve these problems without taking your child out of their favorite classes?

The 3 Crucial Skills Required to Effectively Function in Everyday Life

If an individual is struggling with Executive Functioning skills, it is important that they receive the right interventions that will help. Just like we teach academic skills, EF skills need to be isolated and taught explicitly. The following provides a list of the skills required to effectively function in everyday life, and what they imply:
Cognitive Flexibility
✓ An ability to shift thinking or transitioning
✓ Planning and Organizing: Creating a Plan A and a Plan B is often needed, especially in situations that may not go as planned
✓ Navigating Social Situations
✓ Visualizing the steps for your plan
✓ Utilizing technology to assist with your planning
✓ Meeting deadlines by creating a systematic plan
Emotional Regulation
✓ Using visuals to identify and recognize emotions
✓ Creating visual scales to identify strategies that will assist in having an ability to exert control over emotions.
✓ Matching appropriate emotions to situations

These are some of the most important executive functions skills that every individual needs in order to be successful in school, at work, and in social situations. These seemingly basic skills will significantly impact your child’s social and professional development, so it’s best to start applying them at an early age.

Written by Jane Reilly, M.S. ED, Executive Director of Clinic Services and Chief of Staff

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