From creative problem solving to maintaining healthy, positive relationships, executive function is a valuable skillset you use every day to tackle your to-do list, mindfully moderate your impulses, navigate conflict, and ultimately move toward your short- and long-term goals. Like the executive of a thriving business, your executive function helps you consider multiple possibilities, convert your knowledge and experience into action, and take the steps that support your personal, professional, and relational growth and wellbeing.
With so many potential benefits to a person’s immediate and lifelong wellbeing, both teachers and parents can benefit from expanding their understanding of executive function and incorporating techniques to teach these important life skills to their kids.
What Is Executive Function?
While neuroscientists are still refining the definition, executive function can be most easily understood as the set of skills that enables a person to plan, learn, focus, explore possibilities, and align thoughts, behaviors, and actions with a desired outcome or goal. Combining working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-regulation, executive function is our ability to apply what we’ve learned, develop and implement strategies, and meet internal and external challenges, such as procrastination or having technology issues during a presentation.
Like learning to hold a pencil or when to raise their hand when they have a question, children can be guided to develop these skills by their teachers, caregivers, and other important adults in their lives. With continual and compassionate cultivation, executive function can help kids grow into thriving individuals and community members.
7 Executive Function Skills Children Need in Elementary School
By enhancing your awareness of how executive function can manifest, you can help your students or children gradually and continuously nurture this useful skillset in a way that supports their individual needs, experiences, and development. Here are seven executive functioning skills that can benefit children, in elementary school and beyond.
Focusing on the task at hand can be hard for children and adults alike, especially if what’s being asked feels foreign, challenging, or outside your realm of interest (i.e., boring!). By learning to hone their executive functioning in a way that aligns with their developmental needs, elementary school children can develop the capacity to be present with what’s before them so they can receive new information and remember what they’re learning.
2. Working Toward Goals
For many of us, schoolwork provides us our earliest opportunities to tangibly set, work toward, and accomplish both small and big goals. In elementary school, students may work toward reading a book from start to finish, learning their multiplication tables, and completing group projects. Executive function helps students work toward their goals by empowering them to apply what they’re learning (working memory), imagine multiple solutions to problems (cognitive flexibility), and kindly encourage themselves to seek support when they need it and believe in themselves to keep going (self-regulation).
3. Learning to Respond to Emotions
For adults and children alike, experiencing any strong emotion—from anger to excitement—can make learning, socializing, or moving toward a goal feel challenging. By supporting self-awareness and emotional intelligence, executive functioning can equip elementary school children with the ability to notice their emotional experience and learn how to respond to their emotions in a way that supports their personal wellbeing, academic success, and interpersonal relationships.
4. Integrating Multiple Steps
Like applying the techniques you learned from the “Great British Baking Show” when you go to make a loaf of bread, executive function helps children integrate theoretical learning into problem-solving. For an elementary school child, this could mean remembering their math lesson when working on their long-division homework, or using the instructions for their book report assignment as a guide to inform their reading.
5. Exploring Multiple Possibilities
Also known as flexible thinking, cognitive flexibility is the component of executive functioning that enables us to see things from multiple angles and perspectives, and therefore be open to multiple approaches to move toward a desired outcome. By helping students expand their capacity for problem-solving and empathy, cognitive flexibility empowers students to stay present and find solutions during conflicts or when things don’t go exactly as planned.
6. Managing Time
As students progress through school, learning how to manage their time and prioritize tasks is an invaluable skill for completing homework and projects by the assigned deadline. By helping students mindfully choose how they’re using their time, executive function enables students to enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes from rising to healthy challenges with intention, presence, and positive self-discipline.
7. Planning and Organizing
Like time management, the ability to think about the future, set priorities, and implement plans is an element of executive functioning that can help children move toward their goals with care and efficiency. Some skills a child may demonstrate when learning how to plan and organize include making a list of materials or to-do steps and organizing their workspace with all the supplies they need to complete a project.
How to Help Elementary Students Develop Executive Function
Teachers and parents can help elementary students learn and practice executive functioning by setting the example, establishing routines, breaking large tasks into smaller chunks, and encouraging students to play games that promote role-playing, following rules, using imagination, and mindfully moderating impulses. These “scaffolding” techniques help students practice their executive functioning skills so they can eventually use them on their own.
Here are some strategies you can try with your elementary students:
- Set the example. Teachers and parents can help students learn executive functioning by being living examples. Treat yourself and others with compassion, and demonstrate organization, time management, planning, and considering multiple possibilities and points of view.
- Set a schedule. Clear, consistent routines help create a supportive environment where students can feel safe and ready to exercise their executive functioning skills.
- Use visual supports. Highlighting words in texts, putting up posters with problem-solving steps, and color-coding organizational materials can aid students’ ability to remember and focus.
- Make time to review lessons. Give students opportunities to use their memory by making mind maps or sharing what they remember with their classmates.
How Mindfulness Can Help With Executive Function
Research suggests that mindfulness is an effective technique for honing executive functioning, by helping us develop greater emotional acceptance, adaptability, focus, and brain-based performance.
By adding quick mindfulness breaks into the school day, you can help your students stay calm and focused so they can develop executive functioning skills and learn more effectively.
To learn more about mindfulness, check our blog or contact the Calm Classroom team. We’re here to help K-12 educators learn how to care for students’ and teachers’ mental health and build a more focused, engaged school community,