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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


FEATURED ARTICLE

Improving Academic Achievement by Improving Executive Functioning

Sydney Tubbs Rhodes, CEI Intern

Executive functioning skills (EF) have been linked to a plethora of developmental, academic, cognitive, and behavioral outcomes in achievement, literacy, health, wealth, and criminality (Ahmed et al, 2019). Ahmed and colleagues reviewed over 1,200 studies examining the relationship between EF in preschool years and longitudinal outcomes in adolescence. They reported that working memory, the ability to store and manipulate information in one’s mind, during preschool years was significantly correlated to working memory and math and reading achievement at age 15. More recently, EF has gained attention for its connections to students’ academic achievement and practical success in school. By improving executive functioning, students may also substantially increase their academic performance.


Executive functioning or “the process of the mind gathering together and making sense of all the information we receive from our instruments or senses…helping us to create meaning from what we see, hear, touch, taste, and experience” includes components such as memory, attention, and decision-making – all vital to learning academic content (Warren, 2021).

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Executive Functioning Can Be Enhanced through Age 15


Years of research have firmly established the contribution of young children’s executive functioning skills to their mathematics and literacy achievement. Ahmed’s recent study (2019) showed that early achievement measures are significant predictors of achievement in adolescence. Moreover, recent research with a sample of 2,036 students, ages 5-17 has also shown that complex executive functions develop significantly until at least age 15 (Best et al., 2011). This reinforces the benefits of practices such as computerized training, non-computerized games, aerobics, martial arts, yoga, mindfulness, and school curricula for students across elementary and middle school grade levels (Diamond & Lee, 2011). Further, because “most children attend school, the school setting provides the opportunity to scale up trainings in order to benefit every child” (Gunzenhauser & Nückles, 2021).


According to Diamond and Lee (2011), children with weaker EF benefit most from activities specifically designed to improve EF, and so early intervention training might help mitigate widening achievement gaps as students age. Gunzenhauser and Nückles (2021) conclude that executive functions can facilitate academic performance via two specific pathways: learning-related behaviors and learning-related cognitions, and that school settings can be used to enhance such training by focusing on the desired outcome of improved academic performance.

So Many Ways that Executive Functions Can Be Improved in Classrooms


Learning-related behaviors, such as paying attention in class, following classroom rules, and completing homework, are often addressed in classroom-based programs for early childhood education. Many children have formed these actions into habits and apply these behaviors according to situational cues, making deliberate behavior management involving executive functions rather unnecessary. However, using EF in unfamiliar contexts can be extremely helpful in creating new habits, and exercises to strengthen EF can improve classroom behaviors and, subsequently, academic performance. For example, teachers may want to provide exercises to improve attention or memory or reduce distractibility under varying conditions, varying the difficulty of lessons, considering ways to vary normally occurring distractions, gradually increasing expected time on task, and using scaffolds or prompts as an assist for students who need extra support.


On the other hand, mathematics or reading skills can also be targeted for specific academic interventions involving EF. Improvements in academic performance may be made by focusing on a specific skill or set of skills that would be used in real-life application (Gunzenhauser & Nückles, 2021). Gunzenhauser and Nückles (2021) recommend these steps for students’ EF improvement:

  • training students in authentic contexts (in other words, the setting where they actually learn)
  • training under varying contextual conditions (for example, in the classroom and at home)
  • modeling and informed training
  • fostering EF in early childhood 
  • enabling teachers to integrate EFn training in everyday instruction 


Interestingly, it may also be important to consider the benefits of addressing emotional and social development, which might help improve executive functions more effectively than narrowing the focus to specific skills (Diamond & Lee, 2011).

Using Technology to Improve Executive Functioning


Finally, as Dr. Eric Rodriguez (2021) adds, there are also highly accessible ways to help students improve their executive functioning skills by utilizing technology. Here are some of his recommendations for tools to improve the two major executive functions of working memory and flexible thinking:


  • Notability, often referred to as a “whiteboard app,” functions like a board where users can draw or write. This technology also features multimedia, text, and screen recording.


  • ChatterPix is an app that can be used to narrate or describe knowledge using digital puppets or images to make it fun and engaging. Students can voiceover the characters in the picture using their own voice in audio recordings.


  • Youtube or iorad can be used to give students the opportunity to control the pace of their learning – an advantage for teachers who have a classroom with students whose needs are varied. YouTube allows teachers to upload recordings or curate other videos, and both platforms can help students process information better by letting them control the speed of the lesson. 


  • Google Calendar and Google Classroom are also excellent resources for time management. By posting schedules, agendas, and graphic organizers, and providing students with access to a schedule, students can learn to stay on track and organized. 


  • Google Chrome extension Read&Write, as well as the speech-to-text feature “voice typing” in Google Docs, can help students internalize information by reading the text out to them, and may be especially useful for students with an auditory preference.


It is clear that training in executive functioning is helpful to younger students in their future academic success, but the potential benefits of the improvement of such skills in older children should not be dismissed. By being intentional about incorporating EF through technology, the school setting, and teacher interventions, students can gain the benefit of both improved executive functioning and increased academic achievement. 

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References


Ahmed, S. F., Tang, S., Waters, N. E., & Davis-Kean, P. (2019). Executive function and academic achievement: Longitudinal relations from early childhood to adolescence. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(3), 446. Advance online publication.


Best, J. R., Miller, P. H., & Naglieri, J. A. (2011). Relations between executive function and academic achievement from ages 5 to 17 in a large, representative national sample. Learning and individual differences, 21(4), 327-336.


Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333(6045), 959-964.


Gunzenhauser, C., & Nückles, M. (2021). Training executive functions to improve academic achievement: Tackling avenues to far transfer. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 624008.


Rodriguez, E. (2021). Using technology to support 10 executive functioning skills. Edutopia.


Warren, S. L., Heller, W., Miller, G. H. (2021). The structure of executive dysfunction in depression and anxiety. Journal of Affective Disorders, 279, 208-216.


Titz, C., & Karbach, J. (2014). Working memory and executive functions: effects of training on academic achievement. Psychological Research, 78(6), 852-868.