Success in School (Part II) Executive Functioning Skills

Success in School (Part II) Executive Functioning Skills

In a recent post, I provided some information as to how students have different ways of “learning” and incorporating material. Discovering the method which best suits a student to learn is the first step in a more successful year in school.

However, there is another topic that needs to be discussed in order to make the year that much more productive and successful: Executive Functioning Skills.

First, we need a working definition of this term, before we can explore how to use these ideas to help a student (or any person for that matter!)

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses. (Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child).

Some of the various skills that fall under the umbrella of this statement:

  1. Inhibition – The ability to stop one’s own behavior at the appropriate time, including stopping actions and thoughts. The flip side of inhibition is impulsivity; if you have weak ability to stop yourself from acting on your impulses, then you are “impulsive.”

2. Shift – The ability to move freely from one situation to another and to think flexibly, in order to respond appropriately to the situation.

3. Emotional Control – The ability to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings.

4. Initiation – The ability to begin a task or activity and to independently generate ideas, responses, or problem-solving strategies.

5. Working memory – The capacity to hold information in mind for the purpose of completing a task.

6. Planning/Organization – The ability to manage current and future-oriented task demands.

7. Self-Monitoring – The ability to monitor one’s own performance and to measure it against some standard of what is needed or expected.  (Thanks to ldonline for providing some of these definitions)

I wish to focus on only 2-3 of the above skills for the next couple of posts and provide skills that can be used to become more organized, more studious and, ultimately, more successful.

Let’s begin with Working Memory. There are many techniques that one can employ to enhance one’s working memory. Here are a few of those methods. It is worthwhile to experiment with some of them to see what enables the student to retain more information. No one method always works. It is a matter of trial-and error.

A. Study when sleepy

While this may seem counter-intuitive, try studying for a few minutes right before going to sleep. During sleep, the brain strengthens new memories, so there’s a good chance we’ll remember whatever we review right before dozing off!

BSpacing it out

A learning technique called “spaced repetition” involves breaking up information into small chunks and reviewing them consistently over a long period of time. So don’t try to memorize the entire periodic table in one sitting, for example—instead learn a few rows every day and review each lesson before starting anything new.

C. Tell a CRAZY tale!

Turning the details you need to remember into a crazy story helps make the information more meaningful. For example, remember the order of mathematic operations PEMDAS this way: Philip (P) wanted to eat (E) his friend Mary (M) but he died (D) from arsenic (AS) poisoning.

D. Move around.

Research suggests studying the same material in a different place every day makes us less likely to forget that information. Every time we move around, we force the brain to form new associations with the same material, so it becomes a stronger memory.

E. Shout it Out!

Reading information out-loud means mentally storing it in two ways: seeing it and hearing it.

F. Take a time out

Taking time to plan is one of the most important skills a student can have. Don’t just start the week with the vague goal of studying for a history exam—instead, break up that goal into smaller tasks. Pencil it in on the calendar like a regular class: For example, set aside every day from 1 to 3 p.m. to review certain sections of material. (We will delve into this more in the next post).


NEXT TIME: Planning and Organization


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