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Strategies for Strengthening the Brain’s Executive Functions

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer
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Editor's note: This post is co-authored by Marcus Conyers who, with Donna Wilson, is co-developer of the M.S. and Ed.S. Brain-Based Teaching degree programs at Nova Southeastern University.

Earlier in Donna's career as a teacher and school psychologist, she assessed, diagnosed, and helped to create interventions for children and youth who had difficulty with their executive functioning. Today as teacher educators, we are pleased that our graduates are increasing students' cognitive, metacognitive, and executive functioning in classrooms around the world (as just one example, Texas teacher Diane Dahl blogs on teaching metacognition).

What Are Executive Functions?

Through explicit instruction and modeling, students can come to recognize the importance of taking charge of their executive functioning in their academic endeavors and later in their careers.

Executive functions can be defined as the awareness and directive capacities of the mind. By wielding these skills and abilities, students decide where to focus their attention and which tasks to undertake. As a general rule of thumb, when students of any age have difficulty completing developmentally appropriate academic tasks on their own, executive functioning may be at the root of the problem.

In the human brain, executive functions are primarily regulated by the prefrontal regions (just behind the forehead) of the frontal lobes. Neuroscientists and psychologists have made significant gains in understanding the brain's executive functioning over the past several decades.

An appropriate metaphor that often helps students and educators alike understand the role of executive functioning in thinking and behavior is to imagine an orchestra conductor. The conductor chooses what work the orchestra will perform, decides how to interpret that work, sets the tempo for the performance, and directs each section of musicians to contribute at the appropriate time. In the same way, executive functioning allows us to:

  1. Activate awareness
  2. Self-regulate by cueing, directing, and coordinating the various cognitive skills necessary for moment-to-moment functioning
  3. Establish goals and make long-term plans
  4. Maintain a self-image of being in charge of our learning and actions

Students can and should be taught to develop their executive functioning as a path to self-directed learning and self-determined living.

Making Connections

We have found that educators today are more interested than ever in teaching students to wield powerful learning and thinking tools. In other blog posts and articles we have written with Edutopia and elsewhere, we have shared popular, practical strategies for increasing students' executive functioning by teaching them how and when to employ cognitive assets, metacognition, working memory, and selective attention. All of these learning tools come together under the umbrella of executive functioning.

Incorporating instruction on executive functions into content lessons emphasizes that:

  1. Students are in charge of their learning.
  2. Honing their use of these skills and abilities will improve their performance in school and beyond.

Teaching students that they are the "conductors of their own brains" conveys the need to master a wide range of thinking and learning tools for use across core academic subjects, in their personal lives, and later in their college years and careers. Success in the 21st century demands self-directed learners and independent, creative thinkers.

Classroom Strategies to Support Executive Functioning

From elementary through high school and into adulthood, students will benefit from these opportunities to understand and develop their executive functioning:

1. Introduce the concept of executive functions and refer to these learning tools explicitly and often.

Define executive functioning, and lead discussions on how being aware of their thinking and taking control of their learning can help students achieve success in school and other aspects of their lives. A key message is that using executive functions often and effectively doesn't just happen -- we all have to work toward developing these abilities. Apply metaphors of executive functioning (the brain’s conductor or air traffic controller, for example), and invite students to share examples of how they can use executive functioning in their lessons and activities outside of school. How do adults use executive functioning in their jobs? How do the actions of characters in stories demonstrate executive functioning?

2. Provide student-centered opportunities to put executive functioning to work.

Include students in setting learning goals for lessons, and let them choose their own books for independent reading and subjects for classroom projects. Giving students choices enhances motivation by giving them a chance to think about subjects that interest them, and also underscores that they are in charge of their learning.

3. Be the "prefrontal cortex" for your class.

Articulate and model effective thinking practices. For example, clearly state your intent for a learning activity and demonstrate the steps of planning, carrying out, and assessing the outcomes of the activity. Identify up front any thorny problems and tough spots in new lesson content, and talk through possible strategies for identifying and overcoming any learning difficulties that arise. Use cues to remind students when activating their executive functions might be useful.

4. Catch students using executive functions effectively.

Congratulate students who recognize and correct mistakes to emphasize that mistakes are prime learning opportunities. Recognize not just the finished product, but also the hard work and the steps of planning and execution that students accomplished in completing a big project. Especially celebrate the successes of students who've struggled with taking charge of their learning in the past.

5. Clearly state classroom rules that support positive and productive learning interactions.

A well-organized environment with predictable rules allows students to more easily focus on the learning tasks at hand.

How do you approach teaching and encouraging students to develop their executive functioning in your classroom?

Was this useful? (15)

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.

Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

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Susan Chen's picture

I am reading up on brain-based learning so that I can talk intelligently and simply to my fourth-grade students about their taking charge of their learning. The metaphor of the orchestra conductor helped me to better visualize executive functions. I have a lot more reading to do before I am prepared to talk intelligently on this topic with my students. I am sure that they will have questions. Thank you for your article.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Susan,

We are delighted that our post helps you to accomplish the ever so important task of schooling, that is to assist students so they can take charge of their learning! You may find that all of our blog postings on Edutopia align with your goal:)

Best wishes with you teaching and learning!

Donna

Abigail Pollak's picture
Abigail Pollak
Marketing Assistant

Those strategies are really helpful achieving our goals. And writing down our goals, sharing them with friends, and sending our friends regular updates about our progress can boost our chances of succeeding.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Greetings Abigail,

You are so right. Executive functions help us to achieve our goals. When we share our thinking and progress with others in our 'community' be it work, life, or school, we can then support each other to achieve the goals and intentions of our minds and hearts!

Thank you for your comment and happy holidays and new year 2016 to you!

Sincerely,

Donna

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Greetings, Germany:)

We are glad that you are planning to use the information here about the brain's executive functions. For more related information that we have written here, go to the Brain-Based Learning Resource Roundup at http://www.edutopia.org/article/brain-based-learning-resources.

All the best to you!

Sincerely,

Donna

Rebekah Lee's picture

This seems really interesting, I've never really thought about modeling the classroom after how the brain actually computes thought and learns. A question that I have though is, this seems pretty complicated to explain to younger students in terms of the actual 'executive functioning' part. At what age do you think this type of classroom could work? Would there be any consequences in introducing this environment earlier on versus later in the students' educational careers?

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Rebekah,

Our approach is to teach students how to begin to learn and think more effectively beginning in the early grades throughout their schooling. You might want to check out our book that will be launching with ASCD this summer, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas. In this book we share practical ways to teach students to become independent learners and thinkers across all grades Pre-k through 12.

All the best to you!

Sincerely,

Donna

miamirealestate's picture

Traditionally, strategies to improve executive functions have been focused on making accommodations for the child, therefore relieving the self-management demands made upon them. These include reducing the amount of work expected, allowing for verbal responses to testing, and providing them with extra time to complete assignments.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Greetings.

Yes, this piece has as focus guiding students to learn how to learn and think at higher levels. Indeed as you note, this is beyond traditional education. Teachers we have worked with appreciate that they are assisting students to become better able to learn independently in order to have a greater chance of success in school and life.

All the best to you!

Donna

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