The Secret to Success: Executive Function Skills

By Shari Maser, Off-Campus Program Advisor

Executive function skills are the basis of learning how to learn effectively, work productively, and overcome adversity. Experts at Harvard University describe executive function and self-regulation skills as “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.”

Kids today have information and knowledge available at their fingertips, but they will need to be able to manage, apply, and share that knowledge. According to Forbes Magazine, employers want to hire millennials who exhibit attention and focus, curiosity and commitment, adaptability and grit, and the humility to ask for help when they need it. Portland Community College adds communication, teamwork, planning, decision-making, and organizational skills to the list of traits sought by employers. The National Association of Colleges and Employers adds leadership, problem-solving skills, work ethic, attention to detail, and strategic planning.

Students with poor executive function skills struggle academically and sometimes socially, but these skills can be learned. Practice is key. As Suzuki music students are taught, practice doesn’t always make perfect but it does make things easier. According to veteran teacher Don Rosenberg of New Jersey’s FlexSchool, “Students need to develop good habits that allow them to be organized and focused on learning and doing what they need to do.”

Fostering Executive Function Skills

So, as parents, what can we do to foster executive function skills?

  1. Be a loving, supportive mentor and role model. Mentors can set examples, set expectations, establish routines, provide a feedback loop, and give children someone to practice with and be accountable to in a safe, supported way.
  2. Give your children ongoing responsibilities such as chores, animal care, or independent studies, and hold them accountable. Emphasize your children’s strengths, not their weaknesses. Don’t treat them as helpless or incapable; instead, set high expectations that are do-able and reasonable based on each child’s age, strengths, and abilities. Find a balance. Rosenberg says, “If you expect kids to manage and you encourage them to solve things themselves, they do better. If you solve everything for them, you’re giving them the message ‘you can’t be trusted to do it, and I’ll bail you out if you struggle.’ Only jump in and solve a problem with or for them when it’s going to lead to such distress that they’ll lose the ability to get value out of the lesson or activity.”
  3. Incorporate the ongoing practice of executive function skills—paying attention, following directions, managing their time, taking care of their belongings, planning, setting goals and prioritizing, organizing their ideas, solving problems, record-keeping, communication, teamwork, and perseverance—into everything your children do. They may not have the maturity and insight to recognize the value of these skills, but they will take pride and satisfaction in the accomplishments that are built upon them.
  4. Give your children a chance to develop executive function skills in a venue where they are self-motivated to want to learn how to take care of themselves and function in the real world. Sports, clubs, individual and group projects, chores, volunteer service, and summer jobs can all foster these skills, which will become a natural by-product of pursuing their passions.

Further Reading

The following list includes some of my favorite resources for parents who want to facilitate the development of executive function skills in their children and teens. Although the last two are based on specific religious teachings, I have found them accessible reading for a wider audience.

  • The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens (including accompanying “Personal Workbook”) by Sean Covey – designed to help teenagers actively practice and internalize habits of self-reliance, self-discipline, and success
  • The 7 Habits of Happy Kids by Sean Covey – the author offers illustrated stories designed to help parents interactively introduce the key habits of self-management to younger children
  • The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel – advice for teaching kids self-reliance, respect, and gratitude by guiding them without over-protecting them; includes a parents’ discussion guide
  • Teaching Your Children Responsibility by Linda and Richard Eyre – introduces a variety of approaches—based on Christian teachings—parents can use to give children consistent guidance and practice to develop strong habits of self-discipline and dependability

Thinking, attention, planning, persistence, self-control, and coping skills open the door to success in school, careers, and life. What are some of the ways you have helped, or someone has helped you, develop executive function skills?

2 Responses

  1. Dear Shari,

    Thank you for the very clear way you guide our students and children, also a loving idea of discipline and effort and joy!
    I am sure most students succeed to be autonomous and persistent in life!


  2. the presearch, research, and proposal steps in Full Circle Learning are executive function skills, too.

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