Beyond the Three “Rs”: Why Executive Functions Help Kids Succeed

I recently attended a presentation at my children’s school and was interested to learn that they planned to incorporate executive functioning skills instruction into the curriculum beginning in the early grades. The idea behind this is to provide instruction in effective “learning to learn” strategies early so that they are habits by the time they’re required later in middle school and high school.

When we think about academics, particularly in elementary school, we often focus on the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics. While these skills are important for future academic success, executive functions are equally important. Executive functions refer to self-directed behaviors needed to select, develop, implement, and sustain actions toward goals. They involve internalized mental processes or self-regulation–such as self-awareness, restraint, motivation, and appraisal–as well as self-directed actions, such as self-management, monitoring, planning, organizing, and problem solving. In much the same way that a chief executive officer of a company is in charge of directing employees toward accomplishing specified ends, executive functions are skills that allow a child to direct his or her behavior toward achieving goals.

In elementary school, parents and teachers perform these functions for children, acting as external supports. As children mature, they are expected to begin to become more independent learners. This step tends to occur around the time children enter middle school, when they are expected to manage switching classrooms, keeping track of their schedules and lockers, organizing materials required for homework, prioritizing assignments, etc. To manage these increased demands for independence successfully, children need to have secure executive functions.

I often see children in my office who were able to manage the demands of their early elementary curriculum but are struggling when they enter middle school. This can be confusing for parents whose children have been successful until that point. More often than not, these children demonstrate reduced executive functioning skills. While they were able to compensate for this deficit during elementary school, it becomes apparent when demands for these skills exceed the child’s limited abilities.

Setting appropriate goals, initiating work, planning/organizing, prioritizing tasks, thinking flexibly, shifting strategies, and self-monitoring are some of the main executive functioning skills that impact academic performance. Red flags that might signal an executive functioning weakness include difficulty initiating tasks, planning a complex project, organizing materials, and managing time wisely. A neuropsychological evaluation can help determine whether your child has a weakness in this area that might contribute to his or her academic difficulties. It can also provide recommendations regarding how to best support your child at home and in the school setting.