Executive Functions and Education

In our last post we briefly discussed what skills come under the term Executive Function.  In this post we are going to look at why executive functions are so important for education, success at school and in later life.

Executive functions can be divided up into three skills; inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility.  However, they are not stand alone skills, they overlap and combine to allow us to orchestrate more complex, yet everyday behaviours.

The first, inhibition, allows us to focus on the task in hand.  Without inhibitory control we would find it difficult to block out external or internal stimuli, meaning that we would be easily distracted by noises, or lapse into daydreams.  Inhibition also allows us to put our hand up in class, wait for our turn in a game or avoid snatching.  Anyone who works with young children will know that this is a skill that takes time to develop.  Further more, inhibition allows us to control our emotions, which in turn influence how well we can learn or interact with others.  In order to be able to concentrate despite feeling angry, irritated, nervous or even ecstatically happy, we need to be able to inhibit those feelings, and not pay too much attention to them.  Given that the average school day for most students, particularly during adolescence, involves at least some emotional triggers, inhibition is vital for students to be able to focus.

Working memory is a skill that allows us to hold information in our minds over a short period of time.  It is different from short term memory as it enables us to play with or use this information mentally.  It allows us to follow more complex directions, remembering what we have done and what remains to be completed.  It allows us to link information together, both written and verbal, along with information stored in our long-term memory.  Further more, working memory enables us to communicate our ideas to people, or to understand theirs.

Lastly, cognitive flexibility requires both inhibition and working memory in order to be able to function.  It allows us to switch our behaviour or the strategy we are using in order to adapt better to changing situations.  It enables us to try out new techniques rather than just sticking to the old way of doing things, thereby preventing us from appearing rigid or robot-like.

In the next post we will look at some more concrete examples of when these skills are important in the classroom.