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What Are Executive Functioning Skills and How to Improve Them this Summer

IvyWise Live: Early College Prep and the Importance of Executive Functioning Skills

In this webinar, IvyWise’s WiseStart™ Counselor Christine and Executive Functioning Coach Lorenza will explain how building a strong foundation of executive functioning skills at a young age sets a student up for future success in the college application process and beyond.

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From helping you manage time and attention to solving problems and maintaining emotional control, executive functioning skills are invaluable for navigating the complexities of daily life and achieving your goals. These cognitive processes can have a significant impact on your quality of life. Keep reading to learn more about executive functioning and how you can improve these skills. 

What Is Executive Functioning? 

Executive functioning is our brain’s management system, consisting of a group of skills that allow us to set goals, make plans, regulate our emotions and behaviors, and get things done. These cognitive skills are crucial in academics, work, and your everyday life. You can learn and improve executive functioning skills with consistent practice, much like a runner training for a race.  

In fact, summer is a great time to build these skills and set up a successful school year in the fall. Not only will you enhance your mental flexibility and memory skills, but you will also work more efficiently and improve your interactions with your peers and teachers. Let’s look at different executive function skills — keep in mind that these are all interconnected and profoundly affect academic achievement, career success, interpersonal relationships, and your overall well-being.  

Working Memory 

Imagine working memory as the brain’s “scratch pad” or “mental whiteboard,” where you jot down and manipulate information while actively engaging in a task. It allows you to hold multiple pieces of information in mind simultaneously, such as numbers, words, or visual images, and work with them in real-time. Working memory plays a fundamental role in numerous cognitive tasks, from following instructions and learning new concepts to reasoning, decision-making, and language comprehension. 

Planning and Organization 

The ability to set goals, create strategies to achieve them, and organize tasks in a logical sequence are critical to success. Several cognitive processes are involved in this, including goal setting, strategic thinking, task sequencing, and resource allocation, among others. You might have noticed that this is an important executive function for academic success, helping you to complete assignments and tests both in and out of the classroom more efficiently and effectively.  

Self-monitoring 

Self-monitoring is crucial for achieving desired outcomes and maintaining social appropriateness, allowing you to assess and regulate your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. For example, if you’re at prom, you might notice a group of friends across the room and decide to join them. But first, you observe the group dynamics, who is speaking, the topic of conversation, and the overall mood of the group. You think about what relevant or interesting contribution you can make before joining them. This allows you to seamlessly join the conversation, ask questions, and actively listen to others. 

Time management 

To optimize productivity and minimize procrastination, you must learn to set priorities, establish realistic goals, and organize activities in a structured manner. Effective time management requires the ability to estimate task durations accurately, allocate resources appropriately, and adapt to changing circumstances while maintaining focus and meeting deadlines. By following these time management tips, you can enhance your productivity, reduce stress, and achieve a better balance between school and other commitments.  

Attention 

Attention directs your focus and filters out distractions so you can complete tasks more efficiently. It involves cognitive flexibility, which allows you to focus (or refocus) on tasks, switch your attention between different activities or goals as needed, and inhibit impulsive responses. Your ability to pay attention plays a pivotal role in problem-solving, decision-making, and self-regulation skills. By harnessing attention effectively, you can enhance productivity and navigate complex environments with greater ease and efficiency. 

Flexible Thinking 

If you’re a flexible thinker, you can adapt to changing circumstances, shift between tasks or strategies when necessary, and consider alternative viewpoints or approaches — this is also known as cognitive flexibility. Additionally, you’re open to feedback, willing to learn from mistakes, and demonstrate resilience when faced with setbacks. By cultivating flexible thinking, you enhance your creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills; thrive in dynamic environments; and navigate the ever-changing landscapes of school and daily life with confidence. 

How Executive Functioning Develops 

The development of executive function skills is a complex and multifaceted process that starts during childhood and continues into adulthood. These key factors contribute to the development of executive functioning: 

  • Brain maturation: As the brain matures, neural connections strengthen, enabling more efficient communication and coordination of executive functions. 
  • Genetic factors: Research suggests that genetic factors contribute to variations in cognitive processes such as working memory, attention control, and inhibitory control, which are essential components of executive functioning. 
  • Early childhood experiences: Interactions with caregivers, exposure to language and cognitive stimulation, and opportunities for play and exploration, lay the foundation for the development of executive functioning. 
  • Environmental factors: Family, school, and community influence or inhibit the development of executive functioning. 
  • Socialization and learning: Interactions with peers, teachers, and other social agents provide opportunities for children and adolescents to practice and refine their executive functioning skills. 
  • Educational and intervention programs: Programs such as IvyWise’s executive functioning coaching are designed to support the development of executive functioning in people who experience challenges in this area.  

How Schools Help Students Develop Executive Functions 

Schools play a crucial role in helping you develop executive functioning skills by providing structured learning environments: establishing routines, schedules, and classroom expectations that promote organization, time management, and task completion. Teachers incorporate explicit instruction and modeling of executive function skills into their curriculum — teaching strategies for goal setting, planning, problem-solving, and self-monitoring — and providing guidance and support as students learn to apply these skills independently.  

Additionally, schools recognize that students have diverse learning needs and strengths and implement different teaching strategies to accommodate these differences. Cooperative activities, group projects, and peer tutoring provide opportunities for students to practice and develop executive functioning skills such as teamwork, communication, and flexibility. 

How Can Parents Reinforce Skills at Home? 

Parents play a crucial role in reinforcing and supporting the development of executive functioning skills at home. They can do this in many ways, from establishing routines and clearly communicating expectations, to encouraging independence and providing opportunities for problem-solving. You also learn by watching your parents model executive functioning skills in their own daily activities, such as planning, organization, and time management. 

As parents reinforce executive functioning skills at home, it’s also important for them to celebrate your efforts and achievements. Positive reinforcement and encouragement can motivate you to continue practicing and refining these skills over time. 

How to Test Executive Function 

Testing executive function typically involves a combination of standardized assessments, behavioral observations, and performance-based tasks. Several standardized tests are specifically designed to measure executive functioning skills across different age groups, including the Stroop Test and the Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System (D-KEFS). Observational assessments involve directly observing an individual’s behavior in naturalistic or structured settings to evaluate their executive functioning skills related to attention, self-regulation, decision-making, and problem-solving. 

Performance-based tasks are designed to assess specific aspects of executive function through interactive or hands-on activities. These tasks often require individuals to engage in goal-directed behavior, switch between tasks, or hold information in working memory while completing a task.  

How to Improve Executive Functioning Skills 

Everybody can benefit from practicing and strengthening their executive functioning skills, but adolescents can look for certain patterns that might indicate their skills could be stronger. All students can pivot in a new direction, for the better, and learn the skills they need to be successful in high school and beyond. The sooner students begin working on these skills, ideally in middle school, the stronger they will be when the stakes get higher. 

Important signs that your executive functioning skills could be improved include:  

  • You have a general feeling of being overwhelmed or stressed, even when getting good grades.  
  • You are very smart but do not have the grades to reflect this and underperform compared to your potential.  
  • You wait to begin assignments or don’t study until the very last minute, often staying up late at night. (Is it good to study at night? No, because we need sleep — in fact, sleep improves academic performance.)  
  • You consistently show up late or miss appointments and may also miss deadlines for projects or papers despite having a good understanding of the material.  

These scenarios are stressful for both students and parents. Oftentimes, low grades are not caused by a lack of understanding, but rather by a lack of strong executive functioning skills. When a student can master these skills, their academic confidence improves, and school becomes a lot less stressful. 

Work on Time Management with Calendaring 

So much of being a successful student requires thinking about time: where you need to be, for how long, what you need to do, and how much time it will take. Poor time management skills can make students feel like they are not in control of their own lives. Improving time management skills can help students take back a feeling of control and in turn, reduce stress. Planning, however, takes discipline, both to create and to execute a plan. 

This summer, practice keeping a calendar to manage your time. Where do you need to be today? What time does that activity start? How long will it take you to get ready? How long will it take you to get there? How long will it take you to get home? Can you schedule some downtime today?  

While taking the time to plan for each step of the way might feel tedious, setting aside an hour at the beginning of each week to plan for the week ahead with a calendar will take much of the work out of managing your days on the fly. This approach will also help you ensure that you have time for the things you need to do and the things you enjoy! 

Hone Study Skills Through Outside Reading 

Just because you are not in school does not mean that you can’t strengthen your study skills during the summer. Study skills are those fundamental skills that help students to absorb information and produce the corresponding work. These include chunking and pacing, listening with attention and intention, active and close reading, and note-taking. 

This summer, practice these skills through outside reading. Try a new book that is challenging or get a head start on summer reading assignments. As you read, take notes about the storyline and your own interpretations, reactions, connections, or predictions about the story. Then, formulate guiding questions at the end of each chapter and attempt to answer them. These notes can be kept in a Google Doc, and they can be easily turned into an essay or other writing assignment if needed. 

Practice Long-Term Planning with a Personal Project 

Summer is a great time for students to set large goals for themselves and practice visualizing each step along the way. It could also be something like running a half marathon, starting and maintaining a blog, or re-decorating a room. By setting a long-term goal that requires several steps, students can work backward to figure out what actions need to be taken at each step of the way. 

This goal does not have to be academic! For example, planning a party for a parent or friend is a great way to practice long-term planning skills that require you to work backward to figure out what needs to be done. For example, you need to decide what kind of food you are going to serve and how much. To figure out how much food you need, you need to know how many people are coming. To figure out how many people are coming, you need to send out invitations and gather RSVPs. By visualizing and logging every step, what is required to execute it, and how long is required to complete it, you can strengthen your long-term planning skills and apply them to large-scale projects and assignments during the school year. 

Students can set themselves for a more successful, less stressful academic year by ensuring that their executive functioning skills are strong. Like training for a sport, strengthening these skills can be fun, and they can be applied to a wide variety of summer activities. These key executive functioning skills set students up for long-term success, and summer is an ideal time to focus on practicing them. 

What Is Executive Dysfunction? 

Executive dysfunction refers to difficulties or impairments in the cognitive processes associated with executive functioning skills. Individuals with an executive function disorder may struggle with a range of everyday tasks and activities that require higher-order cognitive functions. They may have difficulty organizing their thoughts, managing time effectively, completing tasks in a timely manner, maintaining attention and focus, regulating emotions, practicing impulse control, and adapting to changes or unexpected situations. As you might expect, this can impact academic performance, work productivity, relationships, and overall quality of life. 

What Causes Executive Dysfunction? 

Executive dysfunction can occur from various underlying factors, including neurological conditions, developmental disorders, brain injuries, mental health issues, and aging. Common conditions associated with executive dysfunction include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and various psychiatric disorders. Fortunately, there are college programs for autistic students and those with ADHD to help them improve their executive functioning skills, overcome their daily challenges, and succeed academically and socially.     

Executive functioning skills are critical to academic and admissions success. At IvyWise, we have dedicated executive functioning coaches to help students improve cognitive flexibility and hone their time management, organizational, and study skills. For more information on how we can help you with skills coaching through tutoring, schedule an Initial Consultation.

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