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Improve Executive Functions for Academic Success

Improve Executive Functions for Academic Success

Marcia Rogers, Psy.D.


I recently consulted with the mother of a 6th grade student who was seeking advice about her son’s academic difficulties. Similar conversations have occurred many times over the course of my 20-year career as a school psychologist and clinical psychologist.

James is a mystery to me. His teachers describe him as bright, creative, and, cooperative. But he sometimes doesn’t hand in his homework, does not seem to study for tests, and he often procrastinates on projects and reports. His binder and locker are a mess. James’ father thinks he is just lazy and needs to work harder. I wish James was more motivated and cared about his work. What is going on and what can we do to help?

For many students such as James, the answer is a weakness in the area of brain processing known as executive functions. Research within the past 10 years has shown that a student’s abilities to stay motivated, exhibit a high level of effort, and persevere are strongly linked with their executive function abilities and strategies. These skills are incredibly important to learning, especially in today’s technologically oriented and more challenging curriculum.

Executive functions are defined as the self-management system of the brain. Executive function processes affect many academic areas and are particularly important for math problem solving, reading comprehension, writing, project completion, studying, and taking tests. They are critical to the student’s ability to plan their time, prioritize tasks, organize their schedule and materials, distinguish main ideas from details, self-check their work, and monitor their own progress and behavior. Other executive function processes include the ability to pay attention, use a variety of problem solving strategies, hold information in their heads long enough to use it, get started on assignments and tasks, self-regulate emotions, and control impulses.

Here are 5 strategies parents and teachers can use to improve students’ executive functioning skills:

1. Have the student use a strategy reflection sheet to check off the strategies used for studying for a test such as: flash cards, two-column notes, mapping, or discussing with a parent or friend.

2. Model strategies at school and at home, such as organizing materials in folders or using a calendar; discuss your strategies with the student.

3. Help students understand the value of learning material through multiple modalities – auditory, visual, tactile, and kinesthetic.

4. Teach different ways to remember information, such as verbal practice, copying material over, developing visual images when reading, or tapping on numbers to reinforce learning of addition facts.

5. Help the student develop a daily checklist as a reminder to write down assignments, complete homework, bring work to school, and hand the homework to the teacher.

The research is clear that using these and other similar strategies can dramatically improve a student’s academic performance. Academic improvement increases motivation and effort, which in turn improves a student’s self-esteem and confidence.

If strategies are not enough, you may need to consider whether your child has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), since executive function impairments are at the heart of ADHD. A comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation by a clinical psychologist can determine whether your student has ADHD, and provide treatment recommendations and specific learning strategies to help them succeed.