We know that strong executive function (EF) is key to children’s success in school and in life, but that term has become a kitchen sink for all sorts of self-regulatory skills. Are attention shifting and cognitive flexibility the most important core skills, or mindfulness and self-control? What about working memory and goal-setting? Emotion regulation and creativity?
Without clear definitions, it can be difficult to pinpoint which skills students are lacking — and to create and assess programs that build those skills.
So what counts as “executive function”?
From a literature review of approximately 160 recent studies, developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones and her research team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education find that EF is a set of mental processes that are used to carry out goal-directed behavior. According to a new report from Jones, Rebecca Bailey, Sophie P. Barnes, and Ann Partee, executive function skills are specific, simple cognitive skills.
The researchers define EF as comprising four core skills:
EF is typically assessed in emotionally-neutral contexts, usually in a lab environment, by using independent tasks that do not involve interactions with others. Strong EF is linked to academic achievement, particularly in math, literacy, and science.
EF is often viewed as the foundation for many other regulation-related skills, which are a much broader set of abilities. Unlike EF, regulation-related skills can be more complex, often combining several different core skills.
Examples of regulation-related skills include:
Regulation-related skills can be assessed in “real-life” situations, including those that are emotionally charged and involve social interactions. Strong regulation-related skills are often associated with stronger social-emotional competence and better mental health, as well as longer-term outcomes such as increased likelihood of graduating from a four-year college, holding a stable job, and not having a criminal record.
Children with all of these skills — core EF skills and broader regulatory skills — are better equipped to manage frustration and anger, work through setbacks, collaborate with peers, and comply with adults. Deliberately developing these skills can also improve outcomes for low-income children, whose ability to access EF skills may be compromised by the chronic stressors associated with living in poverty.
But these skills are not uniform, however, and unintentionally misnaming them can obscure the differences that research has identified — about when and how they develop, when it’s most important to focus on them, and how they predict academic, social, and behavioral outcomes. For example, a researcher who wants to boost third-graders’ math abilities might first have to assess and develop students’ working memory skills. On the other hand, a principal who wants to reduce stress in his school might have to look beyond EF skills, and focus on broader skills including emotion regulation, coping skills, and flexible problem-solving or planning.
As more and more education leaders become cognizant of the importance of these fundamental nonacademic skills — and as more and more programs and funders seek to develop them — it is vital that we begin using a common language and understanding of what children need. When educators, caregivers, policymakers, and program developers are better able to identify these skills and talk about them in a consistent way, they can then provide targeted, useful lessons that pave the way to success.
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Stephanie Jones researches social-emotional problems and competencies in childhood and adolescence focusing on issues related to inequality and stressed, vulnerable contexts. She also designs, implements and evaluates strategies and programs that integrate social-emotional and academic learning.