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  • Writer's picturedrlynnekenney

Executive Functions are Cognitive Skills and Cognitive Skills Can Be Learned!

Updated: Feb 3, 2023

This is my favorite quote from our work at Wellington-Alexander Center, "Executive Functions are Cognitive Skills and Cognitive Skills Can Be Learned!"

CONCEPT I: We can lift children up by empowering them with the knowledge that they can grow and coach their own cognitive skills.

When children present to Wellington-Alexander Center with dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, ADHD, dysgraphia, Autism, and/or dyscalculia, they are amazed that they can learn to coach their own brains to become more effective thinkers.

Children who have not felt successful in learning, sometimes for many years, light up when we have "Cognitive Conversations" about focused attention, response inhibition, memory, and cognitive flexibility.

CONCEPT 2: To build the neural pathways in the brain, one needs a lot of intentional repetitive activation of the brain pathways. The current neuroeducation research shows us there are four evidence-supported non-pharmacological ways to enhance executive function skills: 1) Cognitive Skills Coaching 2) Digital Therapeutics 3) Cognitive-Motor Movement, and 4) Mindfulness.

As you may have seen on social media, we have been answering teacher and clinician's questions. Tracy recently asked a question related to building neuropathways, "How can we build EF in our students?" Here is my response in audio.

CONCEPT 3: You can coach executive function skill development through the language you use with students.

As an educator, clinician, or parent, you can raise children's awareness of how and when they use their executive function skills in order to raise their metacognitive awareness and support their successful application of cognitive skills.

Here is a snapshot of a "cognitive skills coaching" conversation I recently had with an eight-year-old code-named, Jorge. We have been working on visual-auditory perceptual skills, response inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and attention.

Let's talk about how Jorge and I got to this discussion.

1) Jorge has been receiving 30 minutes of EF training 3 times per week for 4 weeks.

2) We have been having "Cognitive Conversations" about his executive function skills while:

a. Playing Meludia from Paris

b. Discussing our coaching lessons on self-regulation, self-control, attention, memory, and cognitive flexibility

c. Doing CogniSuite or brain priming activities in 5-minute spurts throughout his sessions.

Knowing our intensive clinical setting is different from your classroom or home setting, let's talk about simple steps you can take to raise children's brain literacy and metacognition by teaching them about executive function.

1. Understand: What is Executive Function?

Executive function is a collection of self-regulatory control processes that are divided into core domains of working memory, inhibition, control of attention, and cognitive flexibility. Healthy executive functioning helps us to be adaptive prosocial human beings.

Executive Function includes metacognitive and functional abilities that increase awareness and conscious control of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

2. Understand: What are Executive Function Skills?

Executive Function Skills are cognitive skills that are implemented to enhance goal-directed and socially meaningful behavior.

Executive function skills (EFs) are the cognitive skills involved in conscious problem-solving and self-directed, controlled behavior. The foundational skills and processes that make up EFs include (yet are not limited to): Self-regulation, self-control, attention, memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Executive Function is a better predictor of

academic achievement than IQ.

3. Use: Narrative Language and Socratic Questioning

We help children to understand that executive functions are made up of cognitive skills that we can practice and grow through awareness and repetition. We help children think things out, engage their focused attention, and become critical thinkers as early as age three.

Narrative language is the type of expressive language we use to tell stories or to describe events that have occurred in our lives. We use narrative language to describe what we are doing, how we are feeling, and what we are thinking.

4. Observe and State: When you and your children successfully implement their executive function skills

a. Model Cognitive Flexibility - Right now, we are flexing our thinking (accepting that things might have changed and that’s okay) i.e. "We were going to the bagel store, it’s closed so we will get food from our home and take it to the park."

b. Empathize when children are practicing new skills - "Tying your shoes is tricky. It is so smart that we were calm while we practiced."

c. Talk about slowing down and thinking things out - Your Child is impulsive? Help walk them through the PLAN so that they have time to think before they act. "What’s our plan here?" "What are we trying to do?" "How will we know we used our plan?"

d. Teach the sequence of actions - The sequence is The SECRET. When you teach children the beginning, middle, and ending of each discrete task, they are better able to monitor their own task initiation, execution, and completion. "Let's think about how this activity will go." "What will we do first, next, and last?"

5. Participate: Guide the "Cognitive Conversation" about Executive Function Skills

Attention is one of my favorite skills to teach, alongside memory, response inhibition, planning, and cognitive flexibility.

What follows are examples of "Cognitive Conversation" questions to engage children in conversations to raise their awareness of their experiences activating their attention. Use one question at a time. Sprinkle them in your natural conversations in daily life to help children develop the ability to think, reflect, then respond. Draw it out, write it out, and allow your students to teach others about what they have learned.


  • What makes it easy to pay attention?

  • What makes it difficult to pay attention?

  • What are the parts of the attention cycle?

  • How do you turn on your attention engine?

  • What helps your attention engine run smoothly?

  • What does it mean to be alert?

  • When does your attention need a break?

  • What makes your brain drift?

  • When you drift where do you go?

  • What distracts you?

  • What helps you remain focused?

  • How do you re-alert your attention?

  • What do you tell yourself when your brain needs a break?

  • How long do you think a brain breather should last?

In closing, I believe what works for our students is that we truly respect them. We guide them rather than teach them. They discover what they know and appreciate that they have the ability to grow their executive function skills. For a child who has always felt a bit behind, there is nothing more encouraging than success. I adore this work and hope this post helps you, help others.

If you wish, you can find our current printable worksheets, Cognitive Conversations, and how to help children build their executive function skills in our books.

In our next book, My Attention Engine (2023) we will have even more printable "Cognitive Conversation", self-assessment, and progress monitoring worksheets for teachers, clinicians, and parents of elementary-aged students.

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