This past three months, I have had the pleasure of meeting with AMAZING educators in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Georgia. We have been exploring strategies and tools to improve executive function skills, specifically in Title I schools, yet these tools work for children worldwide who experience diminished cognitive skills related to poverty, mental illness, learning challenges, sensory issues and more.

A key concept we have discussed is that schools spend millions of dollars annually on academic content delivery consistent with a belief that if we improve the quality of content to which children are exposed, we will improve academic achievement.

Yet, the neuroscience published in the past 15 years has shown us that if children do not have self-regulation and sufficient executive function skills, introducing students to academic content is like pouring water in a bottle with the cap on. 

  • While we commonly define literacy as the skills needed for reading and numeracy, we now know that there are skills the brain needs in order to encode new information before it can learn. These skills include:

    • Self-regulation, the ability to manage one’s internal energy and impulses.

    • Focused Attention, maintaining attention on a specific target stimulus, long enough to take action on it.

    • Working memory, the cognitive system responsible for transiently holding or maintaining necessary information or data ready-at-hand for relatively immediate access, in a short period of time.

    • Self-control, the ability to recognize and resist cognitive and motor impulses sufficiently to take appropriate action in the moment.

Due to a variety of factors such as poverty, trauma and low-stimulation environments many children haven’t had a chance to develop executive functioning skills required for school.  When we improve FOCUS, SELF-CONTROL and MEMORY we improve learning and academic outcomes. MINDSHIFT Summary – Bruce Wexler, MD

Executive functioning may be a better predictor than IQ of school readiness and academic achievement (e.g., Blair & Razza, 2007; Eigsti, Zayas, Mischel, Shoda, Ayduk, Dadlani, et al., 2006).

Wexler, B., Iseli, M.,  Leon, S., Zaggle, W., Rush, C. Goodman, A. & Imal, A. & Bo, E. (2016). Cognitive Priming and Cognitive Training: Immediate and Far Transfer to Academic Skills in Children. Scientific Reports. 6. 32859. 10.1038/srep32859. LINK

Cognitive operations are supported by dynamically reconfiguring neural systems that integrate processing components widely distributed throughout the brain. The inter-neuronal connections that constitute these systems are powerfully shaped by environmental input. We evaluated the ability of computer-presented brain training games done in school to harness this neuroplastic potential and improve learning in an overall study sample of 583 second-grade children. Doing a 5-minute brain- training game immediately before math or reading curricular content games increased performance on the curricular content games. Doing three 20-minute brain training sessions per week for four months increased gains on school-administered math and reading achievement tests compared to control classes tested at the same times without intervening brain training. These results provide evidence of cognitive priming with immediate effects on learning, and longer-term brain training with far-transfer or generalized effects on academic achievement.

Nevo, E. & Breznitz, Z. (2011). Assessment of working memory components at 6 years of age as predictors of reading achievements a year later, J Exp Child Psychol. 2011 May;109(1):73-90.

The ability of working memory skills (measured by tasks assessing all four working memory components), IQ, language, phonological awareness, literacy, rapid naming, and speed of processing at 6 years of age, before reading was taught, to predict reading abilities (decoding, reading comprehension, and reading time) a year later was examined in 97 children. Among all working memory components, phonological complex memory contributed most to predicting all three reading abilities. A capacity measure of phonological complex memory, based on passing a minimum threshold in those tasks, contributed to the explained variance of decoding and reading comprehension. Findings suggest that a minimal ability of phonological complex memory is necessary for children to attain a normal reading level. Adding assessment of phonological complex memory, before formal teaching of reading begins, to more common measures might better estimate children’s likelihood of future academic success. 

Dr. Stuart Shanker, author of Self-Reg, shows that to learn children need self-regulation skills.

In simplest terms, self-regulation refers to how efficiently and effectively a child deals with a stressor and then recovers (Porges, 2011; Lillas & Turnbull, 2009; McEwen, 2002). To deal with a stressor, the brain triggers a sort of gas pedal, the sympathetic nervous system, to produce the energy needed; and then applies a sort of brake, the parasympathetic nervous system, in order to recover. In this way the brain regulates the amount of energy that the child expends on stress so that resources are freed up for other bodily functions, like digestion, cellular repair, maintaining a stable body temperature, or paying attention and learning. Shanker, 2013.

Blair, C., & Razza, R.P. (2007) Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten, Child Dev. 2007 Mar-Apr;78(2):647-63.

This study examined the role of self-regulation in emerging academic ability in one hundred and forty-one 3- to 5-year-old children from low-income homes. Measures of effortful control, false belief understanding, and the inhibitory control and attention-shifting aspects of executive function in preschool were related to measures of math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Results indicated that the various aspects of child self-regulation accounted for unique variance in the academic outcomes independent of general intelligence and that the inhibitory control aspect of executive function was a prominent correlate of both early math and reading ability. Findings suggest that curricula designed to improve self-regulation skills as well as enhance early academic abilities may be most effective in helping children succeed in school. 

McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Duncan, R., Bowles, R. P., Acock, A. C., Miao, A., & Pratt, M. E. (2014). Predictors of early growth in academic achievement: the head-toes-knees-shoulders task. Frontiers in Psychology5, 599.

The 2014 study examined the construct validity of a measure of behavioral self-regulation, the HTKS, assessing associations with measures of EF including cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control. A second aim examined predictive validity of growth in the HTKS and EF tasks to academic achievement growth between prekindergarten and the end of kindergarten. Results indicated that the HTKS taps aspects of cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control, although the strength of these relations varied between prekindergarten and kindergarten. In addition, the HTKS and EF tasks significantly predicted growth in academic achievement over 2 years in both random effects and fixed effects analyses (FEA). 

The 2007 study investigated predictive relations between preschoolers’ (N=310) behavioral regulation and emergent literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Behavioral regulation was assessed using a direct measure called the Head-to-Toes Task, which taps inhibitory control, attention, and working memory, and requires children to perform the opposite of what is instructed verbally. Hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) was utilized because children were nested in 54 classrooms at 2 geographical sites. Results revealed that behavioral regulation significantly and positively predicted fall and spring emergent literacy, vocabulary, and math skills on the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement (all ps<.05). Moreover, growth in behavioral regulation predicted growth in emergent literacy, vocabulary, and math skills over the prekindergarten year (all ps<.05), after controlling for site, child gender, and other background variables. Discussion focuses on the role of behavioral regulation in early academic achievement and preparedness for kindergarten. 

Duncan et al. (2007). School Readiness and Later Achievement,  2007 Nov;43(6):1428-1446.  A meta-analysis of six studies found that a child’s executive functioning skills in kindergarten predicted reading and math achievement into middle school and beyond. This research is particularly important because students who have poor executive functioning skills because of trauma, poverty, or diagnosed disorders are missing out on learning. 

Using 6 longitudinal data sets, the authors estimate links between three key elements of school readiness-school-entry academic, attention, and socioemotional skills–and later school reading and math achievement. In an effort to isolate the effects of these school-entry skills, the authors ensured that most of their regression models control for cognitive, attention, and socioemotional skills measured prior to school entry, as well as a host of family background measures. Across all 6 studies, the strongest predictors of later achievement are school-entry math, reading, and attention skills. A meta-analysis of the results shows that early math skills have the greatest predictive power, followed by reading and then attention skills. By contrast, measures of socioemotional behaviors, including internalizing and externalizing problems and social skills, were generally insignificant predictors of later academic performance, even among children with relatively high levels of problem behavior. Patterns of association were similar for boys and girls and for children from high and low socioeconomic backgrounds. 

Schmidt et al. (2017). Disentangling the relationship between children’s motor ability, executive function, and academic achievement, PLoS One. 2017 Aug 17;12(8):e0182845. 

The aim of the present study was therefore to examine the mediating role of executive function in the relationship between motor ability and academic achievement, also investigating the individual contribution of specific motor abilities to the hypothesized mediated linkage to academic achievement. At intervals of ten weeks, 236 children aged between 10 and 12 years were tested in terms of their motor ability (t1: cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, motor coordination), core executive functions (t2: updating, inhibition, shifting), and academic achievement (t3: mathematics, reading, spelling). Structural equation modelling revealed executive function to be a mediator in the relation between motor ability and academic achievement, represented by a significant indirect effect. In separate analyses, each of the three motor abilities was positively related to children’s academic achievement. However, only in the case of children’s motor coordination, the mediation by executive function accounted for a significant percentage of variance of academic achievement data. The results provide evidence in support of models that conceive executive function as a mechanism explaining the relationship that links children’s physical activity-related outcomes to academic achievement and strengthen the advocacy for quality physical activity not merely focused on health-related physical fitness outcomes, but also on motor skill development and learning. 

Pingault et al. (2011). Children with poor attention skills are 8X more likely not to graduate from High School, Am J Psychiatry. 2011 Nov;168(11):1164-70.

The authors randomly selected 2,000 participants from a representative sample of Canadian children and estimated developmental trajectories of inattention and hyperactivity between the ages of 6 and 12 years using yearly assessments. High school graduation status, at age 22-23 years, was obtained from official records. Inattention rather than hyperactivity during elementary school significantly predicts long-term educational attainment. Children with attention problems, regardless of hyperactivity, need preventive intervention early in their development.