executive function

Understanding How Executive Function Impacts Academic Performance

thestudypro Executive Function Skills

Executive function is one of the most important sets of skills we can have when it comes to accomplishing longer-term goals. It’s also critical for self-regulation, an important part of succeeding not only in school but also beyond.

If you want to help a student see better academic performance, helping them develop this skill set is often where to begin. Today we’re going to review why that is, as well as how to help a struggling student develop better self-management skills.

The Basics of Executive Function

Executive function, at its most basic, is the set of skills we need in order to plan and then successfully execute a plan. In fact, it can often seem so basic on its surface that we tend to assume smart students already possess this ability.

However, this type of self-regulation isn’t an easy set of skills to develop. Moreover, many intelligent students can get pretty far without it, even if they could be doing much better if they learned to execute on more complex plans.

Johanna Calderon, Ph.D., notes that a lack of executive function in a child can manifest in a number of ways. The child might:

  • Have trouble with impulse control
  • Have trouble regulating their emotions
  • Break into tantrums

Even if the child doesn’t show serious trouble with emotions, academically, a lack of executive function skills can manifest as:

  • Having trouble organizing
  • Having trouble with time management
  • Issues remembering instructions

What catches some parents off-guard is these issues, especially the more academic ones, can seem to come suddenly. However, often this is just a sign school has reached a level of difficulty where the coping strategies, a child without good executive function, no longer are working as well.

How Does Executive Function Impact Performance?

Both excellent and poor executive function can impact a student’s performance pretty dramatically. The ability to self-regulate and plan effectively is important in all sorts of ways at school.

Let’s first establish that students often find a great deal of academic work boring. Given the opportunity, most children and teens have something they would rather be doing. 

To different degrees, they all try to self-regulate those distracting desires so they can still succeed. It takes self-discipline to focus on what a teacher is saying, study for tests, and plan out big projects.

Some students are excellent at doing this with little or no outside input. They can focus for long periods and execute fairly elaborate plans without major issues. Others may need extra help in developing these skills.

Signs of a Potential Problem

Discussing executive function can be complicated because children develop at different rates. Many young children are easily distracted, but this doesn’t mean they have any serious issues with executive function.

There are a few early developmental milestones a parent can watch for, but mild to moderate issues with executive function won’t always be obvious. Those issues tend to become more obvious as the child enters school.

Even smart parents can easily miss the early signs of an issue. It’s often teachers who first realize a student may be missing certain developmental milestones when it comes to executive function. 

This is because of the level of focus school tends to require from children. They often must listen to somewhat complex instructions then execute on them under time constraints. 

In high school, these issues can often become even more pronounced. The work grows more complex and students may need to plan some projects weeks out. 

Often the first sign of a potential issue is being told, either directly or through context, that something is amiss by a teacher. If a child can’t seem to focus or plan like other students, it can be a sign they need to work on their executive function.

Grades (or missing work that is effecting grades) can also be a sign, especially once they reach middle school level and beyond. If a student seems intelligent, but has bad grades issues, executive function is one of the most common culprits.

Executive Function Can Be Learned

The good news for those who struggle with executive function is that it can be learned. Even if a student faces certain challenges outside their control, such as those with ADHD, there are things within their control that can help.

At The StudyPro, one way we address these deficits is Executive Function (EF) Coaching. This coaching is exactly what it sounds like: A type of coaching focused on helping a student develop their executive function skill set. 

Many parents fall into the trap of only trying to tutor a student struggling in EF on the subjects they’re struggling in. However, a better solution is often to help them develop the skills that to manage the increased load, regardless of the subject.

The core of EF coaching is helping students learn the skills needed to plan, manage, and execute work across all subjects. In essence, you learn how to self-manage and self-regulate, with advice that’s actionable to build a stronger student.

Turning Weaknesses Into Strengths

It can be stressful for both a child and their parent when they struggle in school. Poor executive function can make even a very bright child feel incompetent or not smart. However, often all it takes is working on developing and practicing the right skills with the right guidance.

If you’d like help in developing a bright mind into one that is better at self-regulating and executing against plans, we would love to work with you. Contact us about where your child is struggling and we can come up with the best plan for their development!