In our first Executive Skills blog, EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING SKILLS SERIES - PART 1, we met Sally, who possessed average or above average cognitive and academic skills and was highly motivated to succeed. She was organized and goal-driven. At the same time, her social life and grades suffered because she spent hours per night on homework that she didn’t turn in the next day. Like Sally, most of us demonstrate areas of strength and weakness in various skills that allow us to plan and execute projects, prioritize activities and input, identify the steps necessary for a task and monitor progress, understand how time passes and use it to reach our goals, and control emotions and responses to situations.
Research tells us that a number of biological and environmental factors determine how executive skills develop. While response inhibition (impulse control), working memory, emotional control, and attention all tend to develop during the first month of life; metacognition generally emerges closer to 10 or 11 years of age, while the brain is not fully mature until the mid- or late 20’s.
Drs. Dawson and Guare, in their Smart but Scattered books, explain how the number of nerve cells in the brain and connections between them grow rapidly in early childhood. However, this growth, from about 2,500 synapses in a newborn, to around 15,000 over the next three years, slows around age five. A process of pruning ensues, during which skills that are used and practiced are strengthened while others fall away. It is vital that we provide support and instruction to develop lacking skills and maintain those we value, during this time. This process occurs not once during childhood, but rather, “…recent research has demonstrated that there is another major surge in growth of neurons and synapses just before adolescence, followed by a process of pruning that extends throughout adolescence,” according to Dawson and Guare.
The authors of the Smart but Scattered further explain the role of myelination in the development of habits and skills. Myelin is the fatty sheath that forms around axons in the brain. It provides insulation for the paths of the nerve impulses, allowing for more efficient and quicker communication between the parts of the brain. Practice increases myelin, as coaches know. This is why athletes practice the same moves over and over in order to achieve high levels of performance.
To further compound the challenge for middle school and high school students, teenagers are inherently driven to establish their own identities. Often, the skills and experience necessary to accurately judge risk, follow through with tasks independently, and plan and organize materials and projects do not maintain pace with young people’s drive for independence. Of course, this occurs just when academic expectations, homework loads, and social demands increase exponentially in a young person’s life. To support students in this situation, the adults in their lives can collaborate to arrange environments, explicitly teach skills, provide consistent practice during routine activities, and help young people to implement the skills they have learned.
When we provide familiar routines we help our children to use systems of organization and practice strategies. One pitfall that many of us encounter is the tendency to provide initial instruction or support without sufficient monitoring before allowing independent endeavors. Even after independence is achieved with a particular task or skill, periodic check-ins are vital to ensure continued success.
One way to increase a child’s ability to perform a task with accuracy or to follow through with an action, is to utilize mental rehearsal. A practical application is the S.T.O.P method, proposed by Sarah Ward, which supports students like Sally, who complete homework while lacking the follow through to submit it on time. Dawson and Guare suggest various ways to use lists and calendars to support planning, organization, and completion of homework as well.
Keep in mind that it’s natural for adolescents seeking autonomy and developing their individual identities to resist direction from adults, especially parents. Parenting at this stage requires a fine balance of providing choices, setting limits, explicit teaching, gradual release of authority, and use of resources outside ourselves.
Collaboration between school, parents, and other providers such as tutors or coaches can provide consistent reinforcement of strategies and skills, while trained professionals and well-informed parents directly teach executive skills and move young people toward the independence they crave.
Amethyst Shaber teaches us about executive functioning and self-monitoring.
Sarah Ward shares strategies for homework completion and time management.
Smart but Scattered provides homework strategies.
Written by Kerrilee Wing