Executive functions (EFs) are a set of foundational learning skills which regulate cognition in ways that support success in school and life. EFs are not only important for students, they are important to every one of us.
EFs can be seen as the control centre of our brain. It’s a little bit like an air traffic control centre where flights have to be regulated to make sure that the planes don’t crash into each other. Instead of controlling planes we have to control thoughts, behaviour, emotions and cognition in a goal directed manner.
It logically follows that we need these functions to get through the day smoothly.
On a typical day for example, EFs are active when we inhibit the desire to stay in bed in the morning. Once we are up on our feet, we need to follow rules and plan ahead. For example, it’s a socially accepted rule to put on appropriate clothes in the morning, such as a bikini for the beach or a suit for work. Next, we need to plan ahead by packing our bag with either beach equipment or office equipment. When cooking breakfast we need to remember which ingredients we have already added, so we might ask ourselves: ‘have I already put salt on the scrambled eggs or have I already put sugar in my coffee?’ All of these examples require executive functions.
Although definitions of executive functions vary there is a common agreement among researchers that executive functions are an interrelated set of cognitive functions that work together to achieve a goal.
There are 3 core executive functions that have been identified in the literature, they are:
The ability to hold information in mind and manipulate it. For example, when you are asked to repeat a series of numbers backwards in your head or out loud. Something like 385621. Are you able to repeat this backwards in your head ☺? I know, it’s difficult! Working memory is also active during reading, when holding a conversation or when doing math.
The ability to stop thoughts and or behaviours. For example, imagine a student in class that has to finish a task until the end of class. But the student finds it difficult to stop thinking about her favourite toy that’s outside in her bag. This requires inhibition of thoughts (about the toy) and potentially getting up to get the toy (which is the inhibition of behaviour).
The ability to flexibly switch between new and existing rules. The other 2 core executive functions support this ability. For example, during a school lesson children need to apply rules such as not to run or talk loudly, however they need to switch to new rules during the lesson break when running and talking freely is allowed.
When those 3 core executive functions work together they allow us to control cognition and behaviour in favour of attaining a goal or solving a problem.
We have developed 3 games to measure these 3 core executive functions in children.
Why do we measure EFs in students?
To support foundational learning skills in students. Every student should be given the opportunity to get the full benefit of their school education. It’s more than just teaching reading and numeracy. Without well-developed foundational learning skills children are not able to store and work with the information they are receiving. Foundational learning skills are often defined as number and letter knowledge and being able to read (Unicef and the Australian government). But how do students acquire these skills? We need to look at the foundational skills that are needed to learn literacy and numeracy. There needs to be a foundation and we can lay this foundation by supporting each child’s individual cognitive development before we start teaching these skills. Therefore, we need to first assess the baseline learning skills like executive functions and then build on that.
Why are EFs important?
The literature has shown that executive functions are important for general learning ability and that executive functions can predict school readiness even above IQ. So, EFs can even be a stronger predictor of academic success and learning ability than IQ.