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Executive Function Skills Are Essential to America's Present and Future

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There have been an increasing number of highly influential calls for America to wake up to the importance of what are called "executive function skills."

Take the high school graduation rate. Economics professor at Princeton University and former member of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, Cecilia Rouse, was recently asked on PBS's Need to Know what she would do to improve the high school graduation rate (where America is reported as 21st among the top 28 industrialized nations). In addition to stating that she would invest more in the early childhood years and would provide more support, including mentors, for children in the 8th to 9th grade transition, Rouse called for a rigorous curriculum that includes promoting executive function skills. She says:

When you talk to employers, they say that students and job applicants ... don't have the executive functioning kind of skills to really be able to function in today's workplace.

Noting that machines and computers can now perform routine tasks, she states that we need employees who can do what ONLY people can do, such as problem solve and use their creativity. Unfortunately, however, she concludes:

Many people have argued that our curriculum is stuck back in the 1950s and 1960s and that everyone, soup to nuts, needs to be thinking about what are the skills that we need to be teaching our children going forward.

Because I also conduct research on the workforce and workplace at Families and Work Institute, like Rouse, I am acutely attuned to the fact that employers are concerned that families and schools are not promoting the kind of skills employees will need. Too many young people, they tell me, have a fill-in-the-bubble mentality, where they think that knowledge consists of the one right answer to a multiple-choice question. However, employers know that employees are increasingly called upon to solve problems not yet imagined, and will need out-of-the-box thinking. Employers are also concerned that young people are used to competing, where success in the workplace also increasingly calls for working with diverse teams.

Based on my review, the skills I have identified as most essential are:
  • Focus and Self Control,
  • Perspective Taking,
  • Communicating,
  • Making Connections,
  • Critical Thinking,
  • Taking on Challenges, and
  • Self-Directed Engaged Learning.

In addition to a concern about the dropout rate, and the achievement gap, I can also see that we have a learning-dropout phenomenon in America. Far too many children lose the fire in their eyes for learning that they are born with. And far too many children see learning as extrinsic -- what it can do for them -- and are losing the intrinsic connections to learning -- the joy, the curiosity, the passion.

In the course of talking about executive function skills for the past two years to audiences across the country, here are some questions I hear frequently.

Just what are executive functions skills?

Executive function skills take place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain and other areas of the brain working in concert with it. We use these skills to manage our attention, our emotions, our intellect, and our behavior to reach our goals. They include:

  • Focus -- being able to pay attention;
  • Working memory -- being able to keep information in mind in order to use it;
  • Cognitive flexibility -- being able to adjust to shifting needs and demands; and
  • Inhibitory control -- being able to resist the temptation to go on automatic and do what we need to do to achieve our goals.

As children grow older, these skills include reflecting, analyzing, planning and evaluating. Executive function skills are always goal-driven.

As you will see in the video below, Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia, finds that executive functions predict children's achievement as well as IQ tests or even better because they go beyond what we know and tap our abilities to USE what we know.

How do these skills differ from the content that children need?

Children need both content and these life skills. The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child says it well:

In practice, these skills support the process (i.e., the how) of learning -- focusing, remembering, planning -- that enable children to effectively and efficiently master the content (i.e., the what) of learning -- reading, writing, computation.

Don't teachers and families have enough to do to add one more thing to their plate?

Promoting these skills require a different mindset so that families and teachers do what they already do, but in slightly different ways. For example, while young children are waiting, they can play Simon Says, Do the Opposite (to promote Focus and Self Control). Or when they are doing scientific experiments later on, they can be taught to think about what makes a good experiment (to promote Critical Thinking).

Can these skills really be taught?

In a word, yes. There are numerous experiments that show that adults can promote these skills in children. For example, the experiments of Michael Posner of the University of Oregon show it is possible to promote focus and self control. The experiments of Larry Aber of New York University and his colleagues also show that it is possible to reduce aggression in children by helping children learn to understand the perspectives of others through a literacy curriculum.

A final word of hope

As we learn more about executive function skills and as we begin to promote them, it is clear that we can make progress on some of America's more enduring challenges. However, we need to do so in ways that keep the fire for learning burning brightly in children's eyes, as we help children thrive! If we do so, then I will have achieved my most enduring dream.