Is it possible to directly build the brain’s capacity for executive function? This is actually a very controversial question. Research on ‘brain-based training’ programs, such as CogMed or Luminosity, which claim to increase executive function processes such as working memory, indicate that these programs may be too narrow in scope. Students may improve their working memory as indicated by a specific game or test, yet they won’t show improvement on academic tasks with high working memory demands (e.g., test taking or multi-step directions).
It seems that the best way to promote the development of executive function is through activities that stimulate healthy development more broadly (e.g., social and emotional development) as well as explicit instruction in strategies that allow students to engage executive function processes on challenges they face in their day-to-day lives.
Here are four research-based activities that you can use with your students to promote executive function:
- Mindfulness — Exercises that teach students how to be mindful help students develop self-regulation, which in turn helps them engage their executive function processes. Meditation, for example, will not only help students reduce stress, it will help them develop their ability to reflect, plan, and process novel sources of new information.
- Aerobic exercise — While the direct connection between exercise and executive function has not been fully established, there is no question that the increased blood flow that accompanies aerobic exercise is essential to the healthy development of the brain. Regular exercise that requires thought as well as exertion (e.g., team sports) appears to help students develop key executive function processes such as planning and thinking flexibly.
- Mindful physical activity — Activities that combine physical exercise with mindfulness appear to strengthen executive function. Whether it’s yoga or martial arts, combining physical exertion with mindfulness and self-discipline appears to have a positive effect on a student’s executive function abilities.
- Strategy instruction — Students can be taught strategies to access their executive function processes. These strategies can be specific to academic demands, such as the strategies taught in SMARTS, or they can address social-emotional needs, such as strategies to manage anger or anxiety. To be successful, these strategies should be appropriately challenging and scaffolded, and students must have repeated opportunities to practice each strategy in a structured way (learn more about successful strategy instruction here). If you’d like to see what a successful executive function strategy lesson looks like, check out our free SMARTS preview lesson, “Purposeful Highlighting,” a reading comprehension strategy that helps students shift between main ideas and details as they read.
As researchers continue to tease apart how we can (and cannot) affect the development of executive function processes, this list is sure to grow and change. In the meantime, think about ways you can integrate these proven methods into your students’ daily lives. You’ll be helping them develop the executive function processes they will need to succeed not only in school but for their entire adult lives.
- Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Program Director