Don’t Teach Executive Function, Teach Executive Function Strategies!

Every time we do a workshop, we always have to answer the question, “Can you really teach executive function?” It’s a loaded question, with major implications for all students, but especially those with learning and attention difficulties.

Once a year, give or take, there is a new story in the news or a peer-reviewed journal pointing out that there is no research to support brain training. The most recent, by Jenna Gallegos in The Washington Post, takes aim at games such as those developed by Luminosity, which claim to improve attention, focus, memory, and the ability to shift flexibly. Gallegos concludes that Luminosity’s games are “not particularly good at training brains” and “appear to have no more effect on healthy brains than video games.” So, is there any point in teaching executive function?

At SMARTS, we don’t believe in teaching executive function. We believe in teaching executive function strategies. (What is a strategy? We asked students to define it and they did a pretty good job!) The problem with online brain training games, in our opinion, is that they are out of context. The human brain is a problem solving machine, but that does not mean that a problem solved in one context (e.g., an online game) can automatically be applied to a related problem in an entirely new context (e.g., a classroom).

If you are looking to support a student with executive function difficulties, then you must teach explicit executive function strategies that help the student accomplish the specific task at hand. Does a student struggle to organize materials? Teach an organizing strategy! Does a student struggle to stay on task when working? Teach a self-monitoring strategy!

There is no substitute for explicit instruction, but don’t stop here! Once you have modeled an executive function strategy, provide opportunities for repeated practice. Help students apply the strategy to their schoolwork, have students reflect on their work, and model how you have applied similar strategies in your own life.

By following these steps, we believe that you are creating a context that will allow your students to use strategies to successfully engage executive function processes in order to overcome the challenges they face in and out of school. So, the next time a newspaper tells you that you can’t teach executive function, there will be no need to worry. You’re teaching executive function strategies!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director