Executive Function in Context

Executive function is all about context. There are many reasons why a student may struggle with executive function, such as having a learning difference or simply being too young to approach an overly sophisticated task. To help students, we need to be aware of the context in which we are placing our students.

When students are asked to do more than they are ready for and do not have executive function strategies to rely on, they will be overwhelmed and are at risk of failure. When we modify our expectations to be developmentally appropriate and teach students explicit executive function strategies to handle the task at hand, they will be empowered to succeed.

Sabine Doebel, a postdoc in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado, delivered an excellent TedTalk on this very subject. She empasizes the role that context plays in students’ use of executive function strategies. Interestingly, she talks about how students’ perceived social groups can influence them to be more or less strategic in their approach to executive function tasks.

In SMARTS, we have attempted to harness the power of peer mentoring and peer coaching for precisely this reason. If students have peer mentors to look up to and who encourage use of executive function strategies, they are more likely to use those strategies and persevere in challenging tasks.

As educators, we should do everything in our power to create contexts that support our students’ use of executive function strategies, including promoting positive social bonds.

Check out Sabine Doebel’s TedTalk below and think of more ways to create the ideal context for your students.


  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director