The Link Between Executive Function and Equity

A child walking down a school hallway.

As educators, it is important to understand the role that executive function plays in the success of all students. From the earliest grades, academic tasks require the coordination and integration of numerous processes as well as the ability to think flexibly and to self-check. Whether students are reading for meaning or solving math problems, they use executive function skills to set goals, organize and prioritize information, shift perspectives, think and problem-solve flexibly, memorize, and self-monitor.

When developing executive function skills, not all students have equal access to the supports and resources they need. Poverty and other socioeconomic factors create toxic stress that affects many areas of executive function such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition. To promote equity and ensure that all students have access to the supports they need to develop their executive function, teachers can take a number of steps.

Explicit Instruction

Explicit, systematic teaching of executive function strategies in the context of the academic curriculum can make a significant difference for children across the socioeconomic status spectrum. The SMARTS Curriculum empowers students by helping them understand their strengths and challenges and teaching them critically important executive function strategies. This might include teaching students strategies for planning and organization, providing opportunities for practice and feedback, and offering individualized support for students who need it.

Create Supportive Environments

Another strategy is to create a supportive and inclusive learning environment that recognizes and values the diverse backgrounds and experiences of all students. This might involve incorporating culturally sustaining teaching practices, creating opportunities for student voice and choice, and building strong relationships with students and families.

Systems Level Change

Finally, it is important to advocate for policies and resources that promote executive function and equity in education. This might include advocating for increased funding for schools serving high-need populations, promoting policies that address the root causes of poverty and inequality, and working to eliminate systemic barriers that prevent all students from achieving their full potential.

By taking these steps, teachers can help promote equity and ensure that all students have the supports and resources they need to build strong executive function strategies and succeed.

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development: