The Knox School of Santa Barbara
What Is Executive Functioning?
Executive functioning skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.
When we think of traditional learning, we think of taking in facts and developing skills. These are both examples of input. In the case of gifted students, input is often their strength. Their minds can be steel traps. Executive functioning skills are an entirely different set of skills: they include everything that has to do with acting on knowledge, or output. This includes organizing papers, writing down assignments, taking notes, studying, and even writing with structure. Information enters their minds very easily and thoroughly, and they usually have no trouble understanding what they learn. However, when they try to share that information or get through a homework list, the work product comes out very scattered.
Gifted Children Need to Develop these Skills too!
Gifted children are often more likely to encounter these struggles than other students. Why? For starters, gifted children initially find learning and traditional school to be very easy, sometimes even boring. When it comes to developing executive functioning skills, though, there really is a downside to school being “too easy.” If you’re easily able to understand your lessons, memorize the key details, and recall them later, there’s no need to develop a set of study skills.
Many students find this out the hard way. They breeze through elementary school and middle school. They consistently earned A’s without ever studying. So they never learn to study! Even though their developing brains are primed and ready to learn how, they don't get opportunities to learn, practice, hone, and master study skills. When they transition to high school and encountered a rigorous American history course, they have no idea how to approach the class and they flounder for the first time in their academic career.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to studying. If Maddy memorizes all of her assignments throughout grade school and never writes them down, she never has the opportunity to learn and practice assignment management. If Alex flies through his homework each night in twenty minutes, he doesn’t learn to prioritize and organize his time. If Olivia memorizes the details of a lecture right as she hears it, she’s not likely to learn good note-taking skills for when the lectures become much more advanced later on. Having a talent for taking in information can actually hamper the development of these output skills.
Every executive functioning skill can be broken down, taught, practiced, and mastered. The key is to learn these skills before they are critically needed for success in a tough class. If your child will take a heavy course load in the future, make sure they learn executive functioning skills beforehand. The middle school years are an ideal time for this.
Even if your child doesn’t really need to write everything down or study for their current classes, a tutor or teacher can help get these habits firmly established and set the stage for the future. At a minimum, every child should learn to organize school materials, track and prioritize assignments, take notes from a textbook, study effectively, and write responses and paragraphs with structure. These skills are just as important as learning to solve equations or punctuate a sentence!
Executive functioning needs also provide another opportunity for you to work with your child’s teachers and school to ensure that your child is being adequately challenged. “Too easy” is a problem that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Children who are not challenged enough miss out on an opportunity to practice critical executive functioning skills. They are also more likely to become risk-averse and not tackle challenges that are out of their comfort zone. When kids are regularly challenged with work that pushes their intellectual limits (without putting them in a constant state of frustration) a lot of development can happen – in terms of both input and output!