How Healthy Executive Functions Set Students Up for Success

“How can I set my student up for a successful start to high school?”

It’s a common question we hear from parents of incoming high school freshmen—and with good reason! Freshman year is a huge rite of passage for students. Starting them off on the right foot sets them up for success navigating the entire high school journey.

The truth is there isn’t one right answer to this big question. But one of the key indicators of academic success that Signet has observed time and again is having good executive function skills.

What Are Executive Functions?

Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that help people get things done. There are 5 key mental skills that fall under the umbrella of executive functions: inhibition, planning, organizing, working memory, and emotional regulation.

When we asked executive functions expert Rebecca Shafir for a succinct working definition for executive functions, here’s how she described the term:

“”I think of executive functions as having three components: getting work done, getting work done well, and getting work done on time. When you put those things together, they really do encompass the more clinical aspects of executive functions, such as inhibition, shifting, working memory, and emotional regulation.””

Students who struggle with executive functions commonly exhibit these behaviors in an academic setting:

  • Trouble initiating tasks that require multitasking, planning, or the ability to shift between different subjects
  • Getting very anxious before executing tasks, and then having that anxiety inhibit their ability to focus

Strategies for Improving Executive Function Skills

When a student has a deficiency in executive functions, there are concrete ways for them to improve these critical mental skills. Here are a few strategies for building executive function skills, specifically adapted for freshman summer:

  • Putting together a list of “whys.” The important “why” questions help students connect with their inner motivation. They may not be interested in completing their summer reading assignment. But if they can identify their “why” for doing it, such as making a good impression on the first day of high school, then this framing can inspire them to get it done. Connecting a short-term task with a long-term goal that means something to a student helps increase their motivation.
  • Turning distractions into rewards. Summer is full of distractions—and there’s nothing wrong with kicking back for a much-needed rest! But if video games are interfering with your student’s daily chores or their summer job, it may be time to reprioritize. Turning distractions into rewards is about making time for fun activities after work has been completed. Students often come to find an activity more enjoyable when they don’t have any work looming over their heads.
  • Establishing micro-routines. Even the smallest changes can have a huge impact on a student’s confidence, stress levels, and overall sense of well-being. Establishing 1-2 micro-routines to follow through with on a consistent basis shows students that they’re making progress and prepares them for bigger changes as well.

How Academic Coaching Improves Executive Function Skills

If your student needs additional support improving executive function skills, there are executive function coaches and academic coaches who can help.

First, it’s important to understand that executive coaching and academic coaching are slippery terms with a lot of overlap.

At Signet, our academic coaching encapsulates both services. The academic coaching we offer is rooted in a life coaching methodology, which is then customized and tailored to help each student set and achieve their academic goals.

For students with executive function challenges, an academic coaching session may revolve around issues like improving time management, reducing distractions to improve focus, organizing papers, overcoming procrastination, and building memory skills.

We’d like to thank Rebecca Shafir for her contributions to this article. Rebecca Shafir is a speech and language pathologist and executive functions coach in the greater Boston area. She works at the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health and has her own private practice, Mindful Communication. Rebecca is also the author of the award-winning book, The Zen of Listening.

Picture of Sheila A.

Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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