Executive Functioning: The Skills Every Student Needs

Executive Functioning Online prep

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably struggled with your child’s ability to prioritize their time. Between schoolwork, extracurriculars, friends, and not to mention social media, there is so much pulling at kids’ time and attention. It’s no surprise that 84% of teens report moderate to extreme levels of stress…

So while you may not know the term “Executive Functioning,” if you’ve got a teenager at home, we can promise that you’ve had to contend with your child’s developing Executive Functioning skills. If your child has ever seemed easily distracted, over-stressed, or sleep-deprived, then some work on Executive Functioning is exactly what they need.

What Is Executive Functioning?

According to the Harvard Center on The Developing Child, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” In short, Executive Functioning refers to the organizational and time management skills that are the hallmarks of high-achievers.

Breaking things down a bit further, when talking about Executive Functioning, experts tend to focus on three core brain functions:

  • Working memory
  • Mental flexibility
  • Self-control

We can all use these skills, and – fortunately for everyone – they can all be developed and improved through practice and repetition.

Working memory refers to a person’s ability to retain, recall, and apply information on a short-term basis. Mental flexibility is the ability to shift our attention or expectations based on circumstances. And self-control, that’s the obvious one: it refers to our ability to prioritize and fight off distractions.

These functions work together to plan, organize, juggle projects, and get stuff done.

Sharpen these skills with some straightforward exercises and helpful tools, and that mountain of work won’t seem so daunting!

Why Do Students Need Executive Functioning Skills?

With constant distractions and overwhelming expectations, today’s high schoolers face an incredible challenge to manage their time and stress. Students are pressured to handle more clubs, sports, and AP tests than ever before – and, also, they have Snapchat. It’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s also no wonder roughly 50% of teenagers report getting less than 6 hours of sleep.

And that sleep-deprivation is no joke! In fact, it makes the problem worse. Studies show that teenagers, more than any other age bracket, require the MOST sleep for their development and proper functioning – and yet without good Executive Functioning, most are left in a cycle of fatigue, which leads to lowered productivity, which leads to late nights, which leads to even more fatigue…

No matter what your child’s study habits are, we all can benefit from improving our focus and productivity. And while not everyone functions best with color-coded notebooks and a laminated study plan, just learning to shave off 30 minutes of work can dramatically reduce stress levels, improve sleep cycles, and maybe even allow for some guilt-free TV time. A little bit of work on these essential skills can go a long way toward success in high school, college, and beyond.

How Can Students Improve Their Executive Functioning Skills?

Fortunately, despite all of the challenges facing students these days, there’s plenty of research and a bunch of great tools for helping students to train their Executive Functioning and stay organized. The important thing to remember is that no one is born with “natural” executive functioning skills – these are learned talents that can be honed and developed.

To start, here’s a list of tips to give students for honing their study skills.

  1. Break down projects into small, manageable tasks, and reward yourself when you complete each one.
  2. Identify short-term goals and deadlines. This goes hand-in-hand with #1, but it does a ton toward managing stress and fighting back against that feeling of “oh my god I have TOO much work.”
  3. Set a timer while working to take regular breaks, and check-in with yourself and how productive you’re being. That buzzer might just snap you back from that instagram rabbit hole. Studies show that 25 minutes of working with regular 5 minute breaks is actually best for you.
  4. Set times for “serious focus”: we’re not saying to turn off your phone, because, honestly, no one does that. But when you know you really need to bang out some work, put your phone in another room. Momentary distractions – even just to read a quick notification – can actually set back your productivity and focus considerably.

We know it might sound a little kooky, but checking in with yourself and doing a little “self-talk” is also super important. Use that voice in your head to think about what worked well, what didn’t, where your mind wandered, and why it did that. And then give yourself some words of encouragement and a nice pat on the back when you finish something. It sounds a bit crazy, but science shows that it works!

And check out some these great apps for managing time and training skills.

Smartphones may be the bane of productivity – but we can also use those powers for good!

  1. 30/30 is great for that whole “breaking projects into smaller tasks” thing. Users can turn projects or assignments into a series of 30 tasks, tracking how long they spend on each one, and prioritizing appropriately.
  2. InClass is a time management app designed specifically for high school and college students, allowing users to manage all of their class schedules, due dates, homework, etc. Plus you can attach files, notes, and recorded content to reminders and calendar items.
  3. Quizlet allows students to make their own flashcards and carry ’em around on their phone. Flashcards are one of the best ways to memorize and study, plus the app offers mini-games and quizzes to make things a bit more interesting.
  4. Lumosity isn’t just for students – but is a fantastic, research-based app for training your working memory and mental flexibility. With brain games you can play on your phone – that we promise aren’t nerdy and boring – users will keep those EF skills sharp.

Procrastination can be a problem for EVERYONE, no matter your age. We all deal with distractions and too many tasks to juggle, so it’s essential for teens – who are still in the midst of developing these important cognitive skills – to learn good habits, both to succeed with their new-found responsibilities, and to set themselves up for the future. Whether it’s balancing APs, test prep, and the prom, or simply dealing with the stresses of your average Tuesday, taking some time to focus on Executive Functioning skills. So put these strategies to use!

And for an even deeper dive, check out our Executive Functioning page to see how our small group courses and private tutoring can help your child today!

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