• 24 July 2019
How To: Tutor Students In Executive Functioning Skills

How To: Tutor Students In Executive Functioning Skills

Jun 22, 2017

Tutoring students in executive functioning abilities can lead to significant motivation and self-confidence development in students and can contribute greatly to academic success.

Years of research have made it clear that childhood learning is dependent on far more than IQ alone. Executive functioning has proven to be one of the most important contributors to, and predictors of, student success. Creating a healthy environment in which these skills are able to flourish helps limit negative effects of non-academic obstacles to education. Executive functioning isn’t always innate, but it can be learned and strengthened. Tutors have an important opportunity to work with children on these capabilities and, by doing so, can make an immensely positive impact on a student’s success well into adulthood.

What is executive functioning?

The meaning of “executive functioning” and its components can vary slightly depending on the source. While there isn’t a singular, universally-accepted definition, it’s widely agreed upon that it consists of certain combined non-academic skills and cognitive abilities that, when strengthened, have a very positive effect on childhood development. Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child defines executive functioning as “the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” It can be thought of as a combination of three elements: working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Given the typically overcrowded schedules of today’s students, these abilities are extremely important to possess. Children are often expected to manage multiple commitments simultaneously academically and extracurricularly, and a lack of these skills can undoubtedly hinder one’s ability to thrive both in and out of school. There are many students and parents who attribute academic underperformance to learning deficits within subject matter when, in reality, it can often be explained by issues with executive functioning.

What does the research say?

Early development of executive functioning is essential as these skills are highly correlated with generalized learning and academic success in the future. This should make sense as focus, long-term planning, and self-control are all necessary to accomplish goals, both academically and otherwise. In fact, strong executive functioning abilities in children can even predict outcomes well into adulthood, resulting in better physical health, higher income and socioeconomic status, lower risk for substance abuse, and significantly decreased criminal conviction rates. Understanding and fostering the development of executive functioning is a key way to set children up for success later in life, and it should be a priority to strengthen these skills.

It has become increasingly apparent that the school system should dedicate more resources toward the improvement of executive functioning. Almost all evidence points to the benefits of teaching children these skills to improve learning. Unfortunately, a majority of school programs have typically not addressed executive functioning issues at the level they should. So, how should educators shape curricula to advance executive functioning? Research has shown that progress isn’t accomplished by honing in on a specific skill (e.g., time management or issues focusing in class), but by improving physical, emotional, and social development outside of academics. Examples of helpful activities include a combination of computerized and non-computerized activities and games, yoga and martial arts, and creativity and mindfulness exercises (Diamond & Lee, 2011).

How can tutors make an impact?

Because the development of executive functioning skills isn’t a major focus within most school programs today, tutors who provide this service can play an important role in filling this gap. Whether you focus solely on executive functioning or you add it on top of the subjects you already tutor, it’s a great idea to consider incorporating it into your repertoire.
All students can benefit from strengthening non-academic skills, but it’s important to recognize indicators that suggest possible executive functioning issues within your students. Specifically, you’ll want to monitor if your students suffer from disorganization, lack of focus, time management issues, consistent forgetfulness, social interaction problems, and the inability to complete goals independently. Of course, it’s common for all students to experience these issues at one time or another, so it’s important to ensure that these factors, if present, are persistent and cannot be attributed to another emotional or health issue.

If you’re interested in incorporating executive functioning into your tutoring sessions, here are some concepts to consider and a few approaches you can take to teaching them:

  • Development of generalized test-taking skills through teaching exam preparation methods, stress reduction techniques, and study guide creation

  • Project visualization and completion, focusing on breaking down goals into smaller steps to hone time management skills

  • Researching and extracting information for papers or other assignments, and later organizing these findings into articulate thoughts

  • Alternating between multiple assignments or among different subjects to improve upon idea shifting capabilities

  • Development and articulation of ideas and thoughts through writing exercises and practicing reading comprehension

  • Improvement of working memory through visualization exercises, mnemonic devices, and information recollection

Executive functioning skills are so essential to learning that many researchers consider them to be more influential than subject matter acumen. Tutoring these essential abilities can lead to significant motivation and self-confidence development in students and can contribute greatly to academic success. Including the advancement of executive functioning within your sessions can have a deep and lasting positive effect on children that will affect much more than academic performance alone.


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