How to connect executive functions to daily tasks at home, school, and social settings.

As a practicing school psychologist, and educator I am always looking for methods to help my students adapt to their academic environment. Out of the theories and interventions that I have come across in my training up to through my doctorate program and beyond executive functions are the most applicable in my view to how the student functions within the classroom. Executive functioning covers a wide range of professionals working with children in both educational and clinical settings. I will be covering the multifaceted aspects of executive functions and relate them to the theoretical constructs that were developed in the field by George McCloskey, one of the key researchers of executive functions. These constructs all relate to student functioning and the successful adaptation for students that have difficulty reaching their full potential. 

Executive functions are related to how we make decisions and are connected to the frontal lobes of the brain and further neurological processes.  The holarchical model of executive function, developed by George McCloskey, breaks up executive functioning into multidimensional executive capacities. Executive functions relate to how individuals carry out specific perceptions, feelings, thoughts,  emotions, and actions.

According to the  McCloskey model  “executive functions within the model are structured into a holarchically-organized set of tiers that represent different types of executive function (i.e., different levels of mental management): Self-Regulation, Self-Realization and Self-Determination, Self-Generation, and Trans-Self Integration.” These overlapping skills break down executive functions into seven clusters. These clusters focus on knowing when to indicate the need for direction and how to control the neural networks necessary for effective perception, emotion, thought, or action.

Included are the seven clusters and definitions that identify these capabilities. All of these skills are taken from the McCloskey Executive Function Scale Manual. The clusters relate to the individual’s ability to use effective perception, feeling, thought, or action (PFTA) within a student’s social and academic environments.

Attending: This cluster includes eliciting and directing the ability of PFTAs to perceive, focus, and sustain attention efficiently. For example, students can focus their attention from beginning to end when completing academic assignments, and stay focused during social interactions.

Engaging Appropriately: This cluster includes cueing and directing PFTA competencies to get the student started and maintain the right energy academically and socially. Being engaged appropriately includes the inhibition of behaviors as well as stopping, pausing, and being able to shift. Furthermore, a student that is engaging appropriately is flexible in their perceptions, feelings, thoughts, or actions. In addition, well-regulated students are flexible in their perceptions, feelings, thoughts, or actions.

Monitoring and Adjusting: The ability to monitor, modulate, correct and balance PFTAs is included within this cluster. For example, a student will be able to fix school assignment errors as well as make corrections to their social interactions.

Performing Efficiently: Efficient performance involves tracking time and using routines to create tempo. Another efficient implementation involves the correct ordering of a set of PFTAs. This is especially useful when automated routines are accessed or initially developed.

Managing Memory: This cluster includes holding and manipulating working information and storing and retrieving specific information about PFTAs. For example, capturing and encoding information in busy environments is included in this cluster.

Inquiring Reflectively: Inquiring reflectively involves assessing, predicting, analyzing, and evaluating the PFTAS in relation to a task or situation. As well as estimating time for certain tasks. Goals for students in this cluster may include students working on their ability to anticipate events in school, their actions and the consequences of their actions, and the impact of what they say on others.

Solve Problems:  A key component of the solve problems cluster is creating ways to solve new problems and linking them with previous experience to address those problems. In addition, students can learn how to plan, prioritize, organize, and determine the best way to approach academic challenges and social situations.

The executive functions are skills that can be taught by school psychologists, guidance counselors, administrators, parents, and teachers. Children who can learn to internalize skills relating to executive functions are better able to tackle new and challenging social situations and academic problems. Educators, parents, and students are often looking for functional ways to reach their full potential, both in the academic world and in their transition into society. Mastery of executive function may lead to this success. One of the new frontiers of education is the use of Avatar based curriculum. Using avatar-based technology, students were able to code lessons learned about executive function. Each of the Executive Functions SEL lessons included in the SILAS program is created so students acquire these skills and apply them in social and academic settings.