Understanding Executive Functions: Key Skills for Success

Understanding Executive Functions: Key Skills for Success

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What are executive functions and how do they affect student behaviour in school?

Join us in this episode of School Behaviour Secrets as we explore the connection between executive functions and ADHD. Discover how these key functions influence behaviour and learn effective strategies for supporting students in your school today.

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Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton  0:00  

Children who experience this repeated failure if you're failure is about developing your capacity for growth by learning from mistakes, and developing resilience and grit and a growth mindset. That's good. But if you're experiencing repeated failure, and your capacity for growth is limited in some respect, that's not a great experience, because you're just not able to achieve the positive outcome in the first place.

Simon Currigan  0:28  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to another episode of school behaviour secrets hot off the presses. To the people who email me complaining that this show is rubbish. I say this, you are wrong. We're almost 130 episodes in. And that means this isn't rubbish. It's a lot of rubbish. I'm joined as ever by my co host, Emma Shackleton today. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:31  

Hi, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:33  

And before we get into the podcast itself, I'd like to ask you a question. Go on then. According to a 2016 survey by McCuaig of 450 HR professionals from around the world. What is the most important quality in a leader? Oh,

Emma Shackleton  1:49  

the most important quality in a leader did they say listening like really listening, understanding and empathising with the people that they are leading?

Simon Currigan  2:01  

Not really. Well, I suppose the top hands was empowering others, right? And 72% of people who reply thought that was an important quality. But I guess the things you've just described are the concrete actions that empower this joint second was building trust, and being a strategic thinker. Both of those got 52% support and the bottom two answers. Interestingly, were being ambitious and being pressure oriented.

Emma Shackleton  2:26  

Hmm, interesting. Can't Knock ambition though. How is this related to our podcast today?

Simon Currigan  2:33  

Okay, so that's a fair question. Today, we're going to be exploring the executive functions. And when we talk about the executive functions, we're talking about the executive in terms of the people or the group in charge, like the government or a company having a leader like a chief executive officer. And we'll be talking about what these higher order functions are, and how they impact on a student's behaviour in school.

Emma Shackleton  2:58  

That sounds interesting. But before we kick off that conversation, I just wanted to ask our listeners a question. Are you finding this podcast helpful or valuable in any way? If the answer is yes, then please spread the word to other podcast listeners, you can do that by leaving us a rating and review. It'll take you less than a minute. And when you leave us a review, it tells the podcast algorithm gods to share school behaviour secrets with other listeners to helping other teachers, school leaders and parents get this information. And that helps more children in more classrooms,

Simon Currigan  3:36  

it's time to take a deep breath, close the bedroom door, lift up our tops look candidly in the mirror and prepare to squeeze those muffin tops we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  3:47  

So first things first, we need to talk in more detail about what we exactly mean by executive functionings. What are they?

Simon Currigan  3:56  

So there is actually no correct definition of executive functions. It's a very loosely defined term. So what you think an executive function or a set of executive functions is coded depends on which experts you listen to if you get five experts in a room and ask them to list the executive functions. You'll get five different lists. So there's no right or wrong answer.

Emma Shackleton  4:21  

Okay, so no concrete list, but they do have a common theme. So they're generally planning and self regulation skills, bigger picture skills. So imagine the political executive, the government, it tells people below them what to do. It doesn't build the roads itself. It sets out a plan and gets companies and authorities to carry out its actions and actually pull the tarmac. It's in charge of giving the orders. Our brains executive functions are the same.

Simon Currigan  4:54  

Yeah, another way of thinking about it. Another metaphor here is that of the air traffic controller. They have to manage the aeroplanes taking off and landing on all the different landing strips, and the runways, and then sometimes they need to prioritise which aeroplane needs to come down first because they might be lower on fuel. And they focus on the job of getting those planes up and down safely. And they have to do that without becoming distracted. It's not flying the planes themselves. It's managing the planes taking off and landing.

Emma Shackleton  5:25  

Ah, okay, so here are some examples of important executive functions for students in school and teachers. And that's important because some conditions can affect our executive functions, and therefore that will affect the way that we behave.

Simon Currigan  5:41  

Yeah. So when you think about kids with ADHD, in particular, that's a condition that can be thought of as an executive functioning disorder, which means it's a condition that particularly impacts on how well a child's executive functions work because a lot of the executive functions are kind of exist in the brain in the prefrontal cortex and ADHD has a significant impact on the prefrontal cortex. The same can be said of children who have a background of trauma. And there are other conditions too, like autism, which can also impact on executive functioning. The thing we have to remember here is every child is different. You can get two children with ADHD in a room, and how ADHD affects their executive functions will differ from child to child. So we can't lump everybody together, we have to treat every child as an individual.

Emma Shackleton  6:30  

Yeah, of course. So whether or not there is an underlying condition. One of the executive functioning skills that can be affected is our ability to prioritise so prioritisation is being able to filter out right now, what's important from what isn't for a student in an academic context, thinking about what topics to focus on when writing an essay prioritising on what the person marking the essays interested in what facts need to be written first, or having lots of homework to complete and working out which tasks needs to be done and the order that they're going to be done. So which is most important, which is most time sensitive. Because there's a difference between urgent tasks and important tasks. In terms of behaviour, it might mean prioritising a long term goal over a short term one, or putting the needs of the group above your own needs in the moment when that's what's necessary to get a task done.

Simon Currigan  7:32  

What's really interesting is when anyone experiences stress or anxiety that affects the way our prefrontal cortex functions. And it makes it much harder to prioritise because stress impacts on executive function in the brain. Suddenly, when you're stressed, it's hard to distinguish between what's important and urgent and what isn't. Everything suddenly looks important. And we get lost in what needs to be completed. Now what's less important, which ironically, creates more stress and anxiety. When I think back to periods of my life when I felt really stressed, sometimes it's been hard to know what to prioritise. First, everything seems urgent, and that creates, and it feels even more stress and anxiety gets stuck in this kind of downward spiral. And that stress and the anxiety gets in the way of completing complex tasks successfully. Because if you can't prioritise, then you can't work out which parts of the task to start first.

Emma Shackleton  8:31  

Yeah, I get that, you know, when you've got a huge list of things to do. And you've got maybe a half an hour window, when you look at your list and you think, right, what can I get done, I've got 30 minutes, I can definitely get something off this list. And sometimes I find like 20 of those minutes have gone by with me trying to decide which thing to do, because they all feel really big. And they all feel really important. And now there's only 10 minutes left. So there isn't time to start anything you get the picture.

Simon Currigan  8:57  

Worst thing you can say to someone in that situation is, well, which of those is the most important and then you get there all important.

Emma Shackleton  9:04  

difficult, isn't it? And I think that's also linked in with procrastination as well. Sometimes you can get so stuck and so overwhelmed that you actually put things off or you might do the easy thing. You know, you might start I don't know cleaning your house or washing your hair, instead of knuckling down and getting on with something because it's really, really hard to just work out what should be done right now. There's a saying isn't there about when you're in that situation about what's the most useful thing that I can be doing right now that will serve me in the future? That's helpful sometimes. Anyway, we digress. So another executive functioning skill to mention is planning and this ties in nicely doesn't it? And that can involve setting future goals, and then maybe breaking those goals down into the individual steps that you need to do to complete them. And that can be short term or long term. term goals. So thinking back to the to do list analogy, sometimes it can be useful, I sometimes do this where I look at each item on the list, and I'll put how many minutes, I think that's going to take in a little circle. So if I think it's a five minute job, I'll just put a five in a circle. If I think it's a 20 minute job, I'll put 20 minutes. And then if I do have that little window of time, and I know I've got 20 minutes, I could think right, whereas a 15 minute job, I reckon I can get that done. But that ability to plan and to chunk and to break things down is impeded when we feel stressed or overwhelmed, or if there are any interruptions or deficits with our executive thinking skills. So here's a

Simon Currigan  10:43  

short term example of planning. Let's imagine you're a student. And you've been asked by the teacher to start a writing activity in your English book, The overall goal here is to complete your writing, right? Everyone knows that. But to do this successfully, it's going to involve working out what resources we need to collect, First, I need my book, my pen, are there any supporting materials, do any things like dictionaries and thesauruses, I've got to gather those resources together. And then I've got to understand the purpose of the writing activity. And then I'm going to organise my thoughts into a reasonable order. So I can put them down on the page and respond to the purpose of the activity, then I might have to draft and plan what I'm going to write before converting that draft into the finished piece of writing. And then at the end of the activity, I've got to put those materials away. And you can already see with prioritisation and planning, the executive functions are the skills you need to survive and do well at school. And if you have an issue with your executive function around planning, it's going to impede you from accessing the task successfully.

Emma Shackleton  11:48  

I think we sometimes underestimate all of those many steps. When we give an instruction as well in a classroom, we might ask children to do something and we think it's really simple and straightforward. But when you analyse what they've been asked to do, there are actually lots and lots of little components that often need to be done in the right order. And that's really tricky.

Simon Currigan  12:08  

I think one of the hardest things to do is to go down in your groups in terms of teaching. So if you've been teaching, say a year six class, a group of 10 or 11 year olds, and then you're asked to go and teach five year olds, because there's this assumed knowledge, when you give an instruction, you can be vaguer in some respects or older show, because they'll fill in the gaps and know what you mean. You try and do that with younger children. And unless you're giving them a step by step plan to follow various chaos, I think it's a much harder thing to do to move down your groups than it is to move up.

Emma Shackleton  12:34  

Yeah, completely agree. So that was a short term example, thinking about the English activity, let me give you a long term example. A good one is going from being a complete non runner to running 5k. So that's going to involve setting out milestones, getting the right equipment, buying new trainers, perusing the internet for hours, buying gym, leggings, shedule in time to run, managing your expectations and emotions, maybe working around the weather, holding yourself accountable to dates, there are a lot of skills involves a lot of planning steps that will either make or break you as a successful 5k Completer. The good news is there are apps now that do this for you. So there's a little prop that can help you. But that's an example of a longer term goal. And again, lots of many components that are going to be negotiated along the way to be able to reach that goal.

Simon Currigan  13:33  

So if we're a teacher, and we're thinking about how is this information useful, let's say we've got a child of 13 in our class, and they have a condition that affects their executive functioning, they might have the planning skills of what you might expect from say, a child who's eight or nine years old. And if we're communicating and giving out activities that are structured in a way that relies on planning skills of a 12 or 13 year old, that means the child is going to have difficulty accessing the task and then what you're gonna get from the child is frustration or annoyance. Or you might just see them drop off the task and you see off task, low level behaviour. Or you might even see some element of shame here. And all these things are avoidable. So these are important things for us as teachers and teaching professionals to think about. Because if we're not doing that effectively, then we're preventing our children from accessing the task.

Emma Shackleton  14:29  

Yeah, so the next executive functioning skill that we're going to think about is your working memory. And that is your ability to hold and juggle information to solve a problem or to complete a task. So in school this might look like holding information from column to column as you complete a complicated maths multiplication problem, or combining different pieces of information given to you by the teacher to culminate that into a written piece of work and

Simon Currigan  14:59  

Again, just as reprioritization. Just as with planning, the more stress you experience, the more anxiety or overwhelm you're experiencing, the more you'll find it difficult to access the executive function of working memory, stress decreases our ability to access executive function. And I call this the crystal maze effect. Actually, that's where you see people, they go into a room, they've got one minute to solve a problem that if there was no time limit, and there was no pressure, that'd be perfectly able to read the instructions and complete the task, put that pressure on them, and then suddenly been able to juggle bits of information and solve problems becomes much more difficult. And working memory it's worth bearing in mind is often significantly impacted in children with ADHD.

Emma Shackleton  15:47  

Yes, so for those students, it really is a big effort to access their working memory. And that's why they so easily fall off task, or their working memory is a significant barrier to them achieving success with the task at all. And children who experience this repeated failure. Now, don't forget some failure can be good. And if your failure is about developing your capacity for growth, by learning from mistakes, and developing resilience, and grit and a growth mindset, that's good. But if you're experiencing repeated failure, and your capacity for growth is limited, in some respect, that's not a great experience, because you're just not able to achieve the positive outcome in the first place. So success here involves structuring the task to make the tasks challenging, like it is for all of the other children, but also making sure it is achievable.

Simon Currigan  16:48  

Another executive function that we'd like to look at is self regulation. self regulation is one of the key executive functions, especially when we think about children and behaviour. Most people think about emotional regulation when they think about self regulation, but there's all sorts of aspects of regulation, you, you might need to regulate your senses, you might need to regulate cognitive demands, you might need to regulate your attention. So it's an important aspect of children surviving and doing well in school. And self regulation is different from self control. self regulation, is having awareness in the moment and being able to monitor what's happening inside your body and recognise emotions from physical sensations, and noticing that they're growing stronger, that they're threatening to overwhelm you and then taking action proactively, before you find yourself being completely overwhelmed, coming very, very angry. Instead, it's about taking action before you reach that state self control is now I'm angry. Now, I'm super anxious, now I'm overwhelmed. What do I do and trying to manage that situation? Once you're in it, now, self control is a terrible way to try and manage very strong emotions. So self regulation is the key to not being in those difficult emotional states in the first place.

Emma Shackleton  18:06  

And really, what you're talking about here also includes elements of self monitoring, so to know whether the strategy you are using is working or not. So if you're feeling anxious about an important exam, and you're trying to manage that anxiety with mindful breathing, self monitoring tells you whether that strategy is being effective or not, then you can answer the question, do I feel calmer? If yes, carry on with that strategy? If no, maybe I need to switch to something else, whatever that might be. And this allows us to change course when we need to, and not get stuck following an unsuccessful approach.

Simon Currigan  18:50  

And obviously, self regulation is massively important for success in schools, if children are feeling anxious or worried or frustrated, they need to be able to productively regulate those emotions. And when they don't, then they often find themselves in trouble or excluded. So such an important part of the executive functions. And the last executive function we're going to look at is our ability to manage our attention. And this means being able to filter out distractions and focus our attention on an important task. So you can imagine a child in the classroom, they've got their book, there are lots of distractions around them, they're able to block those out and focus entirely on the task.

Emma Shackleton  19:32  

And there's a myth actually that people lose focus or lose attention. And that's not actually true. Our minds are always focused on something. It's just that our attention drifts from one thing to another. So when we talk about focusing our attention, what we actually mean is we're holding our attention in one place and not letting it wander off on to something else,

Simon Currigan  19:57  

or back to self monitoring when we notice that our attention has moved on to something else, we're able to draw it back. Managing attention is essential for doing well at school. Because there are just so many distractions in a classroom. If you think you'd be sitting there trying to do your work, there are conversations that are the children that are having that are pulling your attention away. There are bright displays, there are noises coming in from outside, it could be traffic, it could be other kids play our own automatic thoughts that pop up, take over our attention. So you could be sitting there trying to do a piece of writing and then suddenly, you remember that the dog is ill, and you're concerned about what's going to happen after school, when you go to the vet, you've got the actions of other students in the classroom that might put you off smile might be standing up and walking around, these things all need to be managed. And we need to be able to sort of regulate those and focus our attention down to succeed in the classroom. And if you have difficulty with this executive function, it's going to be very difficult to make the most of your talents in the classroom.

Emma Shackleton  20:57  

That's right. If you're not able to manage your retention and maintain focus on the important thing, the outcomes are pretty obvious. So think about focusing your retention as being effort, it's really hard work. The school days filled with tasks that require focused effort, you're going to get tired very quickly, every academic task is going to feel like an uphill climb, if managing attention is something that you're struggling with.

Simon Currigan  21:27  

And again, there are a range of conditions that can affect how you manage your attention, or how well you manage your attention, such as ADHD, and having a background of adverse childhood experiences or being affected by trauma. And what we need to do is support those children in a way where we are judging their difficulties to hold attention as a character flaw, we're not saying that they're weak in some way, or they're making bad choices. Understanding that that difficulty to hold attention might be because there's an underlying difference with the way their brains are wired, or the chemistry in their brains. And we need to think about how we, as adults, acknowledge that and then compensate for it, or give them the tools that they need to compensate for this difficulty. I can think of one example in my own life actually, that's interesting. I find it really hard to read a book if the Telly is on, or there's music on that has words in it because my thoughts are being constantly pulled away to the words that are being spoken on the television or the words that are being spoken on the music. So if I'm reading, I have to do it in a quiet place, or I have to have music on that has absolutely no words in it. That's my strategy for compensating for my difficulties focusing my attention, when there are lots of people speaking around me pulling my attention away.

Emma Shackleton  22:44  

And you're right. The challenge is how can educators create the optimum conditions so that those kids who are struggling with executive functioning skills are able to reach their potential. So to wrap up today's episode, then the executive functions that we believe are important in school, our prioritisation, planning, working memory, self regulation, and maintaining attention. And as we said earlier, there are others you can consider being able to think flexibly and executive function for example, or inhibiting desires, or metacognition or multitasking. There are lots of others too.

Simon Currigan  23:24  

And that's all we've got for you today. Of course, if you're teaching students who have difficulty with their executive functioning, or you're a parent who might be seeing this in your child, then it's important we consider what might be causing that executive processing difficulty.

Emma Shackleton  23:41  

And that's where our Sen D handbook comes in. The handbook will help you link a range of classroom behaviours with underlying conditions, such as ADHD, trauma, and autism, we feel that it's important to understand the deep underlying causes of children's behaviours. And we've made this guide completely free. The idea

Simon Currigan  24:02  

here isn't for teachers to try and make a diagnosis because we're not qualified to do that. But if we as classroom practitioners can link the behaviours we're seeing in our classrooms to possible causes more quickly, it means we can get the right help in place and get early intervention strategies in place to support the kids.

Emma Shackleton  24:20  

The handbook also includes fact sheets about ACEs and a range of underlying conditions that might be driving your pupils behaviour in school, such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, PDA, odd developmental language delay and others. The handbook is completely free to download, head over to our website beaconschoolsupport.co.uk. UK, click on the free resources tab near the top and we'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  24:49  

And if you've enjoyed today's show, don't forget to open up your podcast app and hit the subscribe button so you never miss another episode. And to celebrate subscribing. Well, we want Don't create your own Frankenstein's monster from sausages burgers and cocktail sticks. Simply fashion together the sausages into a rough body shape, using the cocktail sticks to hold the meat together and pop a round burger on top as a head shape. Decorate using your favourite condiments, perhaps two drops of mayonnaise for the eyes and a swirl of mustard for the mouth. Be creative before you plug in electrodes and pump high voltage electricity into your beautiful new creation. And when it starts to quiver, remember to shout It's alive. It's alive maniacally. It doesn't quiver, but it starts to slowly cook. You've got yourself a barbecue, double win,

Emma Shackleton  25:38  

because that all makes total sense. Anyway, have an excellent week and we can't wait to see you on the next episode. ABC bye for now

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)