Why are Executive Functions Relevant in the 21st Century? By Keynote Speaker Professor Adele Diamond.
Last week I was fortunate to attend the second annual Connections in Mind (CiM) Summit. These passionate trail-blazers in the world of education aim to raise awareness about executive functions and how an understanding of these issues can fundamentally change the way we think about young people and enable them to achieve their full potential.
What are Executive Functions (EFs)?
The term ‘executive functions’ describes a set of skills which reside in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. These skills help us plan and organise our responses, behaviour and emotions. As parents and educators, we all know and work with children and young adults who would benefit from learning techniques to enhance their executive skills. This is not just limited to the students with a diagnosis of AD(H)D and similar. In the words of Laurie Faith, executive functioning skills are, “Necessary for some and important for all”. Let’s be honest, we all struggle with these from time to time. But for some, these issues become debilitating, obstructive to progress in academia or work and can also affect mental health and social interaction. Wouldn’t it be great to know that there are ways in which we can improve these skills and provide young people with strategies to manage and potentially overcome them? Well the good news is, there really are successful strategies, backed up by robust scientific research, for helping teachers, students and parents.
Professor Adele Diamond
What an honour and a privilege it was to hear keynote speaker, Professor Adele Diamond, who is recognised as one of the 15 most influential neuroscientists alive today. Professor Diamond is at the forefront of research on ‘executive functions’ (EFs) and provided some fabulous scientifically backed pearls of wisdom throughout her talk. She explained that EFs are a family of different cognitive skills; the crucial ones being: Inhibitory Control, including selective attention (being able to give considered responses rather than impulsive ones, resisting temptations and staying focused); Working Memory (mentally relating ideas and facts); and Cognitive Flexibility (thinking outside the box). According Prof Diamond:
“Core Executive Functioning Skills are more predictive of success in school and work than IQ or socio-economics”.
Professor Diamond gave simple yet effective strategies for how we can make small steps to help support these core functions, even in very young children:
Helping Inhibitory Control and Focused attention:
– Remove unnecessary wall art and educational materials from walls in classrooms and places of study. Young children learn more when walls are bare!
– Give children the TIME to work things out; have faith in a child’s intellect and ability.
– LISTEN. Mentors and tutors who consciously resist intervening too frequently are more effective educators.
– Teach ‘time-delay’ techniques to students. For example if a child constantly makes an error in his writing by reversing a particular letter or number, get the child to pick up a different coloured pen every time they need to write that letter. The time delay in picking up a new pen means they begin to write the letter correctly.
Reference to PATHS, who run programmes for schools, “designed to facilitate the development of self-control, emotional awareness and interpersonal problem-solving skills.”
Helping Working Memory:
Working memory enables us to make sense of anything that unfolds over time, whether it be reading, mental maths, reasoning and problem solving and so on.
Helping Cognitive Flexibility:
Encourage children to think ‘outside the box’.
In order to improve EF skills, research- based evidence suggests that it is crucial to do 3 things:
- Train children in EFs (What are EFs? Why are they important? How can we improve them?)
- Reduce demands on EF skills by scaffolding; providing frameworks and points of reference.
- Reduce or improve things that inhibit EF skills such as noise, distraction, food, sleep.
BUT of fundamental importance is not doing these things in isolation!
Professor Diamond’s research suggests that emotional and social factors must not be ignored and can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of cognitive training. Simply sitting a child in front of a computer screen to do specific cognitive training programmes has shown marginal benefits that often fade within a year. For sustained and effective changes to occur, mentoring and human interaction is much more important combined with activities that make children happy, excited and proud of their achievements.
It will come as no surprise that the research suggests that traditional activities such as martial arts (particularly Taekwondo), dance, music-making, play and sport are the most powerful and effective ways to enhance our EF skills alongside specific training.
These activities not only require focus, concentration, and working memory; they help our bodies develop and they support our emotional wellbeing, often make us happy and proud.
In my next blog (Part 2) of my report from the Connections in Mind Summit, I will talk about the work of the talented educator Laurie Faith who is part of the ADHD/Literacy Lab at the University of Toronto. Her work centres around training students and teachers on EFs in the classroom; something I sincerely hope will become part of the British education system from grass roots teacher training and up.
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