How to Improve Executive Functioning (Part 1): Learn a Second Language

One of the biggest buzzwords in education these days is the term “executive function” (EF). While the term itself may conjure up images of elementary school students in suits and ties, we’re sure our savvy Baltimore readers know that EF skills are actually the overarching capacities that enable students to stay on task, plan ahead, and manage time effectively. Unfortunately, many adults themselves are unsure about how to instill these critical skills in their developing students. Today’s blog post is the first in a two part series about how to develop strong EF.

 First, let’s take a look at the important role EF plays in all kinds of learning. The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) defines executive function as “a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action.” Executive function is also known as adaptive, goal-directed behavior. It’s helpful to examine a list of some of the tasks associated with these processes in order to understand them:

  • Planning
  • Strategizing
  • Paying attention to and effectively remembering details
  • Managing both time and space
  • Managing the progress of multiple tasks
  • Changing our minds about the direction of an idea or project
  • Regulating our behavior (like waiting for a turn to speak)
  • Participating in a group activity or discussion
  • Self-evaluation
  • Discussing past experiences in a meaningful way
  • Recognizing when we need help and asking for it

Wow, don’t those sound like exactly the skills you want your child to develop? It’s no big secret that these are the same capacities that are crucial to one’s ability to generate strong personal relationships, bolster professional success and effectively manage stress. In recent years, we’ve learned that executive function is also the key to academic success in virtually all areas. Studies show that executive function is more predictive of school readiness than a child’s IQ score. An evaluation of the Chicago School Readiness Project showed that a child’s executive function in spring of pre-school predicted math and reading achievement levels three years later; that’s a strong correlation!

A large study by John Best, Patricia Miller and John Naglieri published in 2011 showed a strong correlation between EF and overall academic achievement. They also found that EF continues to develop throughout adolescence, though at a decreasing rate as children get older, and other research has solidified their findings. Actually, EF development peaks at around age 25. That means there is hope, and a lot of it, for your “forgetful” middle- or high-school students who can’t seem to stay on top of their school projects or, say, make a strong written or oral argument based on critical reading of a text.

So now you’re thinking, since there’s still time for my child to strengthen her EF, how can I help? The answer is lots and lots of practice. Structured practice in school and home activities involving clear instructions and expectations, consistent reassurance and explicit feedback can be extremely beneficial in helping students develop EF skills. Moreover, overwhelming evidence now indicates that knowing a second language confers significant advantages with regard to executive function and overall academic success.

While much of the research centers on bilingual children, there are now quite a few studies demonstrating the EF benefits of second language learning. Students who learn a second language are more creative, better at solving complex problems, show greater cognitive flexibility, and develop stronger higher order thinking skills.

Sadly the vast majority of students graduate before they have a solid handle on a second language. In our Baltimore tutoring experience, many students don’t take their foreign language classes seriously. In fact, French and Spanish classes often take a backseat in importance to core subjects like math and reading. The truth, however, is that encouraging and fostering your student’s success in second language learning is the key to bringing about success in all areas of academics by developing executive function.

If you are concerned that your student is not getting the most out of her language learning, consider finding a private tutor to enhance her experience. Even strong language students need extra practice with critical analysis and discussion. In my experience as a graduate student and teacher of Spanish, I’ve found that even students who manage to get A’s and B’s on tests are seriously lacking in familiarity and comfort with the language. The extra practice and insight afforded by one-on-one instruction allow students to reinforce the concepts they learn in class while building fluidity and, most importantly, flexing the parts of the brain associated with strong EF. Many college and university language departments offer free peer tutoring to their students, which is one of the greatest difference-makers in developing second language proficiency.

The bottom line is, if you want your child to develop his or her EF skills to their highest potential and experience unprecedented academic achievement, you have to embrace and nurture second language learning.

Stay tuned for part two, where I will discuss the correlation between critical reading and executive functioning!