How Executive Function Helps Students Think Smarter

BY JACK A. NAGLIERI/School Administrator, September 2017

Jack Naglieri
At Mountain View Alternative High School in Centreville, Va., teachers are coaching students daily on what it means to think smart.

Educators at the 280-student school are focused on addressing executive function, also referred to as EF, which is responsible for intentionality, self-control, motivation, flexibility, creativity, and social and self-awareness. These, of course, are all key components of academic and life success.

Teachers at Mountain View help students use executive function to manage time, organize their work, regulate emotions and carry through an assignment to completion. The school, which is part of the Fairfax County Public Schools, is one of a growing number of schools that are applying what we have discovered about the brain’s executive functioning in adolescents and pre-teens. The students report that the EF lessons help them do better in school, at home and on the job.

Each week, Mountain View’s teachers introduce a component, such as planning, and then encourage the students to “think smart and use a plan” during the week. A teacher may prompt students to consider how to approach their coursework assignments and reflect on the results by asking “How did that work for you?” Student strategies may include doublechecking their work, tackling the simplest problems first or drawing columns in multiplication problems to better organize the work.

Unique Teaching
Ample research now shows that students can be taught the value of using their executive function when doing academic work in school as well as everyday tasks outside of school. Encouraging students to use their executive function improves classroom performance and standardized test scores — and those benefits last. Why? Because helping students use executive function means they are thinking smarter and will more likely succeed.

The brain’s frontal-lobe ability is best defined as “how we do what we decide to do.” It is a neurocognitive ability unique to humans.

The front part of the brain is the seat of executive function, and the part of the brain that acts like an orchestra leader, expertly directing how all parts of the brain play in unison. EF starts with an intention that grows into a solution that one tries, evaluates and modifies, if needed, while emotions are regulated so that the goal is achieved.

Strategic Direction
This understanding of EF has considerable implications for teachers — specifically this: Should the teacher or the student be the orchestra leader? That will depend on the student’s age. Young children’s frontal lobes are very immature, explaining why they have short attention spans and limited control of thinking and behaving. It’s why they need directing by teachers and parents.

The path to full maturation is long, and it is not until the early 20s that this part of the brain is more fully mature. This means teachers should gradually turn over that responsibility to make deci-sions as students mature. In practical terms, it means educators should facilitate students’ use of EF by encouraging them to think smart by using a thoughtful approach to solving problems, but to do so in a way that is consistent with the developmental path all students take to maturity.

My research and others’ work show two effective ways to teach executive function. One method is by direct instruction — teach students a strategy for a specific academic task. Another is an indirect approach that involves group discussion, which helps students gain an appreciation of the value of being thoughtful and deliberate in the way they approach, for example, a group of math problems or a reading comprehension task.

The advantage of the indirect approach is that it facilitates growth and ownership because the thinking is directed by the student. This increases the likelihood that the student will learn to generalize. This is exactly what happens.

JACK NAGLIERI is a research professor at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va., and senior research scientist at the Devereux Center for Resilient Children. E-mail:

Additional Resources
Author Jack Naglieri suggests these informational items relating to executive function in K-12 education:

» EF in the Classroom. Lead developer Tim McElroy is a special education teacher at Mountain View Alternative High School, Centreville, Va.

» Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, 3rd ed., by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, Guilford Press, New York, N.Y. (forthcoming January 2018).

» “A Five-Dimensional Model of Executive Function: Cognition, Behavior, Social-Emotional, Academics and Impairment!” by Jack A. Naglieri.

» Handbook of Executive Function, by Sam Goldstein and Jack A. Naglieri (editors), Springer, New York, N.Y., 2014.

» The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World, by Elkhonon Goldberg, Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y., 2009.