Go ahead and put your index finger horizontally right above your eyes, straight across your brow line. It’s okay, nobody’s looking. Like this:
Got it? Great! Your index finger is less than an inch away from your frontal cortex – the seat of your executive functioning. Think about that for a moment: one inch, 2.2cm, 1/12th of a foot. Then, see if you can count how many windows are in your home by memory. Think for a moment about the last conscious decision you made, or choice to calm yourself down in a heated moment, or to-do list you wrote down, or events on your calendar. Whew! That’s a lot of cognition you just did! [Thinking = cognition] You also just did a lot of meta-cognition. [Meta-cognition = thinking ABOUT THINKING] You did all that in the executive functioning part of your brain!
You may now feel free to take your finger off your forehead.
Executive Functioning: What is it?
There are many definitions of executive functioning out there, and for our Austin ISD Social and Emotional Learning purposes, we stick to this one:
These are considered the kinds of brain functions that are unique to humans; the “higher order” cognitive activities that represent our capacity to actively make decisions based on data synthesized from our senses, emotions, and experiences. When we feel like we are thinking really hard, or when we practicing self-management, we are using our executive functioning skills; and these skills can be developed in both adults and young people!
How can we grow executive functioning functionality?
Great question! Since we are in the business of educating young people first and foremost, the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child offers this perspective:
Adults can facilitate the development of a child’s executive function skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships. It is also important for children to exercise their developing skills through activities that foster creative play and social connection, teach them how to cope with stress, involve vigorous exercise, and over time, provide opportunities for directing their own actions with decreasing adult supervision.https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/
The Harvard CDC offers these activity guides to help educators plan for executive function development in classrooms from early childhood through adolescence! Furthermore, they even offer this guide to building adult executive functioning skills, since we’re the ones who are supposed to model these things for the young people we have the privilege of teaching. Thanks Harvard!
If you need a super concrete, quick guide to classroom systems and structures that support executive functioning, here’s a great list of 10 tools from Edvocate. And, if you’re sitting there, maybe with your finger still stuck to your eyebrows, wondering how you personally handle various aspects of executive functioning, don’t worry – here is a self-assessment that breaks it down, so we might gain some insight on our own strengths and growth areas.
[A personal aside from your devoted SEL blogger – Bullet Journaling has helped me get my own executive functions in better order! My brain needs systems, and this is a system that works for me! PLUS it gives permission to doodle, which can help some folks, like me, with focusing attention, which is – you guessed it! – an executive functioning skill.]
How do you plan to March into executive functioning this month, for your students and yourself? Let us know in the comments, and/or tag us on social media @austinisdsel! In closing, we offer the musical insight of that international expert on executive functioning, Cookie Monster, to help summarize our topic:
See y’all next month, functioning executives!