Top Tier Admissions(link opens in new tab/window), a company devoted to empowering students from around the world in the college and graduate school admissions process, recently interviewed ResearchILD’s very own Shelly Levy*, M.Ed., M.S., who is a leader in the field of learning development.
What executive function skills should I expect to see in a high schooler?
Shelly’s response: We know that the brain does not finish developing and maturing until the mid to late 20’s. One of the last regions of the brain to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for executive function processes such as planning, prioritizing, and controlling impulses. This developmental trajectory makes high school an important time for students to strengthen and improve their executive function skills, and the good news is that these skills can improve over time with explicit instruction.
Biological and Developmental Aspects
Executive function processes are both biological and developmental. As we get older, the brain becomes more mature and more efficient. Executive function, governed by the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last things to fully mature.
When it comes to executive function, all students will improve as they get older, but sometimes our expectations for students are not developmentally appropriate. If a student is struggling in school and their academic grades do not reflect their intellectual ability, a lack of executive function strategies could be the culprit. As a result, they can feel as though their brains are “clogged” with information and they are unable to produce work that reflects their abilities.
Executive function processes are also associated with the contexts in which children develop and learn. When trying to understand why one student is struggling while another is thriving, it’s important to define the executive function expectations posed by the environment of the classroom and examine whether students have the strategies and skills to succeed.
Context is one of the most important aspects to analyze when students are overwhelmed and can’t access executive function strategies because context is the one thing we can control. We can’t change our students’ brains or their developmental progression, but we can help create contexts that support our students’ successes.
For example, middle school and high school are times of tremendous change in students’ context. Students are doing many new and different things (multiple teachers, harder assignments, more independent work). It’s no coincidence that a lot of students become overwhelmed in these new contexts where they cannot keep up with demands.
Recipe for Success
Executive function strategies are developed in context. When executive function demands are matched by executive function strategies, students develop the executive function abilities they need to be successful. ALL students need to be taught how to engage and use executive function strategies to manage their work!
- Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate
*Shelly Levy is the Director of SMARTS Training & an Educational Specialist at The Research Institute for Learning and Development in Lexington, MA. She has been in the field of Special Education for over 30 years.
SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org
Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org