Executive Function and Equity
How Executive Function Curricula Can Help Level the Playing Field in Education
Executive function (EF) processes– goal setting, cognitive flexibility, organizing and prioritizing, memorizing, self-checking and monitoring – are critically important for learning and social behavior. This white paper explores the connections between EF development and equitable student outcomes. For the purpose of clarity, we examine equity through the lens of socio-economic status while recognizing the multi-faceted and intersectional nature of equity in education.
- Executive function mediates the relationship between academic achievement and socio-economic status.
- When teachers address students’ executive function deficits this helps to decrease SES related achievement gaps.
- A structured, systematic, and explicit approach to teaching executive function strategies empowers students to learn how to learn and fosters self-understanding.
Executive Function Processes: The Foundation of Academic Success
From the earliest grades, academic tasks require the coordination and integration of numerous processes as well as the ability to think flexibly and to self-check. Reading for meaning, solving math problems, elaborating in writing, summarizing, note-taking, and studying all require students to set goals, organize and prioritize information, shift perspectives, think and problem-solve flexibly, memorize, and self-monitor. These executive function processes therefore have a major impact on the accuracy and efficiency of students’ performance in academic and social situations (Meltzer, 2010, 2013, 2018; Meltzer et al., 2021).
Poverty and other socio-economic factors create toxic stress that affects many areas of executive function (Aran-Filippetti & Richaud de Minzi, 2012) such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition (Rosen et al., 2020). In fact, substantial gaps in working memory and cognitive flexibility among students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have been identified as early as second grade (Little, 2017; see Figure 1). A recent meta-analysis of 299 studies showed that there is a significant relationship between executive function skills and academic outcomes throughout elementary school (Spiegel et al., 2021).
Executive function (EF) scores by SES quintile (Little, 2017).
Note: The Numbers Reversed Task was used for working memory and Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) for cognitive flexibility.
Why It Matters for Educators
Research has shown that executive function mediates SES disparities in school achievement; therefore, interventions targeting executive function could help to close the SES-related achievement gap (Lawson & Farrah, 2017). In this regard, explicit, systematic teaching of EF strategies in the context of the academic curriculum can make a significant difference for children across the SES spectrum. Furthermore, EF strategy instruction can promote improved school performance throughout childhood and adolescence (Best et al., 2011) as well as increased persistence and resilience (Lawson & Farrah, 2017; Meltzer, 2013, 2018).
Data suggest that addressing students’ EF deficits may help decrease SES related achievement gaps (Lawson & Farah, 2017). Working memory, for instance, actually mediates the association between parent education and math performance (Waters et al.,2021). Similarly, the ability to plan in third grade mediates the income-achievement gap in math and aspects of reading (Crook & Evans, 2014).
Figure 2: 37% of the SES gap in middle schoolers’ math achievement is accounted for by EF (Albert et al., 2020).
What Educators Can Do: The SMARTS Approach
Teachers can address their students’ executive function challenges by using a structured, systematic, and explicit approach to help students develop an understanding of their own learning profiles and executive function strategies that match their profiles. Explicit instruction in executive function strategies is critically important for improving students’ effort, resilience, and academic performance (Meltzer, 2010, 2013, 2018; Meltzer et al., 2021).
The SMARTS Executive Function strategy curriculum is a research-based program that is designed to foster metacognitive awareness and executive function strategy use (Meltzer, Greschler, Stacey, et al., 2015). SMARTS Online addresses metacognitive awareness, goal setting, cognitive flexibility, organizing and prioritizing, accessing working memory, and self-monitoring. The SMARTS curriculum provides a structured, systematic curriculum that helps educators teach students effective executive function strategies. Hundreds of schools in 45 states and 25 countries utilize SMARTS as a tool to teach their students to learn how to learn.
SMARTS School Spotlight: The Arapahoe Schools
Two administrators from the Arapahoe Schools in Wyoming—Dr. Julie Jarvis, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, and Veronica Miller, Instructional Facilitator—emphasized how explicit teaching of SMARTS EF strategies has helped their schools serve “the whole child” and address the educational inequities their students face.
According to Dr. Jarvis, 99% of students who attend the Arapahoe Schools are from the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone tribes. She noted that the Native American population is the most underserved in Wyoming as well as in the United States. While the rest of Wyoming maintained in-person schooling throughout the pandemic, the Arapahoe Schools were fully virtual until February of 2021, widening the gap between students at the Arapahoe Schools and their peers.
At the Arapahoe Schools, language and culture preservation are priorities. It is vital that educators are aware of and sensitive to the historical trauma and language erasure that the Northern Arapaho tribe has faced. Dr. Jarvis commented that the Arapahoe schools use trauma-informed strategies to support students’ academic and emotional needs when students’ “fight-or-flight” responses are activated in order to engage students in learning and social activities.
Veronica Miller highlighted the ways in which SMARTS executive function lessons have helped Arapahoe Schools address socio-economic inequities. Goal setting exercises help students and teachers to create shared visions of continual academic progress. Lessons on planning and organizing teach students how to manage their workloads, and instruction on metacognition and recall strategies help students focus on important details while reading and learning.
Dr. Jarvis and Ms. Miller’s comments illustrate the tremendous potential of addressing executive function challenges to empower students to understand their own learning profiles and to develop the persistence and resilience needed for success in school and in life. With greater self-understanding and a toolkit of customized executive function strategies, students can find their personalized pathways to success.
What Teachers Can Do
- Promote students’ self-understanding by having them brainstorm a list of their strengths and challenges.
- Teach students to set goals and track their progress so they can visualize their improvement.
- Help students develop personalized toolkits of strategies they can use to succeed inside and out of the classroom.
Learn more about ResearchILD
Under the leadership of Dr Lynn Meltzer, ResearchILD has become a leader in the field of executive function strategies. Executive function represents a powerful tool for developing equitable and anti-racist educational systems. Through our longstanding work in underserved communities, we have worked closely with teachers and administrators to integrate executive function strategy instruction into project-based learning with an emphasis on student and community empowerment. In 2020, ResearchILD launched the Executive Function and Equity Fellowship, with the goal of helping educators from across the US and globe to address students’ executive function needs through an equity lens. Learn more about SMARTS and ResearchILD’s commitment to supporting educators in leveraging executive function strategy development as a tool for equity.
Albert, W. D., Hanson, J. L., Skinner, A. T., Dodge, K. A., Steinberg, L., Deater-Deckard, K., Bornstein, M. H., & Lansford, J. E. (2020). Individual Differences in Executive Function Partially Explain the Socioeconomic Gradient in Middle-School Academic Achievement. Developmental Science, 23(5).
Aran-Filippetti, V., & Richaud de Minzi, M. C. (2012). A Structural Analysis of Executive Functions and Socioeconomic Status in School-Age Children: Cognitive Factors as Effect Mediators. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 173(4), 393–416.
Best, J. R., Miller, P. H., & Naglieri, J. A. (2011). Relations between Executive Function and Academic Achievement from Ages 5 to 17 in a Large, Representative National Sample. Learning and individual differences, 21(4), 327–336. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2011.01.007
Crook, S. R., & Evans, G. W. (2014). The Role of Planning Skills in the Income-Achievement Gap. Child Development, 85(2), 405–411. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12129
Lawson, G. M., & Farah, M. J. (2017). Executive Function as a Mediator between SES and Academic Achievement throughout Childhood. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 41(1), 94–104.
Little, M. (2017). Racial and Socioeconomic Gaps in Executive Function Skills in Early Elementary School: Nationally Representative Evidence From the ECLS-K:2011. Educational Researcher, 46(2), 103–109.
Meltzer, L. (2010). Promoting Executive Function in the Classroom. Guilford Press.
Meltzer, L. (2013). Executive Function and Metacognition in Students with Learning Disabilities: New Approaches to Assessment and Intervention. International Journal for Research in Learning Disabilities, 1(2), 31–63.
Meltzer, L. (2018). Creating strategic classrooms and schools: Embedding executive function strategies in the curriculum. In Executive function in education: From theory to practice, 2nd ed (pp. 263–299). The Guilford Press.
Meltzer, L., Greschler, M. A., Davis, K., & Vanderberg, C. (2021). Executive Function, Metacognition, and Language: Promoting Student Success With Explicit Strategy Instruction. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 6(6), 1343–1356. https://doi.org/10.1044/2021_PERSP-21-00034
Meltzer, L., Greschler, M., Kurkul, K., Stacey, W., Ross, E., & Snow, E. (2015). SMARTS Executive Function and Mentoring Program. www.smarts-ef.org.
Rosen, M. L., Hagen, M. P., Lurie, L. A., Miles, Z. E., Sheridan, M. A., Meltzoff, A. N., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2020). Cognitive Stimulation as a Mechanism Linking Socioeconomic Status with Executive Function: A Longitudinal Investigation. Child Development, 91(4).
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