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

October 16, 2013

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
  • 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
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
; 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
. 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

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.
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!

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