Executive function is a set of skills that stems from the coordination of three cognitive processes: cognitive flexibility, working memory and inhibitory control. These skills help us plan, focus, remember instructions and complete tasks. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to pay attention and switch attention from one task to another. Working memory enables us to mentally hold and process information, and inhibitory control allows us to stop an impulse and display a more appropriate response.
Executive function skills are foundational for success in education, employment, and in social situations throughout life. Executive function skills are important for many aspects of our lives, including:
Over the past two decades a strong body of evidence has developed demonstrating the importance of executive function skills across the lifespan. There also is a growing body of evidence on how to support executive function in young children and school students.
Executive function skills are particularly malleable in early childhood, but these skills can also be taught, practised and improved when children are at primary and secondary school. At the core of building strong executive function skills is establishing positive relationships with students. Modelling what strong executive function skills look like is also important as children and young people look to adults as a guide for their own behaviour. Teachers can support the development of executive function skills in their students by ensuring the classroom environment and programme are organised and well structured, by supporting students to be independent, and by involving families in the supporting and promoting the development of executive function.
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