DEVELOPING EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS IN ADOLESCENCE: PROMOTING SKILLS FOR SUCCESS

Written by Joseph D’Intino, M.Ed, Ph.D Candidate, McGill University

The typical routine of a high school student can get a bit hectic. There are classes to attend, homework and assignments to complete, extracurriculars to explore, and social circles to form. Balancing all of this can be tricky and requires skill sets that go beyond academics, such as planning, time management, organization, getting started, and goal-setting, among others. These skills can be captured by the umbrella term of “Executive Functioning Skills'' or “EF skills” for short. Although students are often expected to have strong EF skills, they are seldom taught explicitly and often, the skills are acquired slowly through trial and error, implicit lessons, and observing others. 

Why are Executive Functioning Skills Important?

Executive functioning skills are closely associated with academic performance. We can see these effects as early as kindergarten, where students learn to inhibit their reactions and start their work when instructed to do so. In elementary school, students gain more autonomy, and they develop planning, problem-solving, and organization skills. In high school, students rely on EF skills to succeed and meet their goals, as strong EF skills are linked to higher academic achievement, greater likelihood of post-secondary instruction, and better overall quality of life. For these reasons, a more deliberate approach to teaching EF skills is important as we help students prepare for the demands of life after high school.

How Can We Help Students to Do Better?

Research has looked at improving executive functions through a variety of methods, including computer programs, exercise interventions, and intensive coaching. The most promising research has occurred in schools where students were coached individually to improve their EF skills as they had the opportunity to apply the skills to their work in an authentic setting. There is also potential for evaluating how a universal class-wide approach could help students to better develop their EF skills at school. 

The Project

Over the next few months, some of the students at Elmwood will be participating in the Developing Executive Functions in Adolescence research project. As part of the collaboration between the Connections Lab at McGill University and Elmwood, teachers will be providing some classes with EF skills lessons and guided feedback. Teachers, parents, and students will be able to comment on student progress and habits via online questionnaires. Students receiving EF instruction will also be encouraged to set two goals, including one that focuses on improving an aspect of their academic performance, and the second that focuses upon developing a specific EF skill. Over eight weeks, students will receive targeted feedback from their teachers to help them achieve their goals. The project is expected to positively impact student performance and engagement while also providing insight into how EF skills can be effectively taught in classrooms. In this sense, Elmwood is leading the way in developing evidence-based pedagogy for improving students’ skills and outcomes. 

If you are interested in learning more, please register for a virtual Parent Information session by clicking here. You are also encouraged to reach out to me directly at joseph.dintino@mail.mcgill.ca if you have any questions or concerns.