Executive Functions: Perspective of a Parent and Scientist
“We all want to guarantee our children will succeed in their careers and in their life projects. We want to make sure they will prosper. Let us consider the future then.”
September 13, my first Back to School Night at Khan Lab School. I arrive at the meeting and find a chair; it’s colorful and small. As I sit down, it dawns on me that this tiny piece of furniture is as wobbly and agile as my little two-year-old toddler.
Something about this youth-minded chair awakens my inner child. I struggle to exercise control over my impulse to swivel around playfully. It might end badly. If I do not contain my core (thank you, Joseph Pilates!) I may find myself on the floor...
I conclude that KLS is mindful of their students even when they buy furniture. I cannot be more impressed.
The whole scene is hilarious and I begin laughing in my head. How fun to be a child – how I wish once in a while to let go of all those inhibitions.
For decades, I have been maturing as a scientist. I grew a character equipped with all sorts of inhibitions, from self-editing to elevated attention regulation to calculated and deliberate literal and verbal expression. We all develop this as adults, and we hone it further to suit our practices. It’s part of what we call “growing up.”
Back in the room, the meeting starts, and Orly Friedman, Head of Lower School and current Interim Head of School, addresses the parents. She explains the rationale behind Independence Levels (ILs). That’s got to be important. I am sure Eden will be ahead there. She is, after all, the essence of independence. (As her mom I am, clearly, the essence of objectivity.) Orly goes on to say: “Parents are not to initiate requests to transfer between Independence Levels.” (Ouch, did I just think out loud?) “We want students to develop a sense of agency… the request for transfer should come from them.”
This gets me curious: what are those mysterious independence skills KLS cares about so much? What will our kiddos need to achieve to transfer to the next IL? I read the list of habits and realize, this is huge.
KLS has incorporated executive functions into their curriculum. Executive functions are used for thinking outside of the box – when autopilot just won’t cut it.
As a parent, I invest in education for many reasons. One is the future. We all want to guarantee our children will succeed in their careers and in their life projects. We want to make sure they will prosper. Let us consider the future then. The grossly automated, artificial-intelligence-swamped job market of the (near) future. This job market will require a whole different skill set than that provided by the traditional education system.
As a neuroscientist, if I could name the single most important thing to help kids survive, if not thrive in that job market, it would be strong executive functions: mental activities that we exercise to manage our behavior.
Scientists divide executive functions into three categories:
- Inhibition, which has two sub-categories:
- Inhibitory control is the practice of exercising self-control, whether it’s over emotions or impulses. For example: learning to not barge in in the middle of a sentence or waiting for one’s turn in a game. Another example is any occasion when you stop yourself from acting like a fool in front of strangers (see my chair incident above). Inhibitory control is very useful for staying on track with a task and avoiding switching to something more interesting.
- Interference control is the ability to remain focused amid distractions and direct one’s attention to a selected stimulus. This is also known as attentional control or attentional inhibition. It is important for staying on track with a task until completion, despite distractions. Another aspect of interference control is being able to suppress any old or new thoughts and ideas. This is very important when focusing on a task which requires working memory, such as solving a mathematical problem.
***Staying on task and avoiding errors of impulsivity all relate to being able to delay gratification. Children are prone to make errors of impulsivity and give the incorrect answer when tested in laboratory tasks. Scientists found that if you give kids the time, the prepotent response dissipates and the correct response can reach a threshold for action. Therefor if you allow kids to have more time and teach them to wait, they might take the better route of action. (Simpson et al., 2012). Children with better delay gratification early in life tested better decades later on various life success measures (see Stanford marshmallow experiment).
- Working memory - holding and manipulating information that is no longer present. It is important for language processing, doing math in one’s head, translating instructions into actions, and planning. Working memory allows us to relate new information to existing knowledge to derive new conclusions or a general principle. It is important when we need to remember our future hopes and interests to make a strategic decision.
- Cognitive flexibility - The ability to think creatively, view things from a different perspective, and rapidly adapt to changes. To be able to adapt to changes in preferences and priorities. To recognize and take advantage of an amazing new opportunity despite having prior plans.
These three executive functions support one another. Exercising inhibition control is vital for establishing working memory. We must suppress distractions to retain and manipulate information. In addition, to access cognitive flexibility, we need to be able to “reload” our working memory with new information that now alters our priorities for a new task that takes front stage.
Processing of executive functions (EFs) happens in the prefrontal cortex. This area is the last to develop from the age of 5 and well into our 20s. Better EFs are associated with higher quality of life. They are predictors for success in relationships and in the workforce. In fact, they are important for every aspect of our lives: relationships, physical health, mental health, school readiness, etc.
It is not surprising, therefore, that KLS groups students by levels of independence. These levels of independence set a bar for the kids to achieve certain standards of executive control. Once they reach that bar, they are deemed independent enough to transition to the next level.
Setting these bars of executive function standards allows KLS Advisors to assess, monitor, and encourage students to develop their executive functions. How do they do that? Let’s consider Independence Level 1 (IL1) for a moment. IL1 kids’ ages range from 5 to 7. Naturally, their knowledge and academic abilities vary. To get promoted (and yes, I did say “promoted”) to IL2, students must demonstrate proficiency in the following habits: following their daily learning plan, being able to focus for over 15 minutes, sharing resources, and more – all tasks that heavily rely on executive functions. As students move up in independence, they must demonstrate proficiency in increasingly challenging areas of comprehension, communication, self-knowledge, motivation, focus, collaboration, and management of time, goals, and resources. Essentially, KLS is asking students to demonstrate a specific level of EF maturity in order to be promoted.
Now, don't get me wrong. Traditional schools have been following EFs for decades. However, they have treated them as a sidekick and placed them in the back of a report reading, “listens attentively in class, comes to class prepared,” etc. These abilities were not paid attention to unless something was seriously wrong.
At KLS, however, students are purposefully asked to master EFs. Similar to the mastery-based learning KLS applies in content areas, in order to move forward in independence, a student must display mastery of their respective IL’s EF skills. And that is where the novelty arises from.
In committing to Independence Levels, KLS teachers and admin are consciously addressing issues that go far beyond nurturing and developing children's’ curiosity, creativity, love for learning, and knowledge. They are deliberately dealing with character building and important life skills. By doing so, they are putting EFs on the table for everyone – including the children – to see and discuss, challenge and improve. Now EFs have a place; they are part of the education process, and they do not somehow need to be developed on the side.
This is an education system with deep roots in neuroscience and a thoughtful outlook for the future of mankind.
Dana Kravchick, Ph.D is a scientist at SanBio and a mother of two young children. She was previously a research fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in New York and a research associate at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Dana has also served as a science mentor to young children at The New York Academy of Sciences and at Schmahl Science Workshops. She holds a Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, a master’s degree in Developmental Neuroscience from Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, and a bachelor of science in Biology from Tel Aviv University.
- Diamond 2011 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3159917/
- Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135–168. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750
- Simpson A, Riggs KJ, Beck SR, Gorniak SL, Wu Y, et al. Refining the understanding of inhibitory control: how response prepotency is created and overcome. Dev. Sci. 2012;15:62–73. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3405835/
- The center for developing child (Harvard) - https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/