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Science For All

The Forgotten Factor

Executive Functioning and Success in the Classroom

Science Scope—March 2020 (Volume 43, Issue 7)

By Kaitlyn McGlynn and Janey Kelly

Imagine this: You worked tirelessly over the summer creating new opportunities to benefit students and help build independence and responsibility. Maybe you created a retake form or an outline for lab reports. But as the year progresses, you find that students aren’t taking advantage of their resources. You’re baffled: Why aren’t they going to your website, finding the appropriate resources, and completing them according to the directions?

At times, we catch ourselves or our colleagues saying things such as, “They must be lazy.” This seems like an easy way to rationalize this behavior, but that doesn’t make it right. Through reflection, conversations with students, and experimentation with other methods, we’ve discovered that the real reason is simply because their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed. Many experts believe that executive functioning skills—the skills that encompass our mental control and self-regulation—are controlled by the frontal lobe (DiTullio 2018). Since all humans are born without fully developed brains, children are not born with these skills, and may not develop them as fully as others over time (DiTullio 2018).

Executive functioning defined

Numerous work-related skills fall under the executive functioning umbrella, including organization, time management, work completion rate, attention to task, emotional regulation, empathy, self-awareness, and more. In addition, executive functioning skills are responsible for understanding the consequences of one’s actions. No wonder cognitive capability isn’t the determining factor of student success in the classroom. It doesn’t matter how intelligent a student may be; if students don’t have the skills to complete a task effectively and in a timely manner, their performance will not reflect their ability (Team 2019; Executive Function Skills, n.d.).

Helpful tips for the classroom

Figure 1
Student-friendly directions

Student-friendly directions

Figure 2
Approaches to support students in moving past problems

Approaches to support students in moving past problems


DiTullio G. 2018, November 9. Helping students develop executive function skills.

Executive Function Skills. (n.d.).

Hattie J., Fisher D., Frey N., Gojak L.M., Moore S.D., and Mellman W.. 2017. Sentence frames that can build metacognitive thinking. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Lynch M. 2018, September 18. 10 tools to help teachers develop executive functioning classroom skills.

Morin A. 2019, October 4. Classroom accommodations for executive functioning issues.

Rosen P. 2019, October 18. Working memory: What it is and how it works.

Spencer J. 2018, August 13. Five ways to boost metacognition in the classroom

Team U. 2019, October 16. Understanding executive functioning issues.

Citizen Science Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies Middle School

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