Executive Functions: Tips for Middle School Families

By Amy Racanello


What are executive functions? Executive Function refers to the group of higher order processes that work in an integrated manner. Executive functions enable individuals to act in an organized, efficient, self-regulated, and goal-directed manner, as well as allows individuals to process and produce abstract and creative thoughts. Depending on the goal of an activity executive functions work singularly and/or in tandem; thus, one executive function may be developed while another may not.


Currently, expectations put on students exceed their developmental capabilities, especially with regard to executive functions. For example, often middle school students are expected to manage and keep track of multiple assignments, have efficient time management skills, and have established study strategies. Research, however, suggests that these neurocognitive functions, specifically, executive functions, are not fully developed until individuals reach late adolescence, and even young adulthood. As a result, some of the expectations that we place on middle and high school students are pretty lofty, and students need tangible direction, patience, and support to meet the goals of others and reach their academic targets.


For students to reach their potential, they will benefit from having a thorough understanding of how they think and learn. One of the most critical aspects of this is a student knowing how to effectively study. For example, some students are able to “listen” to the teacher and have immediate and delayed recall of the presented material, other students need to rewrite and recite lecture and text material to learn and recall it, while others need to rewrite information multiple times and actively study material for a number of days.


In addition to knowing how to effectively learn and study, students benefit from successfully shifting their thinking and being cognitive flexible, being organized and knowing how to prioritize, and adequately self-monitoring. Strategies for each these skills are dependent and individualized to academic areas, students’ developmental level, and task goals, but some general techniques can be useful and two are discussed: Cognitive Flexibility and Self-Monitoring. Children and adolescents can foster cognitive flexibility by through family discussions, riddles, and jokes about the ambiguous meanings of words and phrases, learning to shift thinking when playing Scrabble, and when completing Sudoku puzzles. Students of all ages can benefit from improved self-monitoring skills. As previously indicated, middle and high school students will likely need support to develop adequate monitoring skills. To support your student’s self-monitoring, you can review study guides and notes to ensure that he is not attempting to learning everything for an exam or too little. It is critical that students learn to study actively, review all that they need to know for an exam, and learn and review any topics/information that they have not yet learned/mastered. Parents can also help create tangible study plans, by setting timers that include active study time and built-in breaks for exercise, relaxing, and having fun.


Amy Racanello is a licensed psychologist and has an educational services and tutoring practice that offers tutoring and test preparation, as well as comprehensive school neuropsychological evaluations.