Fresh Ideas About School Success

Winter 2012

By Catherine U. Burka

Think school success is mostly a matter of IQ? Think again. Worried that your child’s learning disability is a doomsday diagnosis? It doesn’t have to be. Think being an “average” kid will prevent your child from excelling in school? Not necessarily. Natural ability to learn is only part of the equation for academic success; motivation is another key. And neuroscience is shedding light on another group of mental capacities called executive functions — the self-governing, goal-directed skills that enable children to meet academic challenges and become independent learners.

Executive skills are different from intelligence — in fact, they steer it — and include adaptive attention, flexibility in problem solving, self-monitoring, adaptive inhibition of impulses, and the capacity to follow through with intentions. They function as the commander-in-chief of one’s resources by setting priorities; deploying attention; keeping goals in mind despite distractions; managing emotional reactions; and organizing time, responsibilities, and materials. 

To understand how executive skills differ from intelligence, let’s eavesdrop on a third-grade class, in which the teacher assigns everyone a chapter to read and questions to answer. From their intellectual resources, the students’ visual memory brings forth sight words while reading, their decoding skills break down unfamiliar words, their language comprehension skills process the text, and their memories store the material so that questions can be answered later. Simultaneously, executive skills enable them to start quickly, regulate their attention and speed, monitor their comprehension, re-read when necessary, and carefully pick answers from among multiple choices. At the end of the day, students must write down homework assignments, pack their bags, do the assigned homework, and turn it in the next day. 

Executive skills are continually challenged, and as students mature, academic success becomes even more dependent on their ability to supervise themselves for longer spans of time. Recent research comparing self-discipline to IQ in predicting high school achievement shows the former to be the clear winner. 

So what can parents do to foster executive skills as children move from adult supervision to self-supervision? 

• The rules you set, the routines you establish, and the expectations you project all lay the foundation for emerging executive capacities, communicating values and priorities that children will absorb. They are the boundaries of children’s choices. 

• When you impose firm, consistent, and fair discipline, you help children develop self-discipline. Rewards help jump-start internal self-governing actions. Negative consequences imposed with an even hand help children enforce limits on themselves. When discipline is applied, emphasis should be placed on the choices made rather than the child’s character.

• Parents concerned about helping their children develop executive skills without fostering dependency should think of such support as scaffolding, gradually removed as children’s skills develop. Research shows that, for many individuals, executive functions don’t fully mature until their 20s. 

• Collaborate with your child’s teacher to monitor, encourage, and reinforce executive functions. A taxonomy of executive skills gives parents and teachers a way to communicate about progress. Such collaboration is helpful in evaluating progress, coordinating efforts, and considering whether a problem is caused by immaturity or perhaps a disorder. 

• Natural consequences are excellent motivators for emotional growth. If the executive capacity is present, letting children face the consequences of their executive misdeeds may be the best incentive for improvement. 

• Recognize and acknowledge your child’s executive successes. Find out what strategies they used by asking “How were you able to do that?” Help them make the connection between executive strategies, success, and the rewarding feelings of independence. Many parents overlook opportunities to highlight these me-supervising-me moments and take them for granted. 

Through patience, monitoring, guidance, and collaboration with teachers, parents can aid their children in developing their own executive strategies, move toward self-supervision, and soar. 

Catherine U. Burka

Catherine U. Burka is the assistant director of Challenges Summer Program.