Why Executive Function is the Bridge Between SEL & Academic Success

You’ve seen it on social media, news segments, and #teacherinsta – teachers greeting students at the door with individualized handshakes, students taking time to share stories about their lives at class meetings, or groups of students rapping together in unison when learning a new concept.  Beyond being engaging academically, all of these strategies also appeal to the strong desire for students to feel connected in the classroom. 


In recent years, there has been an increased focus in schools on the social and emotional development of children.  Classroom teachers, counselors, and administrators alike are spending more time implementing strategies to help students feel welcome in the classroom, engaged, and learn how to communicate their feelings effectively.  These skills are referred to as the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) of students.


Now, more than ever, teachers and administrators recognize the importance of creating positive environments for students’ learning. We’ve adjusted schedules in the classroom to accommodate times that students have to engage with peers and work on relationship building.  Furthermore, we’ve come to realize how many students are coming to schools with social and emotional needs that must be met prior to content area teaching.  Students who are supported and feel understood by their teacher and their peers are far more likely to be ready to learn new academic content. 


After addressing these SEL needs, teachers focus on delivering academic content to students.  Yet, they are still faced with students who struggle to stay organized, who find it challenging to plan ahead, and who have never been taught how to study.  We see these students struggle to maintain their grades, which in turn leads to more social emotional opposition within the classroom. The ability to manage oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal are often categorized under the term Executive Functions. 


Executive Functions are neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation, allowing students to manage time well, initiate and complete tasks, and retain emotional flexibility when approaching challenging assignments. When students struggle with Executive Functions, we might see them losing materials, procrastinating when studying or for projects, avoiding issues, and ultimately having feelings of frustration towards school. 


In classrooms, this results in teachers, who have spent time addressing social emotional needs of students, struggling to deliver academic content efficiently to the students who are not prepared to learn.  Unfortunately, even if students are “ready to learn” based on their SEL needs, students who are not “organized to learn”, based on their Executive Functioning needs, will continue to struggle with academic content. Thus, if students can develop stronger Executive Function skills, more learning can happen. 


Executive functions are the bridge between social emotional learning and academic content teaching; between being “ready to learn” and actually learning, students must become organized to learn in order to truly be successful.  We cannot ask students to retain academic content if they are feeling overwhelmed by materials, stressed about forgetting upcoming assessments, or unsure of how to properly prepare for assessments on their own.  Executive Functions are all skills that can be taught, practiced, and develop into habits which can be performed under stress. 


Changing and improving with Executive Function skills can help students experience less stress, fewer periods of emotional upset, and a greater ability to focus on learning.  Helping children establish habits now can have a long term significant impact on their success throughout life.


© 2023 Effective Students by W3 Connections Inc.