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Wellbeing and Executive functioning

Wellbeing and Executive functioning

It goes without saying that as parents and educators we want our children to be happy , succeed in life and be good people.

Mental and emotional problems like distraction, anxiety and depression, loneliness, and a lack of purpose are already affecting children’s wellbeing and learning. Despite the advances in wellbeing research we lack strategies to deal with them personally, in education, and as a society. We need to learn how to be more human; better able to understand these issues and empower our children to become the architects of their own wellbeing and success.

Unfortunately most schools are teaching how to achieve success through acquiring knowledge and showing discipline and wellbeing its something “nice to have”. Saying that, there are some good examples of schools tackling wellbeing as a whole school approach and helping young people to improve their wellbeing and their mental health, just as they do with physical health. However, in the current climate schools find difficult to prioritize wellbeing and if they do its ad-hock and not always cohesive.

Minor changes, however, could enable schools to begin to think about managing wellbeing with some positive results. But wellbeing is more than just feeling good, it depends on opportunities to learn, to connect, to live without excessive stress, and to maintain body, brain, and mental health. Each of these crucial elements of wellbeing profoundly affects the others and we need to act now.

Research shows that wellbeing affects attendance, productivity, new skill learning and the ability to adjust to change at work and/or school. Only in the last few years anxiety and depression have led to a mental health pandemic and have compromised many more lives. Associated financial and emotional costs are significant—including the loss of productive human capital, the impact on families, and the associated health care expenses.

However, development of student’s executive cognitive function skills is essential for achieving wellbeing outcomes and it doesn’t get the attention needed.

What are executive function skills?

Executive function is a set of cognitive skills that are needed for self-control and managing behaviours. These skills include self-control, working memory, and mental flexibility. Such functions allow people to do things like follow directions, focus, control emotions, and attain goals. In simple terms, help children to ‘stop and think first’.  The three main components of executive function are cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control and working memory. Cognitive flexibility, particularly in young children, is related to the ability to stop and transition to another activity, and it includes the ability to know what to focus on and resist distractions. Working memory is the ability to take in, retain and use instructions (for example, keeping multiple sequential steps in mind). Inhibitory control is the ability resist acting on impulse.


Strong Executive Function skills are integral for children to overcome small stressors or big challenges while also remaining calm, engaged, and stress-free.

Why is executive function important?

Executive function skills are a foundational set of skills that set children up for success without compromising their wellbeing. Executive function can be seen as the ‘how you learn’ skills that help children take in what they learn and it is also deeply related to emotional wellbeing, and emotional regulation relies on executive function skills.

EF capacities enable the prefrontal cortex to play a regulating role when a student is faced with an emotional trigger whilst cognitive flexibility allows students to have empathy for another’s perspective and/or acknowledge their part in a conflict. Research highlights that children’s capacity for self-regulation, emotional management, and empathic positive relations is as critical as subject content instruction to academic performance.

For teachers: three ways to support children to practise and use their executive function skills

It is important to focus on strategies that improve executive functioning skills. Because executive function skills are so crucial to children’s ability to thrive at school and in life, they need to be taught, practised and reinforced in multiple ways and multiple contexts.

1.  Embed routines and activities for developing executive function in existing programmes throughout the day rather than trying to teach it as a discrete set of skills. One of the most effective strategies is to ‘speak your inner voice out loud’ or communicate your thinking as you do things. Music, songs, rhymes and games are also strong tools for developing executive function.

2. Supportive relationships are essential to developing executive function. Teachers can co-regulate and scaffold children to use their executive function skills without prompting by setting up the learning environment appropriately. Visual cues can be useful to reinforce verbal instructions and cues, particularly when an activity has multiple steps: for example, a poster that explains the steps certain tasks, and teachers could refer to it explicitly when children need to learn that task

3. Shared attention is an excellent way to develop cognitive flexibility. Memory games, such as remembering a set of objects or remembering the instructions in a game, are useful for building working memory. Freeze games are useful for developing inhibitory control, particularly when the instructions become increasingly complex as the game proceeds.

Therefore, strengthening children’s executive function skills is both a primary prevention and an early intervention and should be considered as a necessary part of the continuum of mental health interventions in schools.

For parents: three ways to support children to practise and use their executive function skills

1. Use children’s innate drive for mastery and control; From young age children work hard to control their own lives. Support this by creating routines and schedules so they will know what to expect. Build in choices to give them some control. Practice difficult tasks in small steps, increasing demands gradually, and using negotiation rather than authority.

2. Provide the minimum support necessary for success; As parents often provide too much or too little support. In either case, children do not develop the ability to perform the task independently. Try to ascertain how far your child can get in a task without help and then intervene. Do not do the task for her; offer enough support (physical or verbal, depending on the task) to get her over the problem and moving toward success.

3. Encourage self talk (metacognitive strategies); Metacognitive thinking teaches us about ourselves. Thinking about our thinking creates perspective — perspective that leaves room for change. One of the most powerful by products of metacognitive thinking is increased self-regulation. So how do you help your child start becoming more meta? Give children  space to reflect on his thinking: Can you tell me more about why you think that? Ask them to think about their behaviour as this can help them learn to manage difficult situations in a better way. Encourage children to think how to use their understanding to change things in the future: How could you handle that differently next time?    

Final Thoughts

Building children’s EF skills provides a strong foundation for their emotional intelligence, allowing them to pause, focus their attention, plan, and remember their intentions. The biggest block to supporting EF in children is simply: not knowing what executive functions are.

I hope this article, has brought to your attention what executive functions are and the important role they play.

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Written by Gilda Scarfe. Gilda Scarfe is the CEO and Founder of Positive Ed, a leading global education consultancy and people development training company founded in 2014.

Gilda is trained as a teacher, lawyer and positive psychology practitioner with a Masters in Education and a Doctorate in the conceptualization and application of mental toughness in education. Her research interests focus on building mental toughness and executive functioning in students and building a reliable measurement to evaluate it

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