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UDL in 15 Minutes with Karlene Warns: The Follow-Up

Executive functioning skills: Start early!

My podcast interview with Karlene Warns focuses on self-regulation skills, but in other conversations, Karlene and I talked about how important those skills are in conjunction with executive functioning. That’s probably why the smart people at CAST put them in the same row of the UDL Guidelines! Because you heard some great examples from Karlene of how she supports the development of her students’ self-regulation skills, I’m going to continue down the pathway of executive functioning so you can link them together.

Executive functioning (EF) is “the self-management system of the brain”. If you do a simple Google search of just those two words to get more information, you will see 113,000,000 results. One would need extraordinary EF skills to get through that list! (I admit it. That’s bad UDL humor). To give us direction, CAST broke down EF into four main areas that we can support in the classroom: guide appropriate goal-setting, support planning and strategy development, facilitate managing information and resources, and enhance capacity for monitoring progress. But Karlene is a kindergarten teacher. Do those students need to be so focused on such seemingly complex skills?

In those initial Google search results, you will find reports on a 3-year study that looked at how the executive functioning skills of kindergarteners were predictors of future academic outcomes. The authors (Morgan, Farkas, Wang, Hillemeier, Oh, & Maczuga, 2019) used modeling to show that executive functions exemplified by kindergarteners predicted academic outcomes in second grade. In another published paper on the same study, the researchers reported that children with EF deficits, especially in working memory, were at risk for repeated academic difficulties in future years. As a reminder, working memory is the part of executive functioning that helps us hold onto information in the short term so we can make it through an assignment or task. Why is this so important? Because there have not been many robust studies that have looked at the risk factors for repeated academic difficulties in elementary school. Moreover, this study looked at reading, math, and science. In short, executive functioning is a really, really important set of skills that deeply affect future success in academics.

Though I’ve only mentioned this one study, there is a significant amount of research that aligns with and backs up the idea that we need to provide our youngest students opportunities to build their executive functioning skills. Learners of all ages need guidance in how to set and achieve goals, plan out their tasks and choose a strategy to complete the tasks, figure out how to manage all of the information and resources coming their way, and continue to build their ability to monitor their own progress. So, can you work in this kind of skill building in the midst of heavy academics? Yes, you can! A more focused and purposeful approach like Karlene models with self-regulation is much, much more effective, but you can tuck activities and small tasks in here and there.

  • Edutopia offers a list of nine ways you can support students develop executive functioning.
  • LDonline offers some straightforward tips that can easily be nestled within your day-to-day work.

Because executive functioning skills are a major part of our daily success, there are tons of videos and articles written about it, but remember that all learners are variable and that variability is due to context. How does your context support your students to practice their EF skills? In each case, the focus should be on providing your learners with as many opportunities as possible to build these skills sets throughout their academic careers and help them understand that these are part of their own lifelong journey toward becoming expert learners.

Little girl with flower in her hair looking up and thinking

Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Wang, Y., Hillemeier, M. M., Oh, Y., & Maczuga, S. (2019). Executive function deficits in kindergarten predict repeated academic difficulties across elementary school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 46, 20-32.