The Academic Connection: What Are Executive Function Skills? (And Why Do They Matter)

by Maggie Wray of Creating Positive Futures for The Aha! Connection

As a parent, you’re likely very aware of the impact your student’s GPA can have on their ability to get into college, earn scholarships, and even save on car insurance. What you may be less aware of is the impact your student’s executive function (EF) skills can have on their GPA.

Studies suggest that students’ executive function skills can be a bigger predictor of grades than IQ. This is especially true in middle school and beyond, where students’ performance depends not just on grasping concepts but on staying focused, organizing their thoughts, planning ahead, and delaying gratification. 

What are Executive Function Skills, Exactly?

You can think of this set of skills as the “director” of your brain’s functions – similar to an air traffic controller or orchestra conductor. Some examples of EF skills include self-monitoring, controlling impulses, focusing attention, and regulating emotions.

EF skills develop with age and don’t fully mature until your mid-20’s, although they can continue to improve throughout life. Students develop EF skills at different rates—for example, students with ADHD often develop EF skills 3-5 years later than their peers. Because there are many EF skills, it’s common for students to have strengths in some areas of executive functioning and weaknesses in others. 

When to Focus on Building EF Skills?

Struggles with EF skills can show up in different ways. You may see a drop in your student’s grades due to missing assignments or poor study skills. You might notice them struggling with day-to-day skills like organization, time management, procrastination, motivation, focus, initiation, or impulse control. They could be excelling academically but getting stressed and overwhelmed by the effort it’s taking them to stay on top of all their commitments. Or it’s possible that your student is doing fine but you’re feeling overwhelmed by the level of support you’re providing for them and need to work on ways they can manage responsibilities more independently. These can all be signs that students could benefit from improving their EF skills.

If you’d rather be proactive with developing these skills, a good time to work on developing these skills can be a few months before a transition that will require them to take on more challenges or responsibilities – for example, the transition from 8th grade to high school, from honors to AP or dual enrollment classes, from high school to college, or from college to the workforce.

How You Can Help

The good news is that EF skills aren’t set in stone. Research shows that effective interventions to help students build executive function skills can significantly improve their academic success

Here are some strategies to try at home:

  1. Offer (just enough) Support: Employ what experts call “goldilocks” parenting, by offering the “just right” amount of support—not too much, not too little. This encourages your student to develop their own EF skills instead of relying solely on your assistance.
  2. Teach EF skills: Instead of assuming your student will naturally acquire EF skills, set aside time to actively teach these skills. Break tasks into manageable steps with clear instructions to (1) help them grasp the process, (2) give them an opportunity to practice along with you, and then (3) let them take the lead.
  3. Stay Positive: Developing EF skills is a process that takes time and patience. It can be easy for students (and parents!) to get discouraged and feel like they’re not progressing fast enough. As parents, you can help support your student by maintaining a positive atmosphere. If you hear them using negative labels to describe themselves such as “lazy,” or “unmotivated,” help them practice reframing these beliefs. To create an environment that’s conducive to growth and learning, look for opportunities to notice their strengths and comment on areas where they’re improving so they can see the progress they are making towards their goals.

Long-term Benefits

Executive function skills aren’t just for students, and they’re not just essential for academic success—they are truly life skills. Studies have found that EF skills can predict career advancement, health, wealth, and overall quality of life as adults. When you provide your student with the support they need to succeed academically, you are also helping to develop the foundational skills they will need to live happy, independent, successful lives.

Getting More Support

If your student could use some additional help developing these skills, Academic and Executive Functioning Coaches can partner with students and their families to provide the personalized guidance, strategies, and accountability they need to successfully reach their goals.  We’ve included some links below for some at-home and professional resources parents can use to help their students develop these skills. 

Additional Resources:

If you want more support – Free parent consultations for Aha! Connection subscribers