Executive functions are useful mental skills

Executive functions are a term used to describe a range of cognitive processes. These are conscious brain functions such as:

  • planning
  • prioritising
  • verbal-reasoning
  • problem solving
  • sustaining and switching attention
  • multitasking
  • initiating and monitoring actions.

In the past, programs and strategies to improve young people’s executive functions were developed for young people with identified challenges or diagnosed disorders. More recently, interventions to help executive function development for a more general student population have been put in place. Ten general principles have come from this research.

These ten general principles can be used when designing any interventions to develop young people’s decision-making skills and their ability to:

  • escape from the moment
  • plan for their futures
  • appropriately stick to, or modify, future plans.


1. Create a level playing field

Focus on improving young people’s executive functioning to help them make higher quality decisions and improve their outcomes in:

  • education
  • employment
  • health.

Evidence suggests that doing so will also help "level the playing field” between young people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, children from lower socio-economic status backgrounds tend to have lower levels of executive functions. Strong support will likely help them the most.


2. Continually challenge students at all ages

Research shows that continually supporting executive function development throughout all ages has benefits. Schools should be aware of the level at which individual students are working at and develop practices that are responsive to their needs.

In programs that successfully develop executive function skills the difficulty of the tasks increases with age.


3. Provide professional learning for career advisers and other educators

Programs around the world that have been successful in building the executive function skills have included professional learning for educators.

Other adults who support young people’s decision-making may benefit from learning more about executive functions. These include:

  • parents
  • mentors
  • industry representatives.

Professional learning would help them implement strategies and target the support they might give to young people during decision-making processes.


4. Encourage physical exercise

Research has shown that exercise combined with mindfulness leads to improved executive functioning in young people. Making sure students undertake frequent, regular physical activity for an extended period (at least 30 minutes or more each session) will improve their decision-making skills.

When children learn traditional martial arts such taekwondo that emphasise discipline and mindfulness, there are clear improvements across a range of executive function skills. In one study, each martial arts session began by participants asking themselves “Where am I?”, “What am I doing?” and “What should I be doing?” These questions were designed to give the children the chance to compare their behaviour to their goal, and make plans for improvement. This has clear implication for career planning. Other mindful practices such as meditation and yoga show an increase in executive function.


5. Use technology to train the brain

  • Some studies show that video games improve certain cognitive skills. These include:
  • working memory
  • some aspects of attentional capacity
  • problem solving.

For students who have low levels of executive functioning and find it difficult to make career plans and stick to them, technology may provide ways to break down the decision-making process and support students to implement plans.


6. Use broad approaches and lots of practice

Broad authentic approaches in which young people can practise their decision-making and planning skills are most likely to succeed. Students can do so through games and classroom activities. Repeated practice has shown to produce benefits.

Young people should practise using their inhibitory control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, decision-making and planning skills in a classroom setting.


7. Support wellbeing

Wellbeing plays a crucial role in executive function use and development. Executive functions are impaired by:

  • stress
  • loneliness
  • a lack of physical fitness.

Young people dealing with chronic stress, anxiety or worries find that it impedes their ability to learn, make decisions and plan. This makes it difficult for them to use their stop-and-think skills to plan effectively. Schools should create a safe learning environment to support young people in the development and use of their executive function skills.


8. Break down the steps

Some students may need support in breaking down the decision-making processes. Schools can support them by using:

  • organisers
  • memory aids
  • tangible reminders.

It is equally important not to break down tasks too much and to ensure that students are not constantly repeating low-level tasks when they could be doing activities that place more demand on their executive functions.


9. Have appropriate expectations

Some young people will find themselves in situations where they need to make decisions and plans about their careers even if they may not have the cognitive skills to do so. In these situations, it is important to support the decision-making itself.

Students should feel supported in the learning environment. If the demands on their executive functions are too great, they will feel stressed and less self-confident. It's best to make sure that the decision-making and planning they are asked to do is stretching but not overwhelming them.


10. Avoid categorisation

Any kind of categorisation can limit students’ outcomes and possibilities. Schools should discourage categorisations on the basis of sex, gender, or ethnic origin and should adopt a proactive approach to developing young people’s self-concept.

Students shouldn’t use categories to define who they are or could become. Schools should equip them with more future-oriented approaches. Young people’s view of themselves as learners impacts upon their educational outcomes and the career decisions they make.