Jamie Barber, Executive Skills Coach, New England Tutors
According to researchers Friedman, et al. in their article “Not All Executive Functions are Related to Intelligence,” the executive functions of planning, decision-making, and self-regulation have long been considered “hallmarks of intelligence.” Yet contrary to this belief, many students who have these deficits score well on intelligence tests. Those of us who work with students with executive function deficits, of course, don’t find this all that surprising. The title of Peg Dawson’s book Smart but Scattered sums it up succinctly. Many of the struggling “EF” students I’ve worked with show high levels of intelligence and interest, but their school performance is “scattered.” It doesn’t seem to reflect the intellectual capabilities I note when working with them one-on-one. In coaching sessions, these students can seem highly engaged with the material, but leave them alone to complete work and it is often left half-done, disorganized, or forgotten completely.
A good example of this is a high school sophomore I’m working with right now. I’ll call her “M.” She is currently in an English class that does not challenge her. Because of this, she asked me to design for her a small reading and writing unit based on a book of her choosing. This is extra work that she won’t get credit for in school. Work that she asked for! English, but the way, is the subject that she and her mother both reported gives this student the most difficulty. The work I’ve seen from this student has been high-level, and most of her course work comes back with a solid grade. There are some difficulties, of course, or I wouldn’t be working with her, yet her day-to-day school performance and her desire to work and learn even when schoolwork is spare, seem to reflect a high degree of intelligence. Yet, while she keeps up with her basic homework schedule, long– (or even short–) term projects seem to present her with (in her mind) a nearly insurmountable challenge. She seems unable to set up timelines for work, break an assignment into steps, and see the way small steps can cohere into the whole project. Her biggest challenge then, really, seems to be planning and prioritization. This set of EF struggles causes her a lot of trouble in terms of her school performance (when a project is assigned), yet it doesn’t get in the way of her actual acquisition of knowledge. This is, to me, a good example of how EF deficits can be a detriment to performance ability, but do not hinder intelligence or knowledge acquisition.
However, some EF deficits do hinder the acquisition of knowledge. Friedman, et al. looked at three executive functions—what they call inhibiting, shifting, and updating, and then compared them to research subjects’ overall intelligence. These researchers defined inhibiting as the ability to “suppress dominant or automatic responses.” This is the EF we often call “impulse control.” They define shifting as the ability to switch between tasks and still maintain a level of competency. What we might call cognitive flexibility. And then finally they defined updating as we would define working memory. It is the ability to store (or delete) new information as needed. According to the research, impulse control and cognitive flexibility ended up with little to no correlation with intelligence scores; however, participants with poor working memory often scored low on intelligence tests.
And yet we know that working memory ability is not static. Research has shown that working memory can be improved through exercise, good diet, and stimulant medication. I point this out because the term “intelligence” has often been used as a static term. Basically, it used to mean that a person either was or was not intelligent. Intelligence was not thought of as something that could be improved. But what we know about learning disabilities and executive function deficits make this idea now invalid. We know students with the right type of support do improve learning ability and test scores. So while working memory is important to knowledge acquisition, working memory itself is not static. It can be improved and that in turn can improve academic performance.
We at New England Tutors see all our students as intelligent and capable of learning. Our team of Executive Skills Coaches is skilled at building positive, safe and nurturing relationships. They are committed to helping our young students open up and get down to building their toolbox of life-long executive skills that will help them navigate successfully through school and life.