Executive Functioning Skills, College, and Career Readiness


For the purpose of making the case, it is helpful to open this article by presenting a biological perspective. Sociologist find it important to define Nature (biological) and Nurture (environmental). The Nature versus Nurture perspectives of human development have been an unrelenting debate between natural and social scientists for decades.  Even though there will be comparing and contrasting as it relates to the differing points of view of nature/nurture, the purpose of this article is not to defend either side.  Instead, an attempt to simply describe and explain several dimensions of learning and intelligence will be the focus. Each one of the dimensions will be defined before elaborating on the two dimensions of interest.  The six dimensions are as follows:

  1. Physiological process: Having the ability to acquire information and achieve operates on a biological stage of cells, circuits, and chemical in the brain (Dickman, Standford-Blair, & Rosati-Bojar, 2004).  The brain has infinite ability for processing new and old information.  The human brain and body are the same.  One does not exist without the other.  The brain craves plenty of valuable nutritional care and exposure to social experiences (Dickman & Standford-Blair, 2009).
  2. Social process: As millions of years passed, human’s brain became rich in social experiences and instincts.  The human brain demands attention and belonging to other socialized brains. Social nature allows for memory, language, empathy, sympathy, collaboration, and reasoning. The social component of the brain is expectant, dependent, extended, and oriented to virtue (Dickman, Standford-Blair, & Rosati-Bojar, 2004).
  3. Emotional Process: This part of the brain focuses on attention, judgment, motivation, and reasoning. These are considered changes in the mind and body. Additional changes to be considered are fear, madness, happiness, and enjoyment are all associated with the emotional process (Dickman, Standford-Blair, & Rosati-Bojar, 2004).
  4. Constructive process: the ability to take in new information and use it to your advantage.  The brain embraces patterns for assembling meaning to the incoming information.  The constructed information is habitually and emotionally assessed to see if it is valuable (Dickman, Standford-Blair, & Rosati-Bojar, 2004).
  5. Reflective process: this is a very interesting makeup of the brain.  The brain has the ability to be manipulative, authoritative, collaborative or unifying, as well as promising.  Reflection manipulates information and check choices prior to taking action. Having the ability to be reflective allows the brain to problem solve, socially interact, and make decisions (Dickman & Standford-Blair, 2004).
  6. Dispositional process: the ever amazing brain has the capacity to display its intelligence abilities in a way that is macro, mandatory, and maximizing or minimizing.  The brain is capable of taking on macro patterns of thinking.  Thinking dispositions are biological in nature but advance through social experiences or environmental factors.  Man ability to think, acquire new information, and make new advances is realized to the level to which there is a productive disposition in the driver’s seat (Dickman, Blair, & Bojar, 2004).

The six dimensions described above are all important as it relates to intelligence and learning, nevertheless, I will focus on Physiological and Social nature of learning.  These particular processes of intelligence motivate me to learn more just as the brain intended, always in search of additional knowledge.  The more the brain adsorbs the more the brain is driven to absorb.

There is another part of the hemisphere I am concerned about known as the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is of importance due to the executive functioning of the frontal  lobe which is able to anticipate future consequences resulting from current actions, to choose between good, bad, better, best, deny inappropriate social actions, as well as, measure similarities and differences.  The frontal lobe impacts critical thinking, problem solving, and complex reasoning (Dickman, Blair, & Bojar, 2004).  Now that I have described the functions of the frontal lobes, I will focus my attention on Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder and weak Executive Functioning Skills.

Executive Functioning Skills

First, it is important for me to point out, my wife and I are educated parents of two young men. Educated parents who do not believe in snake oil remedies. Though both of our boys are great young men ages 17 and 21, one of our boys was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  ADHD is a highly genetic, brain-based syndrome that has to do with the regulation of a particular set of brain functions and related behaviors.  Research shows that those with ADHD have abnormalities in how the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine work to facilitate communication between neurons and activation of various brain functions. Differences in the communication route related to reward and consequence, a pathway involving dopamine activity (Volkow, et al, 2009) have been found to be particularly problematic in the brains of individuals with ADHD, as have brain networks involved in the engagement and regulation of attention. Disruptions in serotonin levels and activity may also play a role, particularly in affecting the modulation and regulation of the dopamine system.  There are skeptics who say ADHD does not exist. If ADHD does not exist, well I have no idea as to what my son and family have dealt with starting from kindergarten through grade 15th and most of all I guess Dobermans fly. Not only does it exist, its functions are in the frontal lobe of the brain. It is important for me to point out we are educated parents and have a more than average educational status with health care, dental, and vision insurance. I mentioned my status for the purpose of providing clarity. In other words, we have been blessed to provide the very best as parents and provide them with the best supports when needed. When we did not have the answers or concerns, we sought help. Skeptics also say ADD & ADHD are all due to poor parenting or uneducated parents. Well, we are not uneducated and though not perfect I would like to think our parenting skills were/are pretty good.

An exceptionally large portion of school age children suffer from poor executive functioning skills. Executive functions are found in the frontal lobe of the brain.  This is valuable information for all educators to understand. Understanding students’ disorders which may impact students’ academic performance and overall behavior, mandate teachers to know the readiness levels of their students for the purpose of differentiating classwork, homework, and understanding the whole child. Executive Functional Skills are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal.  “It is an umbrella term for the neurologically based skills involving mental control and self-regulation” (Kahn, & Dietzel, 2008, p. 10).

Dr. Gioia (2002), has identified and defined eight executive functioning skills that are essential to everyone, everyday, and every working moment.  Executive Functioning Skills are as follows:

  1. Inhibition—The capability to prohibit one’s own behavior at any giving time, this include avoiding inappropriate actions and thinking. However, there is another side to inhibition known as impulsivity.  If you have poor ability to prevent yourself from action on your impulses you are considered “impulsive” (Gioia, 2002).
  2. Shift—The ability to move at will from situation to another while behaving appropriately to the situation (Gioia, 2002).
  3. Emotional Control—Having the capacity to modulate emotional responses by bringing rational thought to bear on feelings (Gioia, 2002).
  4. Initiation— The ability to initiate a task or and to individually generate thoughts, responses, and problem-solving techniques (Gioia, 2002).
  5. Working Memory—Capacity to retain and recall information in order to follow through on a task (Gioia, 2002).
  6. Planning/Organization—The ability to oversee present and future-oriented task demands (Gioia, 2002).
  7. Organizational of Materials—Having the ability to be orderly on work, play, and storage spaces (Gioia, 2002).
  8. Self-Monitoring–The ability to measure self’s performance and to compare it against some standard of what is needed or expected (Gioia, 2002).

When students suffer from weak executive functioning skills as a result of nature, all responsible for educating the child in a given year, should be aware of the students’ disorder, disabilities, strengths, or weaknesses in order to effectively educate students.  For example, Differentiated Instruction is a research-based framework that puts a huge amount of attention on variance and diversity.  Differentiated Instruction is designed to properly meet students at their readiness level and nurture their learning towards the intended targets. Every hour on the hour, teachers are to be aware there are different groups of mixed-ability learners.  Therefore, superintendents, administrators, teachers and other stakeholders must ensure instructions are consistently adjusted to meet students’ readiness level (Tomlinson, 2000).  This is a non-negotiable.  Nevertheless, this can only happen if strong leadership is presence at the building and district level. To promote consistent and balanced effectiveness of “How we teach,” district and building administrators must allow for professional development, implementation of research-based strategies such as “Differentiated Instruction” and “Response to Intervention practices in each and every classroom, and ongoing collaboration with colleagues. Many times the collaboration opportunities must include teachers modeling proven techniques for one another.  Effective teachers should be knowledgeable of their subject matter and have the ability to use an array of instructional strategies to adhere to students’ culture and learning styles (Stronge, 2007). It is imperative for educators to adhere to students who suffer from disorders associated with the frontal lobe matters such as Attention Deficit Disorder or processing of information.  District administrators should regularly equip building principals with professional development that focuses on current research-based strategies which enables administrators to work with their entire building staff.  If students with Tourette are considered, it is important to know 70% of students who suffer from Tourette have other concerns such as learning disabilities, processing or ADHD.  More than not, boys tend to suffer from ADD as well as suffer from weak executive functioning skills and in many cases girls go unnoticed when there are concerns, because girls tend to be less active (Kahn, & Dietzel, 2008).  I find this to be valuable knowledge and information that should be used by administrators and teachers in order to meet students were they are both academically and socially.

The Social nature of intelligence is the next of six dimensions I care to expound upon.  The majority of learning comes from observation of others.  The brain has a craving to be social with other like brains.  Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do.  Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guided for action however, difficult for many students (Bandura, 1977, p. 22). These are only a few examples to describe the importance of social nature of intelligence.

Expectations of College

College can be the best four years of one’s life, however, it is a time when students must adapt to obscure situations filled with new challenges and barriers. This transition separates students from their childhood friends. Students are forced into challenging new task, roles, routines, and relationships. It is time for students to put into practice all of the social skills, norms, and expectations taught by their immediate family, because college life allows for more freedom, independence, and responsibility.

Students who suffer with weak executive functioning skills such as organization, working memory, planning, and self-monitoring will have an extremely difficult time in high school and this is especially true when attending college away from home.  Therefore, it is important for students with such concerns to disclose this information to the university staff. The majority of postsecondary systems take a Response to Intervention approach. However, colleges consider students to be adults and cannot mandate students to take advantage of the interventions provided by colleges. Students who suffer from weak executive skills tend to not reach their full potential if they do not take advantage of such offerings and opportunities by improving their weak EFSs and many consistently fail at task. This failure could also lead to learned helplessness and students may drop out of school. Therefore, superintendents, administrators, teachers, parents, colleges, and the community are all necessary elements for educating all, despite disabilities or disorders.  Cortese (2007, p. 1) states, “If we truly want to close the achievement gap we have to find ways to make sure children get a better-than-average education.”  I totally agree with Cortese.  I also understand this nurturing begins with parents, community, educators, and the CEO of the district.

Make no mistake about it, students who suffer from weak executive functioning skills should continue to work on their skills beyond college. The great news is there are interventions and strategies to help with these concerns.  If students disregard improving their skills, it is possible for students to have problems on their jobs and throughout their careers. Poor planning, lack of organization, and weak emotional control can very well lead to departure from school and jobs.

As parents who have a child who deals with ADHD, I find it important to enlighten others who have children dealing with the same concerns or similar concerns. As the adult it’s important to help your child with improving weak executive functioning skills. Parents must be organized and consistently clear for understanding. Work with experts and counselors who will provide the child and family members with strategies that help the child succeed. Family members must continue to be there as long as needed.  Finally, keep your child’s school and teachers in the know, especially if there have been noticeable changes in your student’s behavior or academic performance.


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Calvin, W. H. (1996). How brains think: Evolving intelligence, then and now. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Cooper-Kahn, J., & Dietzel, L. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House.

Cortese, A. (2007). Get real: Here’s the boost that poor children, their teachers, and their schools really need. Retreived January 5, 2012 form www.aft.org/news

Dickman, M., & Standford-Blair, N. (2009). Mindful leadership: A brain-based framework.Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Dickman, M., Standford-Blair, N., & Rosati-Bojar, A. (2004). Leading with the brain in mind: 101  brain-compatible practices for leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Gioia, G. (2002). New perspectives on educating children with adhd: Contributions of the executive functions. Journal of Health Care Law & Policy, (5), 124-163.

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Sherer, M. (2001). How and why standards can improve student achievement: A conversation  with Rober Marzano.” Education Leadership (September 2001): 14-18.

Stronge, J. (2007). Qualities of effective teachers. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2000).  Reconcilable differences: Standards-based teaching and differentiation. Educational Leadership, 58(1), 6-11.

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