Executive functions control our thoughts and feelings, and allow us to make sense of information and adapt our behaviours. They help students develop essential skills such as reasoning, collaboration and conflict resolution. Low levels of executive functions have been shown to affect many life factors, leading to worse health, wealth and resilience.
The good news? Executive functions can be improved. Let’s take a look at what activities students can do to improve their executive functions.
What are executive functions?
Executive functions are a set of mental skills that help us to control our behaviour. They allow us to plan, pay attention, concentrate and multi-task. They can be divided into three main functions:
- Inhibition – This is our ability to control our impulses. Inhibition is responsible for things like self-control, discipline, staying focused, and emotional control.
- Working memory – This is our capacity to remember information. This involves making sense of information, language and comprehension
- Cognitive flexibility – This is our ability to adapt our behaviour and change our perspective.
Executive functions form the basis for higher-order thinking. These are cognitive processes such as comprehension, reasoning and evaluation.
What are the benefits of executive functions?
Research has shown that lower levels of executive functions tend to lead to poorer life outcomes. What are the effects of each?
- Inhibition – One study showed that lower levels of inhibition resulted in worse health, lower finances, and a higher likelihood of committing a crime.
- Working memory – Better working memory has been linked to better academic success in another study.
- Cognitive Flexibility – Research has shown that cognitive flexibility has been linked to higher levels of resilience.
Since high levels of executive functions are so beneficial to a range of life outcomes, improving them as early as possible is key. So, how can we improve executive functions in students at school?
What activities improve executive functions?
Executive functions can be improved in many ways. Let’s take a look at some activities that students can do to boost their inhibition, working memory, and cognitive flexibility…
1. Engage in physical activity, particularly martial arts and yoga
Physical activity has repeatedly been found to increase a range of executive function. Schools should encourage not only physical activity, but also sports that involve a combination of exercise and mindfulness, such as yoga and martial arts.
Although research has shown that regular aerobic exercise improves inhibition and working memory in adults, these effects have not been researched much in children and adolescents. However, one study looked at how martial arts, specifically Tae Kwon Do, can improve executive functions in children. Research has also shown the benefits of yoga on executive functions in young adolescents.
2. Play music
Research suggests that taking music lessons and learning an instrument can improve executive functions. Toddlers who took part in a music class once per week showed an improvement in inhibition and planning skills. Another study suggests that people who have at least eight years of musical training, and trained between six and nine hours per week on average, have better working memory than those who have no musical training.
Schools should encourage students not only to take up a musical instrument, but also to commit to playing one long-term to maximise improvement in executive functions.
One study looked at the effects of art forms such as visual arts, theatre, poetry, music, and photography on students’ executive functions. Results showed that when students took part in 4 hours of art activities per week, they improved significantly on:
- Conflict management
These are all important for the development of executive control and metacognition.
Schools should place a high importance on the arts, training teachers and artists on how to develop art activities that are designed to improve executive functions. Teachers should also encourage students to take on art classes, even if they don’t think of themselves as particularly artistic.
Executive functions are important to nurture. Students' inhibition, working memory and cognitive flexibility can be improved with time and by engaging with the right activities. This process may happen naturally over time and through maturity, but can also be accelerated by physical activity such as yoga and martial arts, music and the arts.