How Executive Function Links SEL/Academics

Author, educator and consultant Marilee Sprenger’s next book for ASCD will explore the connections between social-emotional learning and executive function. “SEL has students ready to learn, while EF is necessary for learning to take place.”

By Marilee Sprenger

Schools are working hard to harness the power of social emotional learning to ensure that all students learn in an environment that is welcoming, accepting, and safe. The strides that have been made affect every student and enrich the whole child.

Within the scope of SEL we find positive environments, relationship building, and supportive teachers who check in to see how their students are doing and feeling. We know these “backbone” elements of SEL will help students learn.

Yet there is one more area we need to address to make sure SEL programs also lead to academic success and the sense of self-efficacy that comes with mastery.

Even in our most positive and supportive environments, we still have students who have difficulty with academic content. Those students need what some of their classmates already have – executive function skills. There’s a connection between SEL and EF. SEL has students ready to learn, while EF is necessary for learning to take place.

Just what is executive function (EF)?

Executive function skills are the mental processes that enable students to plan, focus their attention, remember instructions, and get things done!

Air traffic controllers are often used as examples of individuals with strong executive function. But I like to use the example of a teacher who is juggling multiple students and meeting the needs of all of them. Our teaching brains must filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses. Imagine if each of our students had a learning brain with the same characteristics!

EF skills are not hard-wired in the brain. We aren’t born with them. But EF skills can be learned and must be learned for success in school and life. Under the right conditions, they can develop rapidly between the ages of 3 and 5, but we have many students who aren’t growing up in environments conducive to EF growth or who have deficits that prevent this skill development from occurring without supports.

As a middle grades teacher you will be happy to know that the brain’s push to acquire EF skills spikes during adolescence. Although this spike occurs naturally, it nevertheless needs to be enhanced, and the classroom is the perfect place in which to do this.

A closer look at what’s involved in EF

Executive function is a set of cognitive processes that not only provide the ability to control thoughts and behavior but also emotions. I like to concentrate on the following six:

  1. Attention and focus: The ability to tune in and stay on task.
  2. Working memory: The small amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks.
  3. Cognitive flexibility: The ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts or to think about multiple concepts simultaneously.
  4. Planning and organization: The ability to sequence your steps to reach your goal.
  5. Impulse inhibition: The ability to inhibit natural, habitual, or dominant emotional or behavioral responses in order to select a more appropriate emotion or behavior that is consistent with completing our goals
  6. Self-monitoring: How we understand our behaviors and how we adjust to make changes for the future.

Let’s take a quick look at each skill area, mention the SEL connection, and learn a few steps we can take to enhance EF development in those spiking brains.

1. Attention and Focus

The bottom line is that students can’t focus and attend if emotions get in the way. Self-management, the SEL competency, is necessary for students to attend. Emotions cloud that pre-frontal cortex, take up memory space, and keep kids in a “fuzzy” zone. If they can name their feelings they can handle them, so social awareness is necessary for this skill.  Then they can choose what they pay attention to. They are no longer prisoners in their own minds. It also takes impulse control to focus and attend.

Try this: chunk things down – this means give one direction at a time, use mini-lessons, set that timer. Some kids need to know that they only have to attend for a short period of time – practice makes perfect, incorporate some movement to give some bursts of oxygen and dopamine in the brain.

2. Working Memory 

Working memory lets us hold on to small bits of information – like being able to remember the rules of a game. The SEL competency that is relevant here is understanding social relationships and taking into consideration how others are feeling – viewing events from others’ perspectives and even make friends in the process.

Try this: shorter lessons, note-taking, and playing games like Concentration will all help students call on working memory and expand that space. Use mindfulness activities…this allows a student to begin to control their mind’s wanderings. I encourage middle schoolers to look at the importance of working memory in their lives. Do they need to remember directions to a party? Do they need to keep track of the “how-to” information in a videogame? By making it personal,  their brains and working memory becomes more important to them! Mnemonics and visuals can also help train the brain to use working memory and improve executive function.

3. Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility and SEL are an easy pair. “I can choose my responses or discover a new way to solve a problem. If I am aware of my feelings and my reactions, I can monitor my behavior so I don’t interfere with others in my class or group.”

I like to show kids how we can look at things differently using a deck of cards. I put them in small groups and hand each group a deck. I then ask them to sort the cards, without offering any specifics. Most groups usually decide to sort them in suits. Then I ask them to sort again in a different way. I get colors often this time. I keep asking. After three or four attempts, I begin to get some interesting points of view. Students become more flexible in their thinking as they discover hierarchies, sets, mathematical combinations, etc. From there we talk about cognitive flexibility and how we need it every day.

4. Planning and Organization

Helping students with decision making, an SEL competency, also helps with Planning and Organization, the EF skill. Planning/organizing requires a series of interlocked decisions. The SEL and EF skills go hand in hand throughout the process.

Use think-alouds and modeling. Some kids with poor EF skills need to hear and see why we do things. For instance, if you talk about why as you put your research paper in the orange folder in the file box on the table, they will hear that it is important if they do that and see how to do it.

Mapping out mini-deadlines for long term projects can help students grow their EF skills and  get better organized. A calendar of events or schedule within sight will help them. Having them create a personal deadline calendar digitally is another idea.  Put a timer in your room so kids can see how much time they have left for a task and coach them as they learn to plan accordingly.

5. Impulse Inhibition

It’s difficult for middle schoolers to not want to jump into a conversation with thoughts and ideas. But it’s vital for them to learn this skill. When we look at the SEL competencies of social awareness and building relationships, we understand that students will need to use impulse control throughout their lives if they want to interact successfully!

If you see kids exhibiting risky behavior, losing track of time, or having unrealistic expectations of themselves or others, they are showing signs of a lack of impulse inhibition.

Role play can be helpful here. Involving students in skits or other activities where they represent someone else who has to control themselves can provide practice and also insight, if the role play includes opportunities to experience the responses of others when they do inhibit impulses. Role playing can be done within the purview of content. ELA and social studies classes offer good opportunities, as well as theatre.

Prioritizing goals, removing distractions, and providing reminder cards to students can also be helpful in developing impulse control. I’ve used post-it notes that I place on a student’s desk that might say, “You have 15 minutes to complete your paragraph.” Give direct instructions to students as in “Derek will work on his essay and have it done by 3:15, and Alishia will organize the bulletin board labels right now while the rest of you read Chapter 2 and take notes.”

6. Self-monitoring

When students can self-monitor many other EF skills fall into place. It begins with the SEL competencies of self-awareness and self-management.  Self-monitoring is a metacognitive skill, and it will be helpful if your students know their strengths and their challenges.

Once they know what they need to work on (those challenges) they can develop their goals. It may begin with your coaching a student through a physical checklist of self-monitoring skills that includes things like: What were your goals today? Did you achieve them? How did you achieve them? Was there any part of your goal that you did not or could not achieve? What could you do to achieve this tomorrow?

Or you can turn these into “I” statements as part of a fill-in checklist and planning guide:

Your time investment will have a big payoff

As a middle school teacher for twenty years, I realize that this may look like an addition to all of the things you do each day (and each class period!). But if your students can learn these skills, your classroom will run more smoothly, there will be fewer distractions and interruptions, fewer teacher repetitions, and more will get done.

Just as SEL has improved the emotional climate in your room, incorporating executive function skills will improve the academic climate.

Marilee Sprenger is an international educational consultant in the fields of social-emotional learning, literacy, vocabulary, and brain research. Marilee was a classroom teacher for 25 years, mainly at the middle school level.

She is the author of Social-Emotional Learning and the Brain: Strategies to Help Your Students Thrive (2020) and other ASCD titles, including The Essential 25: Teaching the Vocabulary That Makes or Breaks Student Understanding (2021 – see her article). Marilee can be reached at Find all her MiddleWeb posts here.


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