Do you have a gifted child that struggles with organization, time management, or maybe writing skills? While most gifted children have the potential to excel academically, many face difficulties with routine tasks such as paying attention in class or completing homework on time. These difficulties may place barriers in the way of them achieving their potential.

Did you know that most of these difficulties come down to underdeveloped executive functioning skills?

 

What are executive functioning skills?

Executive functioning skills are the mental processes that enable us to accomplish various fundamental actions, such as planning, focusing attention, remembering visual details and instructions, and switching tasks. When your child raises their hand before asking a question in class or tidies their room before being asked, they are using their executive functioning skills!

We are not born with executive functioning skills, only with the ability to develop them. These skills all develop at different rates and typically develop most rapidly between ages 3-5 (Carlson, 2005, Jones, Rothbart & Posner, 2003). Due to neuroplasticity (which is the ability of the brain to change and adapt), however, these abilities remain moldable for many years afterward. Since neuroplasticity is higher in childhood and adolescence than in adulthood, interventions that aim to improve executive functioning skills in children and teenagers can be quite effective. (Karbach, 2015).

According to psychologists, some children may need more support than others to develop executive functioning skills. Adults can help young children develop their executive functioning skills by establishing routines, modeling social behavior, and creating and maintaining supportive, reliable relationships.

Research shows that children who have well-developed executive functioning skills are often more successful academically. A meta-analysis of six studies found that a child’s executive functioning skills in kindergarten predict their reading and math achievement in middle school and later (Duncan et al., 2007).

GT kids often have underdeveloped executive functioning skills precisely because they have had less need than others to develop them! For example, GT kids may struggle with initiation because they have always been able to complete projects at the last moment, and well. They may not have developed time management skills because their homework has always taken them very little time to complete. Or they may not have needed to pay attention in class, since they already know most of the material being taught.

 

Important executive functioning skills for GT kids

Researchers generally agree that there are three core executive functioning areas (Lehto et al. 2003, Miyake et al. 2000) (see Figure 1):

  1. Working memory– Working memory is the small amount of information held in the mind and used to execute cognitive tasks (Cowan, 2015).
  2. Cognitive flexibility– Cognitive or mental flexibility is the ability to appropriately adjust one’s behavior to a changing environment. It includes both the ability to disengage from irrelevant information in a previous task and the ability to focus on relevant information in a forthcoming task (Dajani and Uddin, 2015).
  3. Inhibitory control– Inhibitory control, or self-control, is the ability to inhibit automatic but incorrect responses or to resist interference from distracting stimuli. Response inhibition and interference control are two main types of inhibitory control (Tiego et al., 2018).

Figure 1

Source: from “Cerebellar-Subcortical-Cortical Systems as Modulators of Cognitive Functions” by S. Clark, E.Semmel, H. Aleksonis, S. Steinberg & T. King, 2021, Neuropsychology Review. 31.

The three main areas of executive functioning work together to create a wide array of executive functioning skills. 10 executive functioning skills which we think are essential for GT kids to master are:

1. Attention

Attention is the ability to focus on a task or person for a period of time. When students are able to do this and ignore distractions they understand concepts more easily and accomplish tasks more efficiently. Developing attention is important for GT kids to ensure that when they eventually encounter concepts that are challenging to them (whether in high school, college, or postgraduate studies), they have the focus they need to learn those concepts.

2. Inhibition

Inhibition is being able to control one’s thoughts and actions. Inhibition is important for GT kids as it ensures they can develop better relationships with others and allows them to make better life decisions. For GT kids, inhibition and related self-discipline are important to develop because they enable positive habits to form, such as daily studying. These habits will help them when they encounter material or tasks that are challenging to them (whether that is soon, or not until they enter college or postgraduate studies).

3. Working Memory

Working ability is the ability to hold things in mind when they are not present. GT kids who have strong working memory skills can accomplish tasks quicker and more effectively.

4. Initiation

Initiation is being able to independently start tasks. Initiation, in conjunction with inhibition, plays a role in self-regulation and discipline, helping GT kids to develop positive work and study habits for their long-term success.

5. Emotional self-regulation

Emotional self-regulation is being able to manipulate your own emotional state. This is important because when GT kids have emotional self-regulation, their emotions do not rule them and prevent them from accomplishing tasks or developing good relationships.

6. Self-awareness and monitoring

Self-awareness is the ability to assess one’s performance and be aware of one’s thought processes (metacognition). It helps GT kids to realize what they know and what they need to learn yet. When a student is gifted, they may be tempted to assume that their knowledge or abilities are greater than they actually are, since things come so easily to them. Self-awareness prevents this and enables GT kids to achieve excellent performance through closing any knowledge or ability gaps they may have.

7. Flexibility

Flexibility is being able to think and adjust as situations change. It is a skill that helps GT kids figure out alternative solutions to problems and manage stress in tough situations.

8. Planning and Organization

Planning and organization skills are needed to keep track of priorities, plans, and materials. When GT kids are organized, they can think more clearly and when they face more challenging tasks and assignments, they are less likely to find them stressful.

9. Time Management

Time management means being able to use time efficiently to complete tasks. This is important for GT kids as it makes it easier to accomplish tasks both efficiently and well. When they become involved in more extracurricular activities or face an accelerated curriculum, GT kids will no longer be able to do their projects at the last minute and will need to call on time management skills to ensure they complete everything they need to in the time allotted.

10. Perseverance

Perseverance is the ability to keep working until the completion of a goal. When things naturally come easy to GT kids, they may not develop the perseverance they need to face much more difficult tasks and achieve more challenging goals, so learning perseverance is important for their long-term success, whether in school or work.

 

How gt.school develops executive functioning skills

Executive functioning skills are central to the way gt.school has designed its curriculum. We not only teach GT kids academic concepts but life skills that set them up for long-term success.

In our Life Skills Challenge, we teach GT kids 5 core Life Skills to impart the habits and growth mindset that build a foundation to unlock their potential.

All of these Life Skills encompass various executive functioning skills. We teach:

  1. Taking Ownership– we help students dig deep to identify areas they are truly passionate or excited to learn about, so that they begin to take ownership of their goals and learning path. Taking Ownership develops students’ initiation, self-awareness, planning and perseverance.
  2. Ambitious Goals– we are strong believers in the transformative power of big goals, and we teach students our framework for evaluating and stretching goals to the point of inspiration and excitement. Ambitious goal setting exercises GT kids’ self-awareness, initiation, organization skills, and perseverance. Research shows that goal-setting is very effective for developing initiation and self-monitoring skills (Surr, 2018), and difficult goals actually work better than easy or “try your best” goals (Locke et al., 1981).
  3. Learning to Learn– we teach students how to learn new skills and subjects using the plentiful resources available to them, and show them that what they want to learn is entirely up to them. Learning to Learn is a Life Skill that develops GT kids’ self-awareness, initiation, and flexibility.
  4. Mastery Mindset – this Life Skill emphasizes mastering basics before moving on to subsequent skills or steps. It strengthens the executive functioning skills of attention, self-awareness and perseverance.
  5. Daily Practice– we teach students how to develop healthy study and time management habits. Daily Practice develops GT kids’ initiation, self-monitoring, time management, planning and organization and perseverance!

GT kids in our program also receive personalized coaching. Our coaches are experts in motivation, effective habits, and Life Skills. They know how to overcome obstacles to achieve high goals. Our coaches provide personal support to help GT kids establish and develop their executive functioning skills.

Extracurricular activities can also provide ways to improve executive functioning skills, and at gt.school we encourage students to become involved in activities they are passionate about.

Research shows that martial arts, yoga, and group sports help improve students’ ability to focus and control themselves (Diamond, 2011). Sports require children to think of the rules and possible strategies, adapt flexibly to others’ actions and monitor their own performance and behavior. Physical activity is also important for getting oxygen flowing to the brain, which is essential for children’s executive function development (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University).

Learning to play a musical instrument or sing challenges children’s working memory, selective attention, cognitive flexibility, and inhibition, especially when they are playing or singing complicated pieces that involve multiple parts, sophisticated rhythms, and improvisation (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2014)

Board games and video games have also been shown to improve attention, cognitive flexibility, and working memory (Basak et al. 2008, Green et al. 2012, Strobach, French, and Schubert, 2012). In fact, we think video games can have many educational benefits for GT kids!

Research has shown that there are many ways in which executive functioning skills can be exercised and improved. Gt.school incorporates training in executive functioning skills and life skills to give GT kids the best possible foundation for success!