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Supporting Executive Skills in Students: Response Inhibition and Emotional Control

“Just wait until you get out in the real world!” Growing up I often heard adults repeat this adage; it was a statement that always puzzled me. If there was something that we needed to know/do/learn/master to be ready for the “real world,” what was it?  And more importantly, why weren’t they teaching it? Was this information buried between the content of our classes and left for us to infer?  

As it turns out, there are some skills that not only help you succeed in the real world, but are also critical for success in school. They are called executive function skills–and we should be teaching them in schools. In September, we had Dr. Peg Dawson visit to discuss those critical executive function skills and how to teach them.  

One of the earliest executive function skills to develop is Response Inhibition. Response Inhibition is the ability to delay a response–to think before you act.  Pretty straightforward, right? As it turns out, being able to control when you respond has enormous implications. Studies have shown that when you can do this at an early age, you are more likely to be successful later in life. If you haven’t heard of it, I would highly recommend reading up on the Stanford Marshmallow Study.

Helping students, and adults for that matter, learn this important skill takes time and some intentional work. As is often the case, the first step in addressing an issue is to recognize that it is, in fact, an issue! For instance, a student could sit down at a laptop to get started on his or her homework then promptly spend the next hour surfing the web or playing Minecraft without understanding why homework takes two hours to complete. The impulse to hop online is a challenging one to control. The technology escape is instantly gratifying and incredibly unproductive. When I’m working with students on this type of issue, I always start with collecting some data so that they can see the problem for themselves. Once you perceive the problem, you can work toward a solution.  

Once you identify a problem, then it’s time to set a goal–a SMART goal! If you’ve ever spent any time reading about goal setting, you’ve probably come across the concept of SMART goals. It’s a fun acronym for a meaningful approach to goal setting. A goal should first and foremost be Specific and Measurable. It’s hard to achieve something if you aren’t sure what you are trying to achieve or have criteria for what it means to make it. Next, a goal should be Attainable and Realistic. If a student is turning in 10% of their homework, then starting with a goal of turning in 100% of their homework is probably not realistic or attainable, so start with something smaller and work toward the goal of 100%. Lastly, a goal must have a specified Time period attached to it.

Dr. Peg Dawson also discussed the developmental role of Emotional Control, which is another executive skill. Emotional Control is the ability to manage and control one’s emotional response in a given situation. When students struggle with this skill, they will often explode over a small issue, be quick to show their frustration, or have difficulty determining the size of the problem. All of these things can lead to additional challenges when navigating school or trying to establish friendships.

There are a variety of ways to help students work through this, but I often start with the adults in the student’s life. I would want to incorporate parents as well as teachers in this statement. Children look to the adults they interact with for cues on how to respond; then they usually work to mirror those around them. They respond the way we respond! Therefore, it’s always important to keep our own emotions in check. From there, I think it can be helpful to model some positive self-talk so that they can see how you work through an issue and manage your emotions in the process.   

Stay tuned for the next Noted: LD blog post where I will cover additional ways to support executive skills in students.


Jamie Williamson, Marburn Academy Head of School