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Executive Cognitive Functioning and Education A Presentation to the Stanley Teacher Preparation Program January 30, 2014.

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Presentation on theme: "Executive Cognitive Functioning and Education A Presentation to the Stanley Teacher Preparation Program January 30, 2014."— Presentation transcript:

1 Executive Cognitive Functioning and Education A Presentation to the Stanley Teacher Preparation Program January 30, 2014

2 Overview Prefrontal cortex anatomy and connections What are executive cognitive functions? Damage to the prefrontal cortex Research on Executive Functions (EF) Executive Functioning in School Strengthening EF Neuroplasticity Habits State and EF

3 Consider what it takes to be successful/happy: Creativity –New ideas/hypotheses –Divergent thinking – thinking outside the box for new approaches Flexibility –Seeing an opportunity and seizing it –Being able to change course/react to change Self-control –Think before you speak or act –Resist temptation/control impulses Discipline –Make a plan and stick to it –Focus despite distractions These are all Executive Cognitive Functions.

4 Executive Cognitive Functioning Initiating, prioritizing, strategizing & sequencing Regulating alertness, managing time Working memory Self-monitoring & self-regulation (insight, error detection, behavior modification, impulse control) Focusing and maintaining attention Flexible response to novel situations Using intentions to engage in purposeful activity Managing frustration and regulating emotions Active problem solving Capacity to generate information

5 Anatomy of Executive Functioning Many regions of the brain are associated with executive functioning. Primary area is the prefrontal cortex (PFC) Other areas affecting/affected by executive ability include: –Cerebellum –Basal ganglia –Thalamus


7 Who/Where/What is the Executive? The prefrontal cortex is involved in the temporal organization of behavior. The prefrontal area combines working memory with long-term memory, current behavior, and both short- and long-term goals. These are referred to as the executive functions. But there is no “executive” in the brain, and nothing to regulate behavior. The brain and behavior are both self-organizing systems.

8 Your prefrontal cortex links information back and forth across other brain regions and has the vastest neural network and the most reciprocal interconnections with other brain structures. “All neural roads eventually lead to the frontal lobes.”

9 Basic Function of Prefrontal Cortex The prefrontal cortex provides cognitive control of behavior, so the right behavior is selected at the appropriate time and place. The prefrontal cortex plays a major role in an individual’s ability to regulate his or her behavior. When the prefrontal cortex is injured, people can’t plan, anticipate consequences, initiate purposeful behavior, inhibit irrelevant behavior, or monitor themselves.

10 Damage to the frontal lobe Phineas Gage –Crew foreman for Rutland and Burlington Railroad mid- 1800’s –Tamping rod exploded through his eye socket and a subsequent infection was presumed to destroy much of his frontal lobe –While recovery seemed normal, his “personality” was vastly changed Gage is “fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference to his fellows…devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible.” »- JM Harlow, 1868 (Gage’s physician)

11 According to V.S. Ramachadran in The Tell-Tale Brain, the prefrontal cortex affects “many of the most quintessential attributes that define human nature: ambition; empathy; foresight; a complex personality; a sense of morality; and a sense of dignity as a human being”.

12 Predictive Power of Executive Functioning Walter Mischel’s 1968 Marshmallow Test In the follow up in the 1980s, the children who participated in the original research were teenagers. Mischel found that those who were not as good at delaying gratification were much more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention in class and had serious problems with their temper. The difference between a child who could only wait thirty seconds and a child who could wait fifteen minutes was that the high-delayer had an SAT score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than the kid who couldn’t wait. Most recent follow up: Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later B. J. Caseya,1, Leah H. Somervillea, Ian H. Gotlibb, Ozlem Aydukc, Nicholas T. Franklina, Mary K. Askrend, John Jonidesd, Marc G. Bermand, Nicole L. Wilsone, Theresa Teslovicha, Gary Gloverf, Vivian Zayasg, Walter Mischel,1, and Yuichi Shodae,1 10.1073/pnas.1108561108 PNAS August 29, 2011

13 What Executive Functioning Looks Like for Young Children

14 Predictive Power of Executive Functioning Psychol Sci. 2005 Dec;16(12):939-44. Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Duckworth AL, Seligman ME Positive Psychology Center, University of Pennsylvania Self-discipline of 140 8 th grade students measured by self reports, teacher and parent reports and monetary choice questionnaires in the fall predicted final grades, school attendance and admittance to competitive HS program. Replicated study of 164 8 th grade students added a behavioral delay-of- gratification task, a questionnaire on study habits and a group administered IQ test in addition to the above. Finding: Self-discipline (as measured in the fall) accounted for more than twice as much variance as IQ in final grades, HS selection, school attendance…

15 Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study Followed 1,037 individuals born in 1972-1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand Self-control during first decade of life was measured using nine measures of self control: observational ratings of children’s lack of control (ages 3 and 5); parent, teacher and self-reports of impulsive aggression, hyperactivity, lack of persistence, inattention and impulsivity (at 5,7,9 & 11 years old) Then, as 32-year old adults (with a 96% retention rate), health, wealth and crime outcomes were assessed by physical exams, blood tests, personal interviews, record searches and informant reports.

16 Design of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study. Moffitt T E et al. PNAS 2011;108:2693-2698 ©2011 by National Academy of Sciences

17 Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study - Findings Children with less self control (i.e., children who were less persistent, more impulsive and had poorer attention regulation) 30 years later had: –Poorer health –Greater likelihood of alcohol or drug problems –More financial problems –More single-parent child rearing –More criminal convictions than those with better inhibitory control as young children (controlling for IQ, gender, social class and home lives and family circumstances growing up).

18 Self-control gradient. Moffitt T E et al. PNAS 2011;108:2693-2698 ©2011 by National Academy of Sciences

19 (From Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University)

20 Executive Functioning in School Without good EF, it can look like a student is not paying attention or is deliberately not controlling themselves They may: be pulled out of the learning environment; miss information; fall behind; feel upset; act out… They are in a downward spiral And consequences become irrelevant to a child who can’t conceive of them and can’t use impulse control to avoid them.

21 Executive Functions can be Trained by Strengthening Neural Connections Scenario 1: Poor EF leads to problems paying attention in class, completing assignments and inhibiting impulsive behaviors. School is less fun and the teacher is always getting annoyed with the student and complying with school demands is hard. The teacher comes to expect low self regulation and poor work and the children come to see themselves as poor students. Scenario 2: Children who have better EF are likely to be praised for good behavior, enjoy school more and want to spend more time working. Their teachers enjoy them and a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop is created. Results: One child wants out and doesn’t expect to succeed. The other wants in and fully expects to succeed.

22 Neuroplasticity is behind both scenarios Think of a stream bed: –The bed affects where the water flows –But, the water flow itself can also change the course of the stream bed In the brain, neurons that “fire together, wire together” So neural networks that are repeatedly activated become stronger and more efficient (and the opposite is also true) And practiced neural networks can become habits

23 Example of rapid brain change (Casasanto, D. and Bottini, R. (2013), Spatial language and abstract concepts. WIREs Cogn Sci. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1271)

24 Synaptic Plasticity

25 What Executive Functioning Looks Like for Adults Maria Joao Pirex - Pianist who practiced the wrong piece

26 Habit vs. Voluntary Control of Behavior Most human activity—whether simple or complex— is habitual, a function of procedural learning. Effort is required to: inhibit habitual activity disrupt a habit respond to novel situations engage in novel activity create new habits

27 Brain Activation for Habits MRIs of brains in habit mode – PFC shows little activity Example of learning to drive Once the mechanics of driving are mastered, one can focus on navigation, defensive driving and can respond to dangerous situations

28 Habits Procedural learning causes the things we do repeatedly to become habits. –They become automatic and nonconscious. –Habits are very efficient, and we rely on them most of the time. They require less effort than deliberate action. Sometimes habits are not useful or adaptive. –Then we need to change them. The likelihood that we’ll perform a habitual behavior depends on our state.

29 By Changing Habits, We Strengthen Executive Functioning We engage in habits unconsciously. By drawing attention to them at the time, we become conscious of them. –This prevents them from being enacted automatically and unconsciously. –Repeatedly drawing awareness to a habit will disrupt its performance. –Focusing attention helps strengthen connections in the prefrontal cortex. It’s still easier to do what is a habit than to inhibit the habit, or perform a novel behavior.

30 By Developing Habits, We Scaffold Executive Functioning EF involves the ability to initiate goal-directed, deliberate behavior, and to inhibit habitual, inappropriate, or irrelevant behavior. EF typically involves effort, so it goes against the grain to use EF rather than do what is easiest. Developing habits that support our executive functions can scaffold those efforts. What skills can be transferred to habit?


32 Executive Function and State To a large extent, our state determines our level of motivation. Our state of mind at any time determines how likely we are to do a particular thing. –Example: If I’m depressed, I’ll have depressing thoughts about myself, but if I’m happy, I won’t. –A very desperate state may lead to desperate behavior. State is more complex than this, but different factors affect state, which affects what we do. –This includes whether we will use our executive functions, or just go with the flow of habits.

33 Executive Function is affected by your State Stress Expectations/Mood Energy level Blood glucose levels Pain Poor health/Inflammation


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