Executive Function in Children’s Academic and Life Outcomes

Thursday, October 8, 2020

On September 30, 2020, BrainFutures’ Holly McCormack facilitated a powerful conversation between Goldie Hawn and Bruce Wexler as part of the Aspen Brain Institute’s Expert Series. The conversation explored the current state of education, young student brain development, and brain fitness interventions that can increase executive function (EF), a set of complex cognitive abilities which have been tied to improvements in academic and life outcomes.

Goldie Hawn, in addition to being an academy award-winning actress, is the founder of MindUP, a school- and home-based intervention that offers brain fitness curriculum developed at the intersection of neuroscience, positive psychology, mindful awareness, and social and emotional learning. Bruce Wexler, MD, is Professor Emeritus of and Senior Research Scientist in Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, author of Brain and Culture (MIT Press, 2006), recipient of the NIH Director’s Award, and founder and chief scientist at C8 Sciences, which developed ACTIVATE, a school-based brain fitness intervention built on cognitive development practices and physical exercise.

The conversation focused on two of the foundational pillars of brain fitness: EF and neuroplasticity, indicating that neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change and rewire itself at any age—is the mechanism brain fitness interventions use to create lasting improvements in brain function. EF is a measure of brain fitness, and actually a set of cognitive functions including attention, self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. More important, EF, as a measure, is a better indicator of academic performance and life success than IQ, graduation, and other traditional indicators. This is so because higher EF not only increases learning capacity, but also increases self-regulation and emotional management, which is highly correlated with the ability to navigate school, work, relationships, family, and other important life events and experiences.

Wexler also pointed out that the level and quality of a child’s or person’s EF is a result of environmental stimulus and influence, and that all stimuli—positive or negative—influence EF. Even more interesting, humans are the only species that create environments with stimuli that influence their own EF. In other words, our cultural and social experiences determine the level and quality of EF, and therefore our academic and life outcomes. It’s has been well established that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as trauma and exposure to substance abuse, result in lower EF. Sadly, close to 50% of American children have been exposed to ACEs, and that number is likely much higher since the onset of COVID-19. Ms. Hawn and Dr. Wexler discussed the urgent issue of childhood education and COVID-19, which was also presented in a recent OpEd in the Hechinger Report, co-authored by the pair.

A good part of the conversation explored the effectiveness of brain fitness interventions, pointing out that one main cause of the achievement gap in America is EF deficiency, largely as a result of ACEs and poverty. Without brain fitness, even the best teachers or the most forceful or effective delivery of more content will not succeed at improving academic outcomes.

“Education needs to move beyond making sure that kids have a certain set of content and facts,” Dr. Wexler explained, “to making sure they have the skills needed to regulate themselves to be productive, happy people who can continue to learn.”

Ms. Hawn agreed, adding that “kids learn by doing activities and from experience, not by pedagogy.” She shared that when she started MindUP after 9/11, people thought “mindfulness” was a religion, but in fact it is a brain exercise that balances and regulates brain activity, and increases students’ capacities to ‘stop the barking dogs’ and ‘wake up the wise owl.’

From a research perspective, EF intervention results have shown truly transformative changes. For example, in one school’s 5th grade classes, normal students averaged 10% math proficiency and 20% reading proficiency. A cohort that used ACTIVATE for just 10 hours increased their scores to 60% math proficiency and 80% reading proficiency. More results and detailed reviews of 10 vetted brain fitness interventions, 19 promising programs, along with in-depth discussion about education, EF, and the science of brain fitness can be found in BrainFuture’s 2019 report: Brain Fitness and Executive Function: Evidence-Based Interventions That Improve Student Outcomes (McCormack and O’Brien, 2019).

Ms. Hawn and Dr. Wexler also discussed teacher burnout, and the need for principals and administrators to be the champions of brain fitness interventions for schools to successfully adopt EF programs. They explored some of the current social challenges and EF opportunities a little deeper, and answered questions from the audience.

Thank you to Ms. Hawn and Dr. Wexler for such a powerful conversation, and for continuing to champion brain fitness in education for children everywhere. And thank you to the Aspen Brain Institute—which has committed to bringing EF programs into schools as part of a bigger vision to make the town of Aspen a model brain-health community—for hosting and facilitating this important discussion.

To watch the full session, click here.

Aspen Brain Institute’s mission is to create a brain-healthy planet by democratizing access to the best minds and evidence-based information on brain health and to increase our level of brain health literacy.

BrainFutures is a national nonprofit dedicated to improving human outcomes by assessing and advancing the practical applications of new scientific understanding of the brain.