by Laura Polvinen
Executive Function, Anxiety, and Self Regulation: recently, these have become buzzwords in our vernacular and the topics of many conversations and articles. Neuroscientists consider how executive function impairs the brain’s ability to show its cognitive skills. Teachers and parents question, are our children really more anxious now than ever? Popular press wonders if self-regulation is a more important predictor of lifelong success than once thought. We are bombarded with information on all of these topics, and while different, they are all linked. Let’s define each one and explore their connection, and explore how executive function, anxiety and self regulation affect students.
Executive function (EF) is the set of mental processes that enables a person to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and follow multiple steps or tasks in order to reach a goal.1 Many think of executive functioning as the “CEO” of our brain.2 Some even use an image of a sticky note; people with strong EF skills have a “stickier” note, or a stronger ability to retain/organize/move toward their goals. EF goes hand-in-hand with the diagnosis of ADHD3, and many children with learning disabilities, like language-based learning disabilities, also have underlying issues with executive functioning.4
Anxiety is defined by the National Institutes of Mental Health as persistent or excessive worry about everyday situations or issues.5 It is human to worry, but worrying that is so pervasive that it affects our daily lives is harmful. About 7% of children under 18 are diagnosed with anxiety. We see higher levels of anxiety in schools (maybe even 25% of students) even though these behaviors may not meet all diagnostic criteria for anxiety. Still, students’ worries affect their learning and lives.6 Schools all over the country are searching for ways to address the anxiety issue, since it affects student learning and teachers’ ability to deliver instruction.
Self-Regulation refers to our ability to manage our feelings, body movements, and behavior so that we can complete the tasks required of us in our daily lives.7 We use self-regulation skills to keep ourselves awake during a boring meeting or to stay focused on the class we are teaching even when stomach pains signal our hunger before lunch. It is different from self-control and is a skill we develop over the course of our lives. We do not expect three year-olds, or even 10-year-olds, to regulate in the same way as an adolescent.
The ability to regulate ourselves is impacted by our feelings, such as anxiety, and by our executive function and vice versa. They function much like an interconnected trifecta – if we are anxious, it is going to be harder to regulate ourselves in a given situation and our EF will likely suffer. If we cannot figure out how to take steps toward a goal, we may become less self-regulated, and even anxious. In his work on EF, Thomas E. Brown discusses how we need our emotions to be in check and our self-regulation to manage our frustration or other feelings so that we can activate a plan and proceed using our EF skills.8 In this way, we can see how students with a challenge in any one of these areas (EF, anxiety, self regulation) may demonstrate a challenge in another area. Self-regulation seems to be the connecting current, as both EF and anxiety affect our ability to self-regulate. As soon as our ability to regulate ourselves is compromised, our ability to learn and show our best work will be too. So what can teachers do to ensure students are ready and available to learn? As teachers we want to push our students, while still being sensitive to the unique challenges that EF, anxiety and self-regulation may present for them in class. Below are some strategies and further readings that educators can use to assist students in self-regulating, managing EF needs, and anxiety.
Dos (to support self regulation):
Don’ts (that impair self-regulation):
Check out these additional articles, web sites, and Free Landmark Teaching Strategies that can be found on our web site.View Resources
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Books about LBLD:
Franklin, D. (2018). Helping your Child with Language-Based Learning Disabilities: Strategies to Succeed in School and Life with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, ADHD and Processing Disorders.
Books about Anxiety
Wagner, A. (2005). Worried No More: Help and Hope for Anxious Children.
Huebner, 2005. What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (What-to-Do Guides for Kids).