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Teaching Executive Function To Promote Good Citizenship

What is executive function, and how does it relate to good citizenship?

Just as we teach children humanities and the STEM disciplines so that they can take those skills into adulthood, it’s crucial to educate children in good citizenship. But good citizenship is a broad and multi-layered topic. One way to start promoting good citizenship in your students is by teaching executive function.

Executive Function Defined

Edutopia defines executive function as: “an umbrella term in neuroscience to describe the neurological processes involving mental control and self-regulation.” Think about your impulse control, attention span, short-term and long-term memory, time management and organizational skills. It all goes back to executive function. Executive function is the part of the neurological process that pushes you to tackle your responsibilities, whether they be social or problem-solving tasks.

Think of this in contrast to executive dysfunction, a symptom that can sometimes occur as a result of a traumatic brain injury or various neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD. Those with executive dysfunction often struggle with the ability to focus or motivate themselves, even when they know that something has to be done soon. Although executive function issues can sometimes be a symptom of bigger issues, for the most part executive function skills can be taught.

It is especially important for children to learn how to socialize at an early age, so that they can develop these skills and carry them into adulthood. Part of socializing well is the ability to listen to others and remember what you’ve been told. Executive function is also important when it comes to following through on social obligations and regulating behavior.

The Vital Importance of Citizenship

Most of us hope to foster a generation who wants to make the world a better place. But what does it mean to want to do good in the world, and how can educators help to instill a desire to do good in their students? First, you need to be able to define good citizenship and explain it to your students.

The point of a good society, populated by good citizens, is to be able to live together in peace and harmony. So perhaps the most crucial thing for good citizens to keep in mind is that they share this society with every other citizen. Citizens owe decency and understanding to each other, in order to make everyone’s lives better and create the most harmonious society possible.

Good citizenship requires empathy, or the understanding that everyone has their own struggles and desires. It requires strong communication skills to communicate your needs and understand others’ needs as well. Once students understand that those around them also rely on society to function well, they’ll be much more motivated to do good in the world. According to the Planbook blog: “Students who learn about citizenship early in life develop a stronger commitment to doing good in the world.”

Executive Function and Child Development

It’s clear how learning executive function skills can help promote good citizenship. Good citizenship is an active effort, and one that requires focus and motivation. Even as adults, we know what it’s like to start out with good intentions and then struggle to follow through. Bolstering executive function will help to fortify children when being a good citizen begins to feel difficult.

The Center on Developing Children at Harvard claims, “The increasingly competent executive functioning of children and adolescents enables them to plan and act in a way that makes them good students, classroom citizens, and friends.” So how do educators teach and foster executive function skills?


One key factor is to understand when children’s minds will be most receptive to learning executive function skills. Harvard states that executive function skills develop most rapidly as young as the ages of 3–5. The development process hits another upward spike in early adolescence and one more as an early adult. These are the times when it will be easiest for students to learn and retain executive function skills they need in adulthood.


You can also teach executive functions using scaffolding techniques, as you might with other methods of learning. Scaffolding involves giving students the support they need while honing their skills until they’re able to exercise executive function skills independently. Another way to think about this is that you’re giving your students training wheels for the skills until they’re ready to ride without them.

Here are some scaffolding strategies you can use to instill executive function skills in your students:

  • Set classroom routines. Behaving consistently regardless of how you feel is a sure path to success in many areas of life. Students need to know how to get up for work, exercise and eat right, and treat others with respect—even when they don’t feel like it. Having consistent classroom routines will help students practice essential executive function skills like impulse control, time management, and organization.
  • Play games. Games often involve a unique intersection of cooperation, creativity while still following rules, and strategic thinking—all great exercises for executive function skills. With very young children, you might do simple activities like peekaboo, scavenger hunts, or coloring. Later, you might graduate to board games and card games.
  • Role-play. According to Stephanie M. Carlson, make-believe and role-playing helps students be more objective and flexible in their thinking. By pretending to be someone else, students feel “psychological distance” between themselves and the problem at hand, and that distance allows them to be calmer, more persistent, and more creative as they approach difficult tasks.

For more tips on fostering good citizenship in the classroom, check out these professional development courses from Advancement Courses:

  • Implementing Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies: Learn to understand and embrace the vast arrays of cultures present in our world and our schools. Hone skills that can make your teaching more culturally responsive and your classroom more inclusive.
  • Assessment Strategies for SEL: Learn all about social and emotional learning (SEL), as well as current best practices and assessment strategies. Gain skills and measurements that will help bolster your classroom and your school’s SEL growth.
  • Achieving Equity Through Courageous Dialogue: Difficult conversations are as inevitable as they are challenging, especially when it comes to hot-button issues facing students today such as gun violence, LGBTQ+ issues, racism, and poverty. This course will help prepare you to have frank, courageous dialogue about sensitive topics.
  • Creating Meaningful Relationships and Setting Boundaries With Your Students: A strong student–teacher relationship can often be linked to students’ achievement in school. But a strong relationship requires boundaries as much as it does depth. In this course, learn how to connect with students as well as where to draw the line.
  • The Growth Mindset: Fostering Resilience and a Love of Learning: If at first your students don’t succeed, help them try again. Learn all about the difference that a growth mindset makes from Carol Dweck, as well as how to encourage that growth mindset in students.

Advancement Courses offers more than 280 online, self-paced PD courses covering both foundational topics and emerging trends in K–12 education. Courses are available for both graduate and continuing education credit for your salary advancement or recertification needs.

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