Skip to main content

Executive Skills

By June 8, 2023July 5th, 2023Blog, Devonshire House Experts Talks

Devonshire House Experts’ Talks Series


Executive Skills


By Debbie Dixon, Head of Learning Support

Devonshire House Prep School Head of Learning Support
Amy is an intelligent 14-year-old who can complete work, process abstract information in a matter of minutes, excel in exams and contribute thoughtful and often witty anecdotes in classroom discussions. Amy also spends a lot of time in detention for not having completed homework tasks, arriving late for lessons (she has no idea where she is meant to be or when) and despite her mother buying her numerous pencil cases, she never has the right equipment with her. Her school bag is full of pieces of paper and weighs a tonne.

Thomas, on the other hand, is a 16-year-old with an active social life inside and outside of school and, despite being very bright, like Amy, spends most of his time in the classroom locked in a dream world while the clock ticks away and none of his brilliant ideas, which his teachers know he is capable of producing, have been committed to paper but are still swimming around his active mind, or instead are presented as a mass of doodles and crossings out.

How many of us as teachers, head teachers, parents even, recognise children that are bright and capable but are underachieving due to a mismatch between their academic ability and ability to organise themselves? Is it just a case of a child being lazy, or is there more to it than just a child/teenager who cannot be bothered or prepared to take a risk occasionally such as bunking off school for a day with a friend?

SENDCOs, teachers and teaching assistants are becoming increasingly aware of children that are neuro diverse and present with different learning, social and communication needs as opposed to a neuro typical child. While other students have identifiable disabilities, mental health problems or challenging personal circumstances which can explain poor performance within the classroom.

But what about pupils such as Thomas and Amy (who are my own children) who do not fit into any of the categories aforementioned? Is it just a case of simply not caring? Indeed, I have attended countless parent evenings to be told how bright my two are but “if only” they could hand in homework on time, turn up for lessons punctually, bring the right equipment, write something – the list is endless, and I know I am not the only parent to have similar conversations with teachers.

Recently, there has been much media coverage about neuro diverse conditions such as ADHD and Autism. Less so about research into brain-based skills otherwise known as executive skills, and the UK is still somewhat lacking behind its US counterparts in incorporating these vital skills into the school curriculum. And yet, without these essential life skills many children such as Thomas and Amy stand the risk of underachieving simply because they cannot organise themselves.

What are executive skills?

Executive skills are skills that are required to execute tasks independently – to complete a task from start to finish whether it involves packing your own school bag, remembering to bring home your PE kit or applying to Oxbridge.

Neuropsychologists have identified up to 11 different executive skills (see separate box below) which develop slowly over the course of childhood and adolescence and are not fully mature until young people are well into their twenties – even older if they have an attention disorder.

Teachers have enough to teach so why should they have to teach executive skills as well? Unless a child is given strategies as to how to manage their time effectively, how to organise themselves, how to overcome setbacks or how to develop coping mechanisms when they are upset or overwhelmed, they will continue to make the same mistakes regardless of how many detentions or red cards you issue them with – they are simply not effective. Instead, you are just making that child/adolescent feel worse about themselves, or worse-case scenario want to give up entirely. Indeed, research has shown that weak executive skills in childhood can lead to psychiatric and developmental disorders including obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and mental health problems in adults.

What can schools do to support children in developing executive skills?

As a SENDCO, I have forgotten the number of times I have recommended the book Smart but Scattered by Peg Dawson, an American-based clinical psychologist and author and unquestionably an expert in this field. Her book just doesn’t give teachers strategies, but parents as well. How many of us as parents’ despair that our children’s bedrooms are messy when we are in fact tidy, or they leave the house at the last minute when you arrive at least ten minutes early for every function (yes, I drive my daughter insane)? They may be your child, but they are not going to have the same executive skills as you. After all, you are a grown up and have hopefully matured – they are still developing.

Help is also at hand in the form of Connections in Mind –  a company created in 2016 by three leading UK-based psychologists, who work with many families at Devonshire House School and across the UK. The company, which also specialises in providing strategies for those with neuro diverse conditions, is available to give parent talks and teachers in the form of CPD sessions.

So, the next time you come across a Thomas or Amy in your class and rush to give them a detention or a red card. Instead, take a step back, give them a pen or a book if they have forgotten their stuff, it only takes a second, guide them quietly to their chair if they are late and smile quietly to yourself when they solve that complex algebraic equation in seconds, or make the class laugh out loud with a humourous remark. Who knows you could have the next Einstein sitting there. After all, it was Einstein that said: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Never a truer word spoken.

Discuss our Learning Support programme with us during one of our Open Mornings.


List of Executive Skills

Response Inhibition – The capacity to think before acting and the ability to resist the urge to say something or do something that you may later come to regret.

Working Memory – The ability to hold information in your memory while completing complex tasks. It also draws on your ability to recall previous learning and apply that knowledge to your current learning and to make forward projections.

Emotional Regulation – The ability to control your emotions to achieve certain outcomes, complete tasks and manage behavioural expectations.

Sustained Attention – The capacity to remain focussed and complete a task despite fatigue, boredom and distractibility.

Task Initiation – The ability to start a task on time without procrastinating.

Planning/Prioritisation – The ability to plan and prioritise what needs to be done to complete a task. It also involves making decisions about what is or is not important.

Organisation – The ability to organise information and store materials appropriately if not tidily.

Time Management – The capacity to estimate how much time one needs to complete a task, the ability to turn up to time for lessons and be aware that time is important.

Goal-directed Persistence – The capacity to have a goal and follow through and not be distracted by other interests.

Flexibility – to be aware that you will suffer setbacks and be flexible in your approach in completing work or working with others.

Metacognition – the ability to take a step back and take a bird’s eye view of oneself in a situation. It is the ability to how one problem solves. It also includes self-checking in skills such as how am I? How am I coping?

Get to Know Our New Headmaster