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Executive function can be likened to the brain’s air traffic control center.* The air traffic director must safely, quickly, and effectively manage dozens of flights into and out of an airport with multiple runways and terminals. Now, imagine this director on the job, in the control tower, and he is feeling enraged. Or terrified. Or bereaved. In any of these scenarios, is he able to manage all the complex demands of the bustling airport while his emotions are running so hot?
Unless he happens to have incredible emotional regulation skills in the face of such intense and profound feelings, the answer is likely to be “no.” If we have difficulty regulating our intense emotions, then our executive function will be compromised, too. During the tumultuous and hormonal experience of adolescence, emotions tend to spike more quickly and intensely in the developing brain. As a result of these fluctuations, middle and high school students may have more difficulty regulating emotions and zeroing in on academic demands. In order to better understand how emotions can impact learning for students, let’s shed light on the relationship between emotions and executive function.
A misconception about emotion and executive function is that they two are separate entities. We’ve heard the distinction before, differentiated as matters of the heart and matters of the mind. As the above example shows, our ability to think clearly and put executive function into action is directly related to what we feel and how intensely we feel it.
When our emotions are so intense that we become dysregulated, our executive function will not work at full capacity. Emotional dysregulation takes us out of the frontal lobe of the brain, where executive function is housed, and pulls us deep into the brain’s emotional center. In a dysregulated state, the two areas of the brain have difficulty communicating with one another, leaving our emotions in charge. As the emotions decrease in their intensity, they become easier to manage. When emotions are well-managed, the pathways in the brain re-open, freeing up space for executive function to mobilize.
We depend on our executive function skills to learn new things, complete long term projects, pay attention, problem solve... the list goes on and on! Let’s focus for a minute on test taking: a stressful experience where emotions and executive function often converge. First, think about stress as a function of performance. What happens when we experience too much stress? Too much stress limits our ability to recall information, think creatively, and make decisions, which can make us feel quite anxious. What happens when we experience too little stress? We don’t have enough motivation and we’re unlikely to take a challenge seriously. In reality, there is a “goldilocks” amount of stress that we can strive for through emotional regulation. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount of stress can motivate us through a problem without careening us into the zone of anxiety. Visualizing and aiming for that middle ground when practicing regulation techniques can make all the difference in managing test anxiety, which is really an outgrowth of unregulated stress! (Read our top 10 tips for overcoming test anxiety here.)
Let’s consider long-term planning as another example. When we plan a long-term project or assignment, we are far more likely to experience success if we anticipate the obstacles that might pop up along the way. Why? Because we are prepared to manage feelings of frustration or disappointment if these obstacles arise. Less frustration means more cognitive energy devoted to problem solving and moving on with the project.
Parents can help students to anticipate obstacles by asking, “What are some things that might get in the way of accomplishing X?” If your child can’t think of any obstacles, this is an excellent learning opportunity for them! Offer examples of obstacles they’ve faced in the past (e.g., “I notice it’s harder for you to get things done when your phone is on the desk next to you”), or use your own skills to help them anticipate challenges (e.g., “Will your plan to study all weekend before Monday’s test be affected by the soccer tournament on Saturday?”)
Executive function can flourish when we are able to regulate the intensity of our emotions in response to life’s challenges. For students, those challenges may be in the form of test-taking and completing projects in the midst of the emotional fluctuations of adolescence. It’s good to know there are many strategies available to help students be effective and well-regulated.
For more of our coaches' strategies to help students regulate their emotions, download our guide below.
* Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
Alexa Nappa, Ed.S, NCSP is an executive function coach with Beyond BookSmart and a licensed, nationally certified school psychologist. During her graduate studies at Tufts University, Alexa worked one-on-one with undergraduate students, and also delivered presentations on the topics of effective time management skills, study strategies, and work-life balance. She has worked privately in the community, tutoring high school students in the critical areas of long-term project planning, prioritization, organization, and building effective study habits for college preparation. In her role as a school psychologist, she has specialized in providing support to students with a variety of social, emotional, educational, and behavioral needs. Resulting from these experiences, she believes that every single student can make progress with the right understanding, guidance, and encouragement.
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