Neuroscience of Executive Functions

By Nige Armitstead

Following Nige’s 7 minute talk at the Teach Meet last week, here is a blog on the neuroscience of executive functions. Enjoy!

Educational neuroscience (cf Learnus: is a pioneering collaboration between academics at the forefront of neuroscience and specialists in the arena of education and its future.  The aim is to make our growing understanding of how the brain works both accessible and useful to teachers in classrooms, now and tomorrow.

This presentation was concerned with executive functions.  These are the self regulating means by which we promote fluency and effectiveness in our thinking and behaviour.  We need executive functions most of all in situations where intuition and/or direct responding may not be entirely effective.

I have appropriated this diagram to give some idea of how phenomena of mind rely on the networking of different brain areas.  Coloured areas are those shown through research to be involved in self regulation. In the article from which this diagram comes the focus was moral self regulation, but the executive functions which we are looking at are fully implicated.

The prefrontal cortex is that which lies just behind the front of the brain.  Its dorsal lateral area is that which appears to initiate executive functions, regulating the chaos of mind by instigating the brain networks needed.  In general terms the dorsal lateral area is essential to managing and adapting to variation of meaning and context. It is the part of the brain which has the slowest rate of structural maturing, this not being completed until after adolescence.  Hence we should view it as a maturing process on which we can have an impact as educators. We can help build strong executive functions.

Screenshot 2018-10-13 at 7.41.16 PM

These are considered the three core aspects of self regulation.   Inhibiting refers to the suppression of distracting thoughts. Switching refers to changing from one way of seeing things to another.  Working memory should really be called something else, such as ‘thought holding and processing since it allows a brief hold on the existence of a thought whilst the mind processes it with other thoughts.  

Screenshot 2018-10-13 at 7.43.31 PM

These are all simple creative ideas for embedding a stimulus to the growth of executive functions within the normal classroom delivery of lessons.  Other and better creative ideas will doubtless come to mind, but have a go at some of these on which I have written brief notes of explanation below.


  • Simon says: the game where you only follow an instruction which begins ‘Simon says…’  However, in the classroom you only follow the instruction if a statement is true. For example…  ‘Clap your hands if tree is a verb!’ Not clapping requires inhibiting.
  • Prime students to react (hand clap again perhaps) when you speak a particular word, such as ‘examination’.  Then use similar words, such as ‘example’, every now and again during the lesson. Not reacting to a similar word requires inhibiting.  The target word could be something which you do want the students to learn about.
  • Forbidden word: Challenge students to explain something to the class without using a key word.  For example, explaining photosynthesis without the word ‘light’.


  • Hidden meaning: Students guess the word which a sequence of phrases or pictures will culminate in.  This is good for getting students interested in the topic for the lesson. For example: they are found in Africa, they are big, they have a trunk, they use it to suck up water, they have leaves!  Hopefully students switch from elephants to trees at the end, and in the process have to reappraise all the meanings they had attributed.
  • Points of view: Ask the class to list words which capture their view of a particular object or issue, such as a sports car.  Then ask them to suggest a list of words for the same thing which would be given by a class of students on a small island with no roads.  (That is not a great example, please come up with better ones…)
  • Levels of complexity: These crop up naturally in most learning situations.  The SOLO taxonomy (presented by Joe Burkmar) is a good way to stimulate switching through levels of complexity. 

Working Memory

  • Holding brief stimuli:  show a picture at the start of the lesson for a brief period, say 20 seconds.  Inform pupils they will be asked about it at the end of the lesson so they have to hold as much of it as possible in mind during the lesson.  Ask students for comments at the end of the lesson and then look to see how well they have done. Select a picture for relevance to the lesson content.
  • Visuospatial:  whilst arithmetic is thought to be managed mostly by the audio/verbal part of working memory, mathematical concepts are generally more associated with the visuospatial part.  Therefore aim to embed as much visual and spatial cuing as possible when teaching maths concepts, and help students respond to this aspect of those concepts.
  • Auditory/Verbal: unsurprisingly this part of working memory (sometimes called the ‘articulatory loop’) is involved in thinking with language.  Exercises which require a lot of verbal holding are good. For example, ask students to mentally select the fourth letters in the words chair, table and spider, but not to tell you anything until ready to say a word made out of those letters.  In this case it would be ‘lid’. Another example involves arithmetic: simply figuring out two mental sums and not responding until both answers can be given together. Only speak the question once as holding it in mind is part of the exercise. ‘Five thirteens and twenty three take away six’. Oh what fun!


Michelle de Haan, ‘Attention and Executive Control’

In Mareschal, D., Butterworth, B., and Tolmie, A.  Eds. (2013)

‘Educational Neuroscience’

CHICHESTER: John Wiley and Sons

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