The Science of Learning Blog

September 17, 2020

Logged In, Checked Out: How Executive Function Can Upend the COVID Slide (Part 3)

BY Martha Burns, PhD

This is Part 3 of our series on upending the COVID slide. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

The Brain Wants What the Brain Wants

Maybe you see a student’s eyes glaze over. And another student is distracted by something happening just off-screen—is it a sibling, a toy, or TikTok?

In a classroom, teachers can identify inattentive students and use attention-getting techniques like moving toward a student or asking them a question. But an online learning environment makes it difficult for teachers to identify which students are not actively engaged, not to mention recapturing and maintaining their interest.

Many helpful, practical suggestions have been offered to support teachers facing the challenge of keeping students engaged through a screen as blended learning models resume this fall in response to COVID-19 restrictions. For example, Edutopia provides actionable strategies based on the science of motivation. Also, a psychologist and a psychiatric nurse practitioner give fantastic advice on fostering curiosity in the New York Times.

Although teachers have risen to the challenge of adapting their distance instruction by engaging students and fostering active learning, they continue to encounter students who, despite interactive opportunities, cannot self-regulate and selectively focus on content presented online.

kid bored in front of laptop during remote learning

What’s missing, I’ve noticed, is that we are not talking enough about the fundamental mechanisms in the brain that keep students from zoning out. They’re called executive functions, and here’s how to help students develop them so they can become more avid learners and beat the COVID slide.

A 3-Part Framework of Executive Function (and Teacher Tips)

As we all know, student disengagement is not a new problem for teachers. The students who are inattentive during remote learning are often the same ones who weren’t focusing in the classroom. But the distance learning environment has amplified these issues and is likely a significant contributor to the COVID slide affecting children across the country during the pandemic. The solution lies in the mechanisms that dictate a student’s ability to focus: brain processes.

Educational neuroscientists now recognize that all learning environments—including online and in-person—require students to exercise self-regulation capacities, called executive function, to overcome attention-related hurdles. Executive functions mature during school-age years and are essential for academic success. 

To better understand the role of executive function skills in learning, Stephanie Jones and colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education produced a report for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The report reviews the terms and skills related to classroom-based executive functions. Their 3-part framework comprises the following skills.

I. Umbrella Skills

Students who are active learners and achievement-oriented consistently self-manage academic assignments without reminders or prodding. This is the essence of the umbrella skill of self-regulation.

However, it isn’t just task-related self-control. It also includes regulation of emotions and behavior. For example, these self-managing students can resist the lure of a friend’s party down the block or ignore incoming text messages if their homework isn’t finished.

These three kinds of regulation—cognitive, emotional, and behavioral—together make up the umbrella skills of executive function.

What can educators do?

As the highest-order set in this executive function framework, umbrella skills are best developed by strengthening their building blocks, which I describe next. So keep reading!

II. Regulatory-Related Skills

The umbrella skills don’t just emerge on their own during maturation. Students develop these abilities and hone them when they exercise regulatory-related executive function skills like planning, organization, and problem-solving.

What can educators do?

  • Assign long-term assignments like book reports and science projects and regularly schedule quizzes, which foster planning and organizational skills. You are probably already doing this!
  • Provide opportunities for students to build problem-solving skills, whether with science and mathematics coursework, project-based learning in language arts or history classes, or even through extracurricular activities.
  • Assign literary tasks that require inductive and deductive reasoning, drawing implied conclusions, and problem-solving. Constructing essays and other written texts helps students flex their planning and organization muscles.

III. Subcomponent Skills

Although students exercise regulatory-related skills throughout their school years in virtually every subject area, some students seem to struggle endlessly. Educational scientists now recognize subcomponent skills that contribute to self-regulation: working memory, attentional control, inhibition, and flexibility. Fortunately, like other learning, these subcomponent skills can be trained effectively with technology.

The Fast ForWord software, for example, has scientifically engineered reading tasks that teach reading skills (including vocabulary, grammar, phonics, and comprehension) while simultaneously building attentional control, inhibition, and working memory skills.

Courtney Stevens and colleagues at the University of Oregon have researched ways to build attentional skills. One study shows the impact of adding a daily period of the Fast ForWord supplemental ed tech program to a standard 2nd grade curriculum. After several weeks, participating students, including typical learners and those with language learning problems, significantly improved their attentional skills compared to students who only received conventional instruction. 

What can educators do?

Simple! Rely on evidence-based, proven technology. Learn how to get the Fast ForWord programs at your school by contacting a dedicated representative about a free demo.

An Analogy: Your Favorite Baseball Player

What does this 3-part model of executive function look like in action? Think of your favorite baseball player (perhaps one poised to appear in the upcoming World Series?). Just as executive function is an integrated skill set, baseball players also have an interdependent set of skills that work together and are continually developed with practice.

To excel in baseball, you need:

  1. Umbrella skills, such as the ability to appreciate and enjoy competition, to stay cool after making a mistake, and to cooperate with team members.
  2. Regulatory-related skills, such as control of your swing based on the speed of an incoming ball, control over the trajectory of your swing, and the ability to reach a variety of (possibly moving) targets when you throw.
  3. Subcomponent skills, such as a solid and consistent swing, the ability to throw a ball at variable speeds and distances, and the ability to run quickly.

Any baseball player worth their salt has strong skills in all 3 parts of this framework, and they continue honing these abilities throughout their career. But these skills don’t come quickly or easily. Athletes train and develop these facilities over time, just like your students build their executive functioning skills throughout their entire lives.

Ed Tech Is a Powerful Tool, but Teachers Are Irreplaceable

Teachers know how to impart content and are creatively devising new distance learning methodologies to increase student engagement online and upend the COVID slide. We’ve also gleaned the benefits of scientific technology over the past several months of online and blending learning. 

As teachers continue to tirelessly work toward upending the COVID slide by keeping students engaged, both remotely and in person, remember that successful learning anywhere depends on executive function skills. Especially equipped with proven technology, teachers can help students develop executive functioning skills that impact childhood learning, as well as translate to non-academic areas and adult success.

Martha S. Burns, Ph.D. is Director of Neuroscience Education at Scientific Learning Corporation and Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University. She has published over 100 book chapters and journal articles on the neuroscience of language and communication and written three books on language difficulties associated with neurological disorders. Her newest book, Cognitive and Communication Interventions: Neuroscience Applications for Speech-Language Pathologists, will be released on October 4, 2020.


Grant, A. & Grant, A.S. (2020). “Kids can learn to love learning, even over Zoom.New York Times.

Jones, S. M., Bailey, R., Barnes, S. P., & Partee, A. (2016). Executive function mapping project: Untangling the terms and skills related to executive function and self regulation in early childhood. OPRE report # 2016–88, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, research and evaluation, administration for children and families.

Kelleher, I. & Hulleman, C. (2020). “The Science of Keeping Kids Engaged—Even From Home.” Edutopia.

Stevens, C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & H Neville (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 55-69.

The Fast ForWord K-12 product takes a 3-in-1 approach to develop reading and language, cognitive, and social-emotional learning skills. Learn more by requesting free samples.

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