The Other Chapter 3 - Executive Functioning

Copyright 2012 - me

The #1 Skill

Second only to having a good parent, Executive Functioning Skills are the primary determiner of early school success and entrance into a gifted program.  This is the magic pixie dust that works so well you will laugh when you see it in action on your own child.  It's the key to success, the answer to your prayers, and the end to your frustrations as a parent.

This topic is also likely to be the most important educational concept that you never heard of.   $25,000 a year preschools successfully apply these techniques, but since the target is pre-readers, and it involves play and not reading, text book manufacturers cannot make money off of it.  The websites promoting the magic of EF skills that I used when I began my research, all shut down for lack of money.

If your child does not have Executive Functioning Skills, he will have a hard time passing the GAT exam and will get crushed by homework later in school.

When I first came across Executive Functioning Skills in Nurture shock (Bronson and Merriweather), I read about a few failed studies of the TOOLS of the Mind program in low SES elementary schools in New Jersey.  One study failed because the principal didn't think it was ethical to deny TOOLs to the control group after the TOOLs class was doing so much better.   Two other studies were cancelled because TOOLS was so effective in the first year of the studies that the class no longer qualified for federal funding.   In each case, after the 1st year of a 2 year study, the study was cancelled.

A few years ago, the crude TOOLS website posted a description and the results of these studies.   Now, much interest and funding later, these papers are replaced with sanitized professional and very boring properly done scientific research papers.  This is a disappointment to me, because of this result: 86% of the kids who subsequently tested as gifted came from the TOOLS experimental classroom.

Fortunately, Nurture Shock (p. 162-165) retains a secondhand account of the studies:
  • In the first test (Denver 1997) poor kids with limited English skills went from one grade behind to one grade ahead, in a single year.  That's like THREE years of progress in one year.
  • While 50% of Kindergartners in this district tested as proficient at grade level, 97% of the TOOLS classroom did.
  • Comparison of behavior and discipline is so ridiculous I can only summarize it as angles versus devils.
  • Scores are off the charts.
I tried the spirit of TOOLs at home and it was a jaw dropping "Holy S__" experience every time. It was during a TOOLS at home experiment that my 3 year old first wrote - on his own, without prompting - fully a year before he would begin to write in workbooks.

TOOLS was created by in 1993 by Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.  Here is a really great primer on TOOLS by Bodrova and Leong.   It's a bit full of jargon, so I'm going to dumb it down to the rules of thumb that I use. [Note - this paper and it's link is lost to history. I have to find it.]
  1. Kids need playtime.
  2. Playtime is where the youngest kids learn the most skills - like concentrating, paying attention, planning and follow through.  Kids at play are motivated, and motivated kids learn 10 times as much.  Maybe 20 times as much. 
  3. Adults should help with play by raising the bar.  Do some planning.  Recommend a more complicated play task.   Suggest some role playing, and play along.
  4. In other areas, like boring old workbooks, if the kid starts to make up his own rules, his own problems, or his own workbook, let him go.   
Traditional TOOLS melds learning and playing.  If you want to see what I mean, visit Little Beans Cafe in Chicago.  You'll immediately see textbook version of TOOLS.

There are lots of other elements of TOOLs that imbue self awareness, critical thinking, Poyla's Step #4 for problem solving (see math chapter), and self control.   It is very powerful with kids who are behind and kids who are a socio-economic train wreck.  Since I'm probably writing to a group of kids who have one committed parent (and one parent who thinks the other one is nuts) and not a lot of disadvantages, I'm going to focus on the directed play aspect of TOOLs because this one morphs into projects and hobbies and will always bring an academic advantage.  As the child approaches high school, the next bar will be Agency skills.

Play Is High Stakes Learning
For early education, "play" plays a central role in teaching.  The reason is that for a child, play is much, much more important than doing a worksheet, and during play, which is very high stakes for kids, all of the skills, talents, gifts, and abilities will come to bear.   With the addition of role playing and imagination, the child will leap years ahead and rise to the occasion.

While play is not the only way to teach EF skills (e.g., piano, art, and group dance are also good), it is the fastest and most effective way.

To qualify as EF training, play must "include imaginary situation, roles and rules."   The TOOLs program also throws in some planning.   (See the great primer link above).  I like to throw in some building first, because I have boys, and maybe some drawing.

The traditional setting for EF play is a fire station, a burning house, and a 911 center.  I've seen these in high end private preschools.   At home, we do "office", "space center", and similar games that involve multiple roles, rules, and heavy doses of creativity.

I've found that art can be a high stakes learning activity as well.  For example, after we watched Lord of the Rings, we created a wall mural.  This involved planning, organization, etc.   My 8 year old son did 3 hours of heads-down concentration.

My son recently made a guitar out of a box and rubber bands, which he calls the "Guitubber".  He talked me into letting him practice this thing instead of the piano one day.  I was rewarded with a Guitubber composition written on sheet music paper and a performance.  Plus, he practiced on his own, with no nagging, for double his mandatory piano practice time.

I've got lots more examples of this.   My rule up to age 7 was that if my kids suggested that they wanted to play something that was TOOLish, I would terminate workbooks immediately.  (They never figured out that they had this power and I never told them).

In each case, with my 4 year old and my 8 year old, I am rewarded with a higher level of concentration, behavior, compliance, and performance after an EF play session.   Which is why this study called An Investigation of Play: From the Voices of Fifth- and Sixth-Grade Talented and Gifted Students in the GAT Quarterly is so interesting.  The students in the study report that play rejuvinates them.   It makes me wonder if play time is teaching EF skills, or if the kids are just burnt out and need a break.  Either way, I'm all about play these days.

The paper I cited by  Bodrova and Leong describe scaffolding and zone of proximal development. Toss in three more aspects of learning - Big Ideas, Critical Thinking, and Self Awareness and you have Directed Play ala Tools.

Here is the recipe:
1.  Come up with a fun play scenario - fire, restaurant, shop.
2.  Plan it with lots of questions.  What do we need for the store?  How is this going to work.  (Critical Thinking).
3.  Add some big ideas - price tags, cash register, scanner.  Help as needed with accessories.
4.  Let the kid do whatever they can, given that their order taking will be scribble and their change calculations will be nonsensical.
5.  Keep the kid on track with questions if needed.

This applies to reading and math as well, by the way, and has made me a much more effective teacher of the top 1%.   But I see it's biggest pay off in directed p

Not Over Doing It
I would like to caution the reader that Playing is necessary for learning, but I don't think it actually teaches anything.  So, like Phonics and Rote reading, which are both necessary for young readers, Play based learning is a necessary partner to workbooks and test prep.


Agency is an emerging concept in parenting that will be the new buzzword in 5 years.   Think of an advertising agency or insurance agency, usually run by sole proprietors or partners.  You have a problem, and they go to work on it solving it.   Now think of your child as an Academic Agency.

It means that the child takes ownership of academics from the parent and the parent is 100% out of the picture.  It's every parent's goal.

Agency is the next step in the pyramid after EF Skills.   It's development has a lot of similarities.

There are 3 papers that I know of on this topic, and one of them is the combined writings of my blog.  See my chapter on Agency skills.


  1. Hi, The links for primer and paper dont work. Is there more on this? What are the ages that we can try this? Is it too late for a 4 year old?

    1. I changed the book link, but the tools link is lost. I went to the NJ ed website and Tools, and no where could I find content that does justice to the original theory.