Tools to Bolster Executive Function Skills in Kids

In this episode, Philip Zelazo and Ellen Galinsky join Under the Cortex to discuss their new paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science titled “Fostering Executive-Function Skills and Promoting Far Transfer to Real-World Outcomes: The Importance of Life Skills and Civic Science.” The conversation with APS’s Özge G. Fischer Baum reviews the many ways executive functioning skills are used throughout daily life. The authors describe the process they used to involve the community to determine what skills they focused on in their intervention and the intervention’s success. 

Unedited transcript

[00:00:07.140] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

People want their children to be successful at school and to secure good jobs. Executive function, a core set of attention regulation skills, is one of the predictors of success in life. What can be done to foster executive function skills to support children’s real-world accomplishments? I am Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with the Association for Psychological Science. Today, I have the pleasure of talking to Philip David Zelazo from the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, and Ellen Galinsky from the Families and Work Institute in New York. They recently published an article on executive function in APS’s journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science. How do scientists and educators generally define executive function? Can we improve what is the civic science approach to executive function? There are many questions to ask. Philip and Ellen, welcome to Under the Cortex. 

[00:01:09.040] – Ellen Galinsky 

Thank you. 

[00:01:09.730] – Philip David Zelazo 

Thank you. 

[00:01:11.350] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

I’m going to start with your personal stories right away. What brought you into studying executive functioning? 

[00:01:19.070] – Philip David Zelazo 

Well, as an undergraduate, I was interested in understanding consciousness, ideally from a scientific perspective, and I quickly got a sense of how challenging that would be. But I had an opportunity to take a course with Michael Petrides in neuropsychology. I was at McGill University, and he was a professor there. I learned about executive function and the consequences of damage to prefrontal cortex and the difficulties that patients with prefrontal cortical damage experienced. It occurred to me that it was a question of a disconnection between consciousness and the ability to act on the basis of that consciousness. And so I thought, here’s something that’s scientifically tractable. We can study how in the course of, for example, human development, people acquire the ability to act on the basis of what they know and to put their knowledge into practice. In other words, to make consciousness have practical consequences. And so that seemed to me one way of studying something that’s so intrinsically subjective in an objective fashion. 

[00:02:37.480] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

Yeah, great. Ellen, what about you? 

[00:02:40.500] – Ellen Galinsky 

I’ve practiced a form of research called civic science, which I know we’re going to talk about later. But I have done a series of studies asking young people about the issues that they faced growing up. I was doing a study on children and learning, and I went out and interviewed children around the country, I went to eight different parts of the country and talked to fifth through twelfth graders, and I found them pretty dead on arrival when they talked about school. They were just blah. I could not. I’m a good interviewer. I’m used to talking to kids. I did not get any energy from those kids. If I talked about not learning, I got them pretty animated, but talking about learning was a real pull. I have done research with the adult workplace and workforce and know how important engagement is. And so I wondered, what are we doing? Children are born learning. What are we doing to turn off this strive for learning that children have? So I decided to go back, pause my study, decided to look at the earliest, the beginnings of life, and to interview researchers across academic disciplines and look at the whole process of engagement and learning and how they were studying it, and then what we know about maintaining or increasing the engagement and learning versus it dimming. 

[00:04:05.110] – Ellen Galinsky 

That led me to executive function. Among the people I talked to was Phil. All roads were pointing toward Phil and the research that he was doing. From then on, I have continued to look at the importance of this set of skills that fall under the umbrella of executive function. 

[00:04:22.720] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

Yeah, I guess never too late to come back to a good research question. I’m glad you have been a science ambassador in the developmental science circles. Well, I would like to take a step back for our listeners, and I would like to ask you a basic question about your research. What is the link between executive function skills and real-world outcomes? What is really at stake here? 

[00:04:46.080] – Philip David Zelazo 

Well, there’s plenty of evidence that executive function skills are perhaps the single best predictor of important life outcomes, more so than IQ and SES even. What really matters, it’s not so much what you know, but whether you have the attention regulation skills to put what you know into practice. To me and to Ellen, I believe, this is the essence of the expression of agency, of human agency. What does it mean to be a human being? It means to be an agent, to be flourishing and feel like you’re effective in the world and you can have consequences and accomplish the kinds of values that you hold dearly. And not only that, but importantly, these are malleable skills. They’re skills that you can train that are not skills you’re born with. They’re skills that everybody has to learn. And under the right circumstances, everybody can learn them. And we’ve learned more and more about what those circumstances are and how to promote the healthy development of those skills. And so that’s what we’re trying to focus on. There’s so much more scientific knowledge available already than is put into practice. And we want to act on that. 

[00:06:08.340] – Philip David Zelazo 

We want to make sure that we leverage that science for the good of our society. 

[00:06:14.700] – Ellen Galinsky 

If I could say something to add to that. I am working with AASA in the United States, which is the organization of School Superintendents across this country. I’m a senior science advisor for them, and I visit a lot of schools. I walk in and just see missed opportunity, missed opportunity, missed opportunity, missed opportunity, missed opportunity, because teachers want kids to learn. They want them to thrive. Executive function skills are, as Phil just said, so highly predictive of both. Yet that knowledge is not being translated to teachers and parents. If they do know about them, they might think of them as soft skills, which they’re not. If they do know about them, they might think of them as compliance skills, be quiet, sit still, listen to the teacher. If If they do know about them, they may think about them as something for kids with ADHD or some executive function challenges, but they don’t know how important they are to everyday life. And that is a huge mission of ours, is to change that. 

[00:07:13.910] – Philip David Zelazo 

I’ll just add one quickly thing that indeed, a major objective is to change the way that schools in our country educate our children so that we first teach them the essential skills that they need in order to be able to learn effectively and efficiently, and then to be able to act on the basis of what they learn. And that’s not exactly the way that many schools and teachers understand their mandate. Instead, they figure, Well, that’s for parents. And these kids ought to come ready to learn, and then I can teach them how to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic. But there’s no reason why they can’t also Why teachers and the public school system in our country can’t also teach children how to regulate their behavior, how to take people’s perspectives, how to think critically, and all these things that depend fundamentally on executive function skills. 

[00:08:19.900] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

As we are speaking of change, you talk about training and how to change things for these children, right? Your article is about what makes executive function training successful. What types of skills are typically used in executive function training? 

[00:08:36.730] – Philip David Zelazo 

Well, typically there’s a narrow focus on executive function skills per se. We’ve learned a lot about executive function skills. It used to be a broad umbrella concept that’s a little ill defined. But in fact, we know quite a bit about what falls under that umbrella now. We have an understanding of specific executive function skills like cognitive flexibility, working memory, inhibitory control, reflection, the flexible reappraisal of approach avoidance, tendencies, these kinds of things. We have a deeper understanding of what executive function skills are, but they themselves are relatively fundamental skills that combine together with other executive function skills and non-executive function skills and things like mindsets and just contingent knowledge about the way the world works to allow for fundamental what we have been calling EF-based life skills. It’s these that are so important, so instrumental in bringing about the real-world outcomes that we’re most concerned about, Ellen. 

[00:09:57.650] – Ellen Galinsky 

If I could go back to your question, I I think that those executive function, what we think of as foundational executive function skills, like cognitive flexibility or working memory or self-control, inhibitory control, people tend to train them, and they train them in isolation, and they train them in a lab-like setting. So they might get increases in research on that particular skill in that particular setting, but they don’t really apply in ways that could be used in life in general. I think that leads to people going, Wait a minute, wait a minute. Phil, you probably want to talk about for our transfer here. 

[00:10:40.940] – Philip David Zelazo 

Yes, indeed. That was one of the ways that we structured this paper was that everybody knows now that executive function skills are so important for these real-world outcomes, but all the efforts to train them have tended to produce improvements in the trained skills that do not necessarily transfer or generalize to these real-world outcomes that executive function skills predict so strongly. Why is that? We offered a few Answers. One is that, and most generally, many training studies designed to train executive function skills aren’t designed particularly to promote transfer. So they train executive executive function skills in a single setting. We know from decades and decades of animal learning research that if you train a particular skill in a single setting, it doesn’t generalize to other settings. But if you train the skill in many different settings, then the animal learns that the setting doesn’t matter, and they’re better able to generalize those skills that are required. And then the other thing is they train the skills, but they don’t necessarily teach children what it is they’re learning and what it’s good for and what it can be used for. And then finally, we suggested that actually it’s not these skills per se that contribute in isolation to these real-world outcomes. 

[00:12:17.570] – Philip David Zelazo 

It’s these skills only insofar as they contribute to intermediate-level skills, configurations of executive function skills and non-executive function skills that together allow people to do things that allow for the expression of agency, for example, that allow people to take perspectives, relate to other people, make critical decisions, figure out how to act on those decisions, know when to stop, know when to keep trying, and all the other important things that make for an effective problem solver. 

[00:12:53.250] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

What I hear is that focusing on a single skill and training that skill doesn’t work because it is an isolated context. What needs to be done instead is finding the relevant context for those skills and tying them to real-life situations. Plus, Phil, one of the things you said, stuck with me, I’m a mom. Yeah, let the children reflect on what they learned, why they were doing those things. In a way, you are still studying executive function, but you are changing the context of it so we can see more direct effects of it. Is that right? 

[00:13:37.080] – Philip David Zelazo 

That’s exactly right. In the process, we’re centering the child and the child’s agency so that the child understands, I’ve got these skills. Here’s what they’re good for. I can use them for this, that, and the other thing that matters to me. 

[00:13:54.060] – Ellen Galinsky 

So many training programs or initiatives don’t ask children to reflect on what they’re learning, to pause, to step back, to think about what they’re learning and how it can be useful. We think that that’s a really essential part of the process, that reflection, that really does help with far transfer. 

[00:14:13.290] – Philip David Zelazo 

Not just awareness, It’s self-awareness. 

[00:14:16.090] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

Yeah. You classify tasks related to executive functioning. You said it in the passing, Phil. Can you tell our audience a little bit more about this classification? For example, what are those intermediaries intermediate-level skills that you are talking about? 

[00:14:33.080] – Philip David Zelazo 

Sure. We listed a few in the paper, only some of the possible intermediate-level skills. But setting goals and strategies is important. Perspective taking is important. Let me just give that as an example. In order to take somebody else’s perspective, you have to inhibit your own egocentric point of view. And that, by definition, involves cognitive of flexibility. And it also requires working memory to be able to keep your own point of view in mind and consider somebody else’s. And the whole process is reflective. And under certain circumstances, it can require that you regulate your emotions in order to consider somebody else’s point of view. So perspective taking is a classic example, it seems to me, of one of these broader intermediate level skills that requires not just one single aspect of executive function, but many executive functions, perhaps all of them. It also requires other things, like caring about what other people think and knowing that it’s important to work with other people in order to achieve common goals. 

[00:15:49.730] – Ellen Galinsky 

What we did was we looked at the literature fairly intensively and looked at the skills that across the ages that we think are particularly important. Phil has talked about setting goals and strategies, and then there’s also perspective taking, and then communicating and collaborating. All of these are using those core foundational executive function skills as building blocks, as Phil described with perspective taking. Then there’s problem solving, and that requires making meaning of the situation. It includes creative thinking because you’re thinking if you’ve got a problem of not just one solution, but multiple solutions and hopefully putting together information in new ways. It requires relational thinking, so you’re putting together different pieces of information, and it eventually requires critical thinking when you decide, Well, what am I going to try? You’re evaluating it, you’re figuring out what you’re going to try. Then I think the fifth skill that we mentioned is taking on challenges. A lot of people talk about resilience, but we see this as active. Resilience is more about coping with things when they happen to you. Taking on challenges that hard thing, which we think is essential in this world. All of these skills can be like a deck of cards you shuffle, and you could think of other skills that go with it. 

[00:17:09.560] – Ellen Galinsky 

But these, we thought, are the pretty important skills that we’re going to focus on for right now. 

[00:17:15.660] – Philip David Zelazo 

I would just add, too, that they are the fundamental skills that contribute to a developing sense of agency, and we believe, flourishing or thriving so that every individual can participate in in a collective society. This gets into civic science, right? Participate in democracy, be an agent, have a point of view, but also be able to work across differences and solve problems collaboratively. 

[00:17:46.170] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

You also discuss approaches for executive functioning interventions and propose the use of civic science. What is the difference between civic science and community-based research? 

[00:18:00.000] – Philip David Zelazo 

Well, they’re similar in many respects. They both involve collaborations between non-scientist citizens and scientists, and sometimes they’re involved in addressing collective problems. And so it’s intended to level the playing field between elite scientists on the one hand and citizens on the other. We’re not imposing, for example, solutions solutions on people who need it, but we’re working together across differences to solve problems collectively and collaboratively. And the idea behind civic science is that this can be a foundation for a healthy democracy so that everybody in the democracy understands we’re working collaboratively to solve broad problems, and we’re doing it in an evidence-based way. 

[00:19:00.240] – Ellen Galinsky 

Could I just describe this? Would it be okay to describe it in action? Because I’m one week out from publishing a book that’s based on civic science that Phil helped me a lot with. I’ve always used this as a process, where when I start a study, I both look at the literature and I have my own questions and hypotheses, but I go out to the people who are the so-called subjects of the study, and they become the co-creators. When I started to do a book on adolescent development, I went out to, it turned out to be 38, 14 to 18-year-olds, and I asked them, What do you want to know about your own development? When I interview researchers, What do you want me to ask them? What wish do you have that could improve your life or life of people your age? What would that wish be? What should the adults know about people your age? I asked them very open-ended questions. Completely me in a different direction. What they wanted to know had very little to do with what there was a big literature on. What they wanted to know, because I was looking at adolescents 9 through 19, why don’t people like teenagers? 

[00:20:12.590] – Ellen Galinsky 

Why do people hate teenagers? Why are people so anti-teanagers. They asked me to ask the researchers, for example, for three words to describe the typical and the stereotypical teenager. There’s not a lot of studies about the conceptions of adolescents, but that took me in a very different direction. What I did then was to go out and interview researchers using the questions that kids had asked in my own questions. I also then did a nationally representative study that Phil helped me enormously with, of close to 2,000 parents and children, again, taking the questions from kids I had interviewed, plus the literature, plus the people who served as advisors to the study, my own questions. Then I interviewed 60 of those families from the sample with more questions that came from the… Because questions always lead to answers that lead to more questions. Then the pandemic happened, so I went back again to see how the kids were faring with a whole set of hypotheses from the kids and their parents. Then Phil and I did a study of executive function in 22 schools in six states. That became my book, The Breakthrough Years. Very different book than most books on adolescents. 

[00:21:26.410] – Ellen Galinsky 

Very, very different because it combines the wisdom of kids, the wisdom of parents, the wisdom of researchers, my own putting it all together. It just tells a very different story about how to help kids both learn and thrive. 

[00:21:43.060] – Philip David Zelazo 

It’s not only more democratic than your average study in the sense that it’s involving so many different voices and perspectives, but also it’s so much more effective as a result because a scientist lenses are limited, and child’s lenses are limited, and a parent’s lenses are limited, and so forth. But it’s the collaborative working across those different perspectives that yield something greater and more democratic. 

[00:22:15.760] – Ellen Galinsky 

Most books about teenagers or adolescents are, Why are they doing wild and crazy and stupid things? Why are they wild? The internet is destroying their brains, blah, blah, blah. I look at the impact of social through a scientist and through a kid and parent lens. But kids and parents are loving this because it gives them, at least I’m one week out. It’s exactly a week ago today, my book was published. But it gives a very different lens that kids and parents are saying, Thank you for listening. They really appreciate being heard in a world that’s so, sadly, anti-teanager. You could not talk about another group of people in the way that we talk about teenagers. You couldn’t do it. 

[00:23:02.670] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

Yeah. Like Phil said, it is democratic. Another word for it, I guess, is participatory science, right? You involve the students, children, and the parents. Yeah, that is wonderful, and that is the right approach. We usually see this in social psychology or other related work, but it is very novel for cognitive science, and I am very excited about that personally. I want to go back to A little bit to your interventions. Can you tell our listeners about the daily family routine intervention you designed and implemented? How did this intervention use attributes that you view as most important to a successful intervention design? 

[00:23:47.850] – Philip David Zelazo 

Sure, I’d be happy to. The idea there was to privilege the voices of parents and to create an intervention that allowed for communication and exchange among parents and also between parents and scientists, and to ask them, What are the pressure points in your life that you’d like to address? We envisioned that helping parents to understand how to use routines as a way to engage their children, specifically in collaborative problem solving, to engage their children in an activity that would allow them to encourage reflection, and also have very practical and immediate consequences for a particular family. Some parents, this was something that was done through Head Start in their parent engagement activities. Parents would come in the afternoon, a certain number of them, 8:00 to 12:00, sitting around a table with a facilitator, and parents would be asked, What are the pressure points that you face? And some parents said, Well, getting my kids to bed at night, or getting everybody to have a calm and enjoyable dinner or getting out of the house in the morning or something like this. And so they were able to articulate what they saw as the pressing problems that needed to be addressed. 

[00:25:27.960] – Philip David Zelazo 

The facilitator and we we worked with those parents to assess what are the current routines that occur in their family and how would they like to change them. Then we tried to be supportive in terms of moving them towards whatever it is that they wanted to achieve. Interestingly, one of the biggest benefits of that intervention appeared to be the opportunity for parents to hear from and communicate with other parents and recognize that this is a shared problem, that I’m not the only one who’s struggling with these various issues. They got feedback not only from the facilitator and from us, but from other parents, too. But within that, it was a model of, I’m going to collaborate with my child to define what are our goals, what would I like to achieve? In that context, to do things like, Well, let’s Let’s be mindful. Let’s be goal-directed. Let’s set some goals. Let’s figure out what are the things that we have, the capabilities that we have to achieve those goals. It was a delivery device, so to speak, to educate parents and for them to educate us about how best to support their sense of agency and problem solving and so on in the context of their own particular particular lives. 

[00:27:01.880] – Philip David Zelazo 

One of the consequences of it was that parents ended up being more autonomy supportive as a result of that. We know that autonomy, supportive parenting, supporting your child’s developing sense of agency, giving them choices, allowing them to feel empowered. In other words, giving them the license to practice their executive function skills by solving problems and being cognitively flexible and goal-directed and all these other things. That was perhaps the single most salient outcome of that intervention. 

[00:27:40.730] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

Thank you very much for this great conversation. Ellen Phil, is there anything else that you would like to share with our listeners? 

[00:27:48.980] – Ellen Galinsky 

No, we felt very honored to have this publication out in the world. We just hope anyone who is interested in this work, a civic science, executive function, interventions to improve executive function and other aspects of children learning and thriving, and adults learning and thriving will be in touch with us. 

[00:28:11.220] – Philip David Zelazo 

Indeed. Thank you. Yes. 

[00:28:14.200] – APS’s Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum 

Yeah. Thank you very much. This is Özge Gürcanlı Fischer Baum with APS, and I have been speaking to Philip David Zalazo and Ellen Galinsky. If you want to know more about this research, visit Do you have questions or suggestions for us? Please contact us at 

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