Brain Week: Executive functions and school difficulties


Brain week Awareness starts in a few days and we want to take the opportunity to talk about a much analysed them in the scientific field but still little emphasized at a popular level: that of executive functions and their role in schools.

But first things first: what’s the Brain Awareness Week?

The Brain Awareness Week is an event aimed at spreading knowledge and discoveries about the brain to the people. It is usually held in March, but due to Covid-19 this year will be celebrated on Monday 18th May. The event consists in the promotion of free events, such as health care services, seminars and workshops, aimed at informing about the latest discoveries regarding the brain, raising awareness on the topics covered and encouraging a preventive attitude leading to a healthy lifestyle.

The Brain Awareness Week arrived in Italy thanks to a partnership created in 2016 between Donatella Ruggeri (founder of the portal of scientific dissemination and the New York organisation Dana Foundation, creator of the campaign in 1995. In four editions only, the event has gathered a lot of memberships from professionals of the sector, allowing Italy to rank first in the world for the number of events proposed, even surpassing the United States.

Therefore, taking inspiration from this event, we decided to deal with the importance of executive functions (EF) and their role in school.

What are the EFs?

Without wanting to get too technical, it’s a set of function that allow the person to implement effective behaviors and strategies in situations where the old patterns acquired are not functional or do not allow the resolution of the problem. They are basically the opposite of the ability to automate, that is, the ability that allows us to act almost "without thinking", automatically. FE come into play when our "toolbox", formed by the routine of strategies and behaviors learned over time, proves insufficient in the light of the new circumstances of life.

The currently most scientifically accredited model brings the executive functions back to three main subsets (Miyake e coll., 2000):

  • Inhibition: the ability to inhibit or stop an impulse or an information that aren’t relevant in that moment. If while you’re studying, you hear your phone ringing and you resist the urge to check it in order to stay focused, you’re using the inhibition!
  • Working memory: allows you to keep information in mind and process it for a short period of time. To find out how it works, try reading the following line once and repeat the numbers first, in ascending order, and then the letters, in alphabetical order: M – 4 – A – 6 – R – 3
  • Flexibility of response: the ability to change your behavior based on a change in the rules or the type of request. This ability is closely linked to empathy and therefore has great relational and social relevance. For example, it helps us to change our perspective and put ourselves in someone else's shoes.

What are they for?

EFs start working when it’s necessary to learn new skills and abilities. They are essential especially at school age (6 -18 years) and it has long been known that the damage to these functions often leads to learning difficulties. It is not uncommon for neurodevelopmental disorders such as Specific Learning Disorders (DSA), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (commonly known as ADHD) and Specific Language Disorders to occur in these cases.

Can they be enhanced?

The good news is that yes, EFs can be enhanced, no matter how compromised they are (indeed, it seems that the best results are achieved when the framework is particularly compromised).

Scientific studies have highlighted two possibilities in this respect:

  1. Specific training: various intervention protocols, computerised and non-computerised, have demonstrated their effectiveness in the school environment, for example by improving attentiveness, reasoning and calculating skills, understanding written texts. In order to implement them, the intervention of a specialist (usually a psychologist) is necessary. The specialist after evaluating the difficulties and resources of the case with standardized tests, prepares a personalized plan tailored to the individual. There are also training courses that can be carried out at pre-school age, like Tools of the Mind (Diamonds, 2007)
  2. Yoga and martial arts: Several studies have found improvements in FE through the practice of disciplines such as yoga, meditation and some martial arts (e.g. tae-kwon-do). In fact, it is believed that these activities, which are known to require a good level of concentration, promote the strengthening of self-control and planning.

To discover the Brain Awareness Week events planned in Italy, just click here: https://www.sdi

Translated by Francesca Cioffi

Original version by Sara Bergamini

Sources consulted to edit this article:

Marzocchi, G. M., & Valagussa, S. (2011). Le funzioni esecutive in età evolutiva. Milano, IT: F. Angeli.

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  • L'Autore

    Sara Bergamini

    Sara Bergamini è psicologa, iscritta all'Albo degli Psicologi della Lombardia.

    È membro di Mondo Internazionale dal gennaio 2020. Attualmente collabora con il team del progetto TrattaMi Bene occupandosi di tematiche relative all'età evolutiva.



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