Building Better Programs

Executive Function News – May/June 2015

Using Executive Function Principles to Build More Effective Employment and Human Service Programs

In This May/June 2015 Issue

What Are Executive Function Skills?
The Relationship between Poverty and Executive Function?
Upcoming Webinar
: Applying a Rapid-Cycle Learning Approach to Accelerate Progress in Employment and Related Programs
Previous Webinar: Executive Function Skills: What They Are and Why They Matter
Resource of the MonthPoverty Interrupted

What Are Executive Function Skills?

Executive functions are a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. These processes include the skills we use to organize and plan, control how we react to situations, and get things done.  Executive function skills are critical for success in school, work and life; poor executive function can lead to poor productivity and difficulty finding and keeping a job. Like all skills, executive function skills vary from one individual to the next and their development is influenced by a number of factors.

The Relationship between Poverty and Executive Function

There are three ways in which executive function skills can be impacted by poverty:

  1. Living under the conditions of scarcity imposes a “bandwidth tax” which reduces the cognitive resources that individuals have available to devote to activities aimed at achieving long-term goals.  Researchers that have studied scarcity liken living in poverty to living perpetually on a missed night of sleep. As is true with all individuals who are functioning without sleep, the bandwidth tax reduces individuals’ abilities to effectively consider all options and their consequences which can lead to less than optimal decisions.
  2. Adverse environments that expose children to high levels of stress (i.e., “toxic stress”) can disrupt brain architecture and impair the development of executive function skills.  Because executive function skills aren’t fully developed until the mid-twenties, the longer the exposure to adverse conditions, the greater the impact on their development.
  3. Living in poverty places greater demands on executive function skills.  Managing life as a single parent or without a car or without the technical skills that employers are seeking or without extra financial resources to weather crises requires exceptional executive function skills such as planning, organization, and time management, among others.  In addition, individuals living in poverty deal with very high levels of stress which is one of the factors that is known to impair executive functions.

Upcoming Webinar

Applying a Rapid-Cycle Learning Approach to Accelerate Progress in Employment and Related Programs

Date: June 17, 2015
Time: 1:30 pm EST
Presenter: Corey Zimmerman, Senior Project Manager, Frontiers of Innovation 

In this webinar, you will hear why the Center on the Developing Child believes that building adult capabilities is critical to achieving “breakthrough outcomes” for children and why they believe “rapid-cycle learning” is a critical component of getting to these breakthrough outcomes. Adoption of this approach to learning will help to ensure that as we begin to apply executive function principles to our work, we maximize our learning about what works best and for whom. In addition, this webinar will provide information on how the Center, through its Frontiers of Innovation project, is spurring innovation by finding opportunities to apply scientific knowledge to real world practice situations.

Watch Here

Previous Webinar

Executive Function Skills: What They Are and Why They Matter

Presenter: Silvia Bunge, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology and Director of the Building Blocks of Cognition Laboratory, University of California at Berkeley

Bunge provided an an excellent introduction to how neuroscientists define executive function skills for adults, how executive functions develop and the factors that influence their development. The executive functions that Silvia has found critical for adults are:

  • Self-control which involves controlling one’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It is important for not getting distracted from a goal and not immediately getting angry when someone upsets you.
  • Planning which refers to the ability to outline long-term goals and identify obstacles and possible solutions. It is the skill that is used to lay out the series of steps needed to achieve goals, including setting appropriate deadlines and reminders.
  • Monitoring which refers to the moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, behavior and one’s progress towards a goal.  It is important for assessing how well I am doing at completing the task at hand and whether my behavior is appropriate for the setting

A recording of the webinar and a copy of the slides are available in the link below.

Watch Here

Resource of the Month

Poverty Interrupted by Ideas 42

Ideas42, a non-profit organization that uses the insights of behavioral science – which helps us to understand the choices and decisions people make – to design innovative solutions to social problems at scale, recently released a report titled, Poverty Interrupted, that presents behavioral insights that “shed new light on the many challenges facing families with low incomes and those who seek to support them.”  The report puts forth three design principles that flow from these insights:

  • Cut the costs of living in poverty by reducing burdens on time, attention, and cognition;
  • Create slack by helping individuals and families to build an adequate cushion of time, money, attention and other critical resources; and
  • Reframe and empower individuals and families by crafting services to help people do more of what they want to do and less of what they don’t want to do – and to ensure that service providers are capable partners in that task.

Read Here

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