What COVID-19 Lockdowns Have Revealed About Executive Functions

This year’s Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented conference was held virtually, which was yet another reminder of how the year 2020 has been different than any other. I spoke about the impact of the changed situation on our Executive Functions and have condensed that conversation into this article.

Executive Functions (EF) are the high-level cognitive skills that allow us to anticipate what needs to be done, know the steps and sequence towards completion, manage the time needed while constantly evaluating the situation and modify our plans accordingly. They are the last to develop in an evolutionary sense and also in an individual, not being fully developed until our 30s, which means that all our children go through their entire educational experience with immature EF skills. EF decline when we’re tired, sick, hungry, thirsty, stressed, in pain, and so on. Given this, I anticipated a drop in people’s EF skills during this COVID-19 period but I’ve been surprised by the impact this vastly different situation had on our higher-level cognitive abilities.

Routines are important because the brain is a worrywart and they can help alleviate that worry. A consistent, predictable structure takes the pressure off and  supports these high-level cognitive processes. But in a matter of weeks, many of our routines disappeared and the results for many are extreme. The need to wake up at a particular time, clean up, eat breakfast and get to school is often gone. Those aware of the need to maintain a routine, albeit a different one, often report success in both academic and leisure tasks. This is the exception rather than the rule. For most, the school and work routine has jumped the tracks. Those without routines struggle. Every day is uncharted territory, which is great on vacation, but detrimental for school.

It’s totally understandable that finding school routines for lecture time, physical location, posting assignments and expectations is difficulty. The situation itself is fluid. But this variability is very difficult for many students and their immature EF. Again, under normal circumstances it shouldn’t be too hard to deal with virtual meetings being on Mondays some weeks and Wednesdays others. But these abnormal times are giving us abnormal EF skills and our brains can’t manage the variability.

Environmental cues are important as the brain responds to them to anticipate situations and determine the appropriate behavior. One environmental cue is what we wear and getting dressed each day is a strong indicator of success with virtual learning. Those who get out of their pajamas and wear appropriate clothes tend to be more engaged and successful attending class, doing homework and managing their time.

A regular location to for lectures and homework is also important. Often, this is not easy when there are several family members working and schooling from home. But when possible, a consistent study space triggers our brain that this is time to work. However, students who view their beds as their workspace tend to glean less and also report more difficulty sleeping, since the cues for learning and sleeping are mixed up. We know EF are diminished when we’re tired. But it’s a cruel conundrum that the part of your brain that helps you understand the effects of your behavior on your performance is also the part of your brain that is not working well because of your behavior.

The detrimental impact of stress and worry on high-level brain function is known and COVID-19 gives us all reason to worry. This worry comes in many forms. We can often predict students’ worries and help them cope. We anticipated their concerns about catching the virus, missing school and their friends. Supporting students through these stresses is important for many reasons including enhancing their EF. But more difficult worries are more difficult. Some students, especially gifted students, feel and ponder deeply and may have existential stresses such as what will the world look like on the other side of this or how do we deal with the social and economic inequities evident with the pandemic. While some have the ability to contemplate these issues, many don’t have the tools to curb those anxieties when they get to be too much. And again, the part of the brain responsible for filtering emotions, judging the validity and importance of a stressor is the same part of the brain that is struggling. It’s a design flaw.

Many school systems have made attendance and completion of assignments optional or not impactful to long range standing. The need for this is understandable- the urgency of school closings doesn’t allow for many choices, not all home environments support good learning etc.  But this optional vs required situation is a challenge for students and their ability to do what is best rather than what is minimally necessary. I see several camps. Camp 1 are the EF superstars who complete all the work because they are thirsty for knowledge and understand the impact to their future. They are the minority. Camp 2 are the fearful. They do the work because they are afraid they will get in trouble if they don’t. Camp 3, by far the biggest group, consists of the guilt ridden. They don’t do the work but they are constantly worrying about the fact that they aren’t. Camp 4 students know it doesn’t count, don’t do it and are fine it. The ability to do what is best without any obvious, immediate consequence is extremely hard for even mature adult brains. Expecting immature brains to do so is probably unrealistic.

Learning differences are far more apparent and consequential during the COVID-19 changes. Some classes are exclusively lecturing in front of a blank wall. Perhaps good for an auditory learner but a disaster for a visual one. Perhaps good for a child that is easily overstimulated but horrible for one who can get lost in their own head. Or the pace of the teacher’s lecture may exceed a student’s auditory processing speed or  note taking abilities. Others have numerous readings. Again, good for some but challenging for those whose reading isn’t their forte. Screen views are impactful. Some teachers encourage a full participant view which can be terrible for those who are easily visually over stimulated. The raise your hand function isn’t always easy to use. Some students aren’t comfortable jumping in and conversely, students who can’t inhibit their comments may be highly distracting to others. Many gifted students enjoy the often self-paced nature. But what happens when their learning out paces the posted material? Lastly, it has been very difficult to figure out how specific IEP or 504 accommodations can be accomplished in either the virtual or highly modified in person classrooms.

This isn’t bad for everyone! Being out of the classroom has been wonderful for many students. Those who have anxiety surrounding school, are being bullied or just don’t feel like they fit in, have a reprieve and many are doing better ever. Students with attention or behavioral challenges are often excelling in environments that are less distracting than the classroom. Shy students are enjoying the smaller interactions, students who can self-pace are enjoying the lack of micromanagement. Many students were overscheduled after school. The elimination of these activities has given many the time they need for schoolwork and downtime. And for some, but clearly not all, the physical comfort and safety home provides the optimal state for their brains to learn.

So, what can we do better to maximize EF skills during difficult times? We can begin by intentionally supporting EF and their development to a greater extent than we typically would, because for all of us, the circumstances have reduced them. Assume Nothing! Directions and steps that may be painfully obvious to you are likely not to many kids. During stressful times we need to assume kids understand and spell it out. Your most asked question should be “What’s Your Plan?” Ask this question even when you know the student doesn’t have a plan. It reminds them that they need a plan. We can strongly encourage and reward routines and environmental cues. We should work to be as consistent as possible- even if that means a form of consistent inconsistency. We can work to provide consistent workspaces at home and encourage appropriate clothing. We can help kids select backgrounds and displays that enhance, not distract.  And we can maintain consistent break, meal and bedtimes. Encourage the use of a planner. Students need to keenly aware of what they have to do, how long it will take, priorities, and the best time to complete them. They should not hold this in their head- their head is getting full! We can use this opportunity to teach that a well-balanced life includes exercise, art, music, sports, social interactions and downtime even when their regular school based activities aren’t occurring. We should help students include activities for their mind, body and spirit in their plan. Lastly and most importantly, motivation and praise are essential during this time. The greatest motivator is success so we can all look for even the smallest successes to point out on a daily basis, helping kids and ourselves appreciate what is going well and focus less on what isn’t.