Tag Archives: Executive Function

Executive Function and Junk Food

There’s no question that what we eat has a major influence on our day to day behavior and our long term health. But how does what we eat affect our executive function processes?

Unsurprisingly, research has found that healthy foods are correlated to boosted executive function performance, and unhealthy foods are not. Personally, I was very happy to hear that blueberries and smoothies high in antioxidants appear to boost performance on executive function tasks.

The bad news, especially after an indulgent holiday season, is that sugar is not good for executive function. In the short term, eating sugar sends a pleasurable rush to the brain. As the brain seeks out this reward, it undercuts our inhibition to say no to sugary treats, undermining the executive function processes that allow us to delay gratification. Check out this great TedTalk for more on the neuroscience of sugar.

Even worse, unhealthy eating appears to have negative consequences  for our long-term brain health. A study done by Fania Dasseen and Katrijn Houben at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, found a link between obesity and lower reported levels of executive function performance, implying that individuals who struggle to maintain their weight also struggle with executive function tasks.

It is important to note that the study did not find a causal link; it is possible that being obese impedes executive function development, having executive function difficulties predicts the risk of being obese, or a third factor, such as genetics, could explain both.  Regardless, the risk to brain development is real. Another study by Amy Reichelt, at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, found that a diet high in fat and sugar impeded the neuroplasticity of adolescent rats.

The good news is that, by pairing executive function strategies with healthy eating programs, both diet and executive function abilities may be improved. A study by researchers  at Curtin University in Australia taught strategies for cognitive flexibility and improved metacognition and found that participants improved both their eating habits and their performance on executive function related measures

As more research is done to explore the role that food has on our application and development of executive function processes, and the influence executive function strengths and challenges have on diet, educators should be aware and look for opportunities to explore the relationship between diet and executive function in their students’ lives. When discussing healthy eating habits, find ways to teach strategies for eating healthy systematically and explicitly, providing opportunities for students to develop greater self-awareness. When teaching executive function strategies, ask students to reflect on how their diet influences their food choices.

Personally, now that the Christmas cookie season is safely behind us, I’ll be taking some time this January to reflect on the role of junk food in my own diet.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed.

Project-Based Learning and Executive Function

Thinking about bringing project-based learning to your classroom? You can help students succeed by weaving executive function strategies into every step.

Project-based learning is a hot topic in education these days. By actively engaging in real-world projects, students often experience higher motivation and deeper learning. Students are able to explore issues that are personally meaningful, such as bullying, or make an impact on the community by helping out someone in need, like a homeless shelter or animal rescue. The skills and strategies needed to engage in project-based learning (e.g., organizing, public speaking, research) are essential for success in college and the real world.

Unfortunately, projects don’t always go smoothly and learning opportunities are lost. When we work with schools that are implementing project-based learning, it’s not unusual to hear stories of projects gone wrong: students who don’t understand the point, materials that got jumbled up or lost, or a timeline that left everything to the last minute.

To be successful when implementing project-based learning, executive function must be addressed explicitly. Students need to organize their time and materials, sift and sort information when conducting research, and self-monitor and check their progress.

Here are three steps to follow when thinking through how to integrate executive function into project-based learning.

  1. PLAN – A successful project takes thoughtful time management. This includes both long-term management (setting the timeline for each phase of the project) as well as short-term management (identifying work time and helping students use that time efficiently). Students must be engaged in the planning part of the project. While the teacher may need to do most of the calendar planning, students can create their own personal timeline to gain a sense of the scope of the project.
  2. DO – Project-based learning relies on academic tasks with a high executive function demand (note taking, reading comprehension, breaking down directions). This is the perfect opportunity to teach executive function strategies in the content of an engaging project! Model the successful use of an executive function strategy, and then let students practice this strategy on their project.
  3. REFLECT – Take time to ask students to reflect on how they used executive function strategies within their projects. This helps them to make connections between the problems they are exploring or to apply strategies they used on their project to other areas of their lives.

By explicitly embedding executive function into every step, you’ll increase the success and impact of your students’ project-based learning experience.

Want to learn more? Join us at the 10th Annual Executive Function Conference for a session on “Designing and Assigning Projects through an Executive Function Lens.” We’ll see you there!

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director