By Cassie Brusch and Christy Ruth

Executive functioning skills refer to the brain-based, cognitive processes that help us to regulate our behavior, make decisions and set and achieve goals.  In the field of executive functions, a consensus exists regarding the terminology used, with the terms “executive skills” and “executive function skills” being commonly employed. Peg Dawson, a notable figure in the field, utilizes both terms interchangeably. The delineation of these skills varies among researchers, encompassing a spectrum ranging from 1 to 33 skills. These skills may bear different names or definitions, and researchers often categorize them into subskills or group them under broader classifications. Peg Dawson emphasizes the significance of executive skills in the context of school success, pinpointing 11 specific skills that are deemed crucial for achieving positive outcomes in an academic setting. 

Social Emotional Learning (SEL), as defined by CASEL, is the process through which individuals acquire and apply knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, establish supportive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

a graphic outlining the casel sel framework

Image credit: What is the Casel Framework?. CASEL. (2023, March 3).

The developmental journey of executive functions is an interplay between biological factors and experiential learning. Notable milestones, particularly at ages 5 and 11-12, mark significant strides in brain maturation. In the brain’s control center, called the frontal lobe, there are intricate pathways that help with planning, organization, starting tasks, and adapting to changes. When there’s a burst of gray matter during growth, it means the brain is learning quickly. This reveals the sophisticated foundation that supports thinking tasks and handling different situations.

cartoon graphic: side view of human brain

According to research conducted by The Aspen Institute, the interconnectedness of social, emotional, and academic development in the brain is crucial to learning. Beyond fundamental physiological needs, the brain necessitates social relationships, emotional experiences, and cognitive resources to fully leverage learning opportunities. When a person is lacking in a basic physiological need, involved in a stressful social relationship, or experiencing emotional distress, it is incredibly difficult to learn. Their frontal lobe is no longer in control, with the amygdala portion of their brain often placing them in a survival mode or what is called a “flight or fight” response.

As educators, we can thoughtfully structure our learning environments to better align with brain development principles and take into consideration the social and emotional health of our students. These environments prioritize the learner’s emotional and social experiences, fostering classroom communities grounded in respect and shared norms. They actively support age-appropriate exploration, flexible thinking, and the cultivation of habits of mind and character. Through the growth of social-emotional learning skills, students can begin to monitor their learning journey which contributes to the development of perseverance, resilience, and a growth mindset.

emotions portrayed in a side view of the human brain

In the intricate dance of brain development, executive functioning skills, and social emotional learning are like threads woven by biology and experience. Starting as possibilities at birth and hitting important milestones during growth, these skills show growth, adaptability, and mastery. Picture the frontal lobe as the brain’s conductor, leading decision-making, problem-solving, and emotions. As adults we need to provide executive functioning support and skills, as well as, social emotional learning while our students’ frontal lobes are under development. Understanding the process of brain development provides insight into how nature and nurture shape our thinking. So, as we explore executive functioning skills and social emotional learning, we’re taking a journey into mastering how our brains work, appreciating the delicate balance between nature and nurture shaping our cognitive abilities.



Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential.

Guare, R., Dawson, P., & Guare, C. (2012). Smart but Scattered Teens: The “Executive Skills” Program for Helping Teens Reach Their Potential.

The brain basis for integrated social, emotional, and … – aspen institute. (n.d.-b).

What is the Casel Framework?. CASEL. (2023, March 3).



Cassie Brusch

Project Consultant