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Executive Function Skills: The Keys to College Transition

by Rick Bryck, Ph.D. and Adam Lalor, Ph.D.


Yu and colleagues (2010) note that a little more than 25% of first-year college students fail to persist to their second year. For neurodivergent students, dropout rates are even more pronounced (Newman et al., 2011). Explanations as to why neurodivergent students do not persist to completing their degree vary. Notable reasons for dropping out of college include, but are not limited to, poor faculty relationships, social isolation, ineffective accommodations, and delays in receipt of accommodations (Knight, 2016). Another explanation for why neurodivergent students may have difficulty in their first year is that they are often not equipped with transition skills that foster college readiness. Although many factors contribute to college readiness (Morningstar et al, 2017), executive function is known to be particularly challenging for many neurodivergent students.

Executive function (EF) can be defined as the set of mental processes involved in goal-directed behavior and problem solving (Zelazo, Blair, & Willoughby, 2016). Three related, yet distinct, core EF processes have been both theorized and empirically demonstrated: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility (Miyake & Friedman, 2012).

Let’s look at each of these building blocks of EF in more detail. 

Working Memory

Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind and to act on or with this information (i.e., do something with this information). It is the brain system used to “maintain and manipulate” information over the (very) short term. We have a very limited working memory capacåity, or the number of things we can effectively hold onto at one time. Yet it has been shown to be a critical gatekeeper to processing, and thus learning, new information.

Common challenges related to “breakdowns” in working memory occur whenever one is trying to hold onto one bit of information while doing something else. This can include difficulty with remembering directions while working on a task or assignment, hindsight and foresight, remembering the sequence of ideas, or keeping track of group discussions or conversations.

Inhibitory Control

Refers to difficulty in holding back an action, especially one that feels automatic or is especially rewarding. In other words, inhibitory control helps forestall impulses, thoughts, or actions.

Inhibitory control breakdowns are involved in commonly seen behavior like quitting a task in frustration, procrastinating, impulsive behavior, or shifting one's focus prematurely.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to switch mental sets, or focus, to adapt to changing situations (like transitions!). It is also necessary for the useful skills of shifting between big picture ideas to the details, and vice versa, as well as symbolic thinking.

A common cognitive flexibility breakdown is called “perseveration”, which is getting “stuck in set”— e.g., saying the same thing over and over, or having tunnel vision when it comes to a particular task (paradoxically, this EF breakdown involves over focus on a thought or task).


These three EF “building block” skills are fundamental cognitive mechanisms that scaffold—and overlap—with higher-level cognitive processes, such as fluid reasoning, problem solving, self-regulation and metacognition, and general academic performance (Zelazo et al., 2016). Similarly, they work together to help us with critical transition (but also academic and general life) skills such as managing time, prioritizing, and organizing.

There are a number of concrete strategies that can be taught to students planning to pursue higher education. Here are just a few examples of such, each tied to one of the three EF building blocks.

Break larger tasks or assignments into manageable sections to support working memory.

A tried and true method that can help students who struggle with getting started, or procrastinating, on a task. However, simply telling a student to “break up the work” is often not terribly successful; scaffolding the process, with a worksheet or instructions on how to break up the work, that purposely focuses on only one component of a task/assignment at a time, and first modeling this process, can be quite successful.

Similarly, the Pomodoro method helps break up work by organizing one’s work on a task into timed, discrete chunks (along with visual checkmarks and breaks); a regular kitchen timer works for timing, or digital versions and mobile app versions are easily accessed as well.

Create W.O.O.P goals to help overcome or avoid distractions to help with inhibitory control.

This might be particularly useful for individuals having difficulty prioritizing academics over socializing (or video games, or social media, etc.). W.O.O.P, or Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan, goals help individuals reach an obtainable, relatively short-term goal, in part by creating and practicing “implementation intentions” or, more simply, “if-then plans”, as they often take the form of “if presented with X (often a distraction or unwanted behavior), I will say/do Y (a behavior to avoid or curtail the unwanted behavior).” By simply developing and rehearsing these plans, one is in essence practicing the skill of inhibition, or stopping themselves from what is immediately rewarding.

Stop yourself (employ inhibitory control) to reflect, evaluate, and plan a new strategy.

Inhibition is also a necessary component to self-reflection and self-monitoring—which all require stopping oneself first before engaging in such metacognitive processes. Metacognition, or the ability to think and reflect on one’s own thinking, has been shown to be an important and valuable tool, especially as it relates to academics. But like most skills, it takes time and practice to fully develop to maximize its potential. Encouraging students to step back and evaluate their own strengths and abilities is one relatively simple way to get started, and often the first step in the metacognitive process. With practice and scaffolds (worksheets, sticky note reminders, prompt questions) individuals can develop these reflection skills in such a way that they become efficient and effective at self-monitoring—and ultimately employ tactical changes, as needed, in their approach to a task, problem, or strategy.

Practice intentionally moving back and forth between big picture and the details (“ant” vs. “eagle”), to help strengthen cognitive flexibility.

One way to combat perseveration issues is to first bring attention to them! Individuals often are not always aware, or fully aware, when they are being hyperfocused. Landmark College faculty find success in explicitly teaching students about different levels (“ant” vs. “eagle” view); for example, in analyzing text, focus is directed at first to the sentence level and paragraph structure and then to broader connections and themes across the text, and vice versa. This intentional switching between levels is a skill experienced learners might often overlook as it likely has become a habit for them, but less experienced learners can really benefit from this explicit instruction and practice with this skill.


These strategies will help address the different EF components and related challenges, such as time management and prioritization, “activating” (getting started on a task), goal setting, and overcoming learning obstacles.

In short, when students master challenging tasks, with an appropriate amount of support, they develop their executive function skills, and in turn, their autonomy and independence. This gives them a sense of agency (“I can do this!”) and self-efficacy (“I can do this, even when things get hard”) and allows for a more fluid transition to the demands faced in higher education.



Knight, S. A. (2016). Why smart students with learning disabilities drop out of college. Retrieved from

Morningstar, M. E., Lombardi, A., Fowler, C. H., & Test, D. W. (2017). A College and Career Readiness Framework for Secondary Students with Disabilities. Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, 40(2), 79–91.

Miyake, A., & Friedman, N. P. (2012). The Nature And Organization Of Individual Differences in Executive Functions: Four General Conclusions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 8–14.

Newman, L., Wagner, M., Knokey, A.-M., Marder, C., Nagle, K., Shaver, D., Wei, X., with Cameto, R., Contreras, E., Ferguson, K., Greene, S., and Schwarting, M. (2011). The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities up to 8 Years After High School. A Report From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011–3005). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. Available at

Yu, C. H., DiGangi, S., Jannasch-Pennell, A., & Kaprolet, C. (2010). A data mining approach for identifying predictors of student retention from sophomore to junior year. Journal of Data Science, 8(2), 307–325.

Zelazo, P. D., Blair, C. B., & Willoughby, M. T. (2016). Executive Function: Implications for Education.

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