Executive Functioning and Waldorf Education

Oct 28, 2021 | Curriculum, Early Childhood, Elementary School, High School

by Ashley Brickeen | Admissions Director, Nursery – Grade 8

On Tuesday, October 12th, along with many parents in Silicon Valley, I joined the Common Ground Event ‘The Essentials of Executive Functioning – Building the Skills to Flourish’ with Dr. Adele Diamond. Dr. Diamond is a leading expert in the field of executive functioning, a host of cognitive skills children need to develop not only so they can thrive at school, but also later in life.

Studies consistently show that strong executive functioning skills are a better predictor of successful careers and happy relationships than IQ scores. In part, this is because IQ tests measure something called “crystallized intelligence”- which is mostly how well you recall what you have already learned. Executive functioning, on the other hand, is related to your ability to use that information – to be creative and problem-solve with it. In other words, executive functioning relates directly to fluid intelligence

As Dr. Diamond says, “If you look at what predicts how well children will do later in school, more and more evidence is showing that executive functionsworking memory and inhibition actually predict success better than IQ tests.”

Executive functions begin to emerge in early childhood, and, like the developing brain, do not fully mature until early adulthood. In order to develop, they need constant work and reinforcement.

Given how important these skills are, you may wonder how WSP and Waldorf Education support the development of the four categories of executive function skills. The four categories are:

  1. Focus – In order to learn or carry out a task, we need to be able to control our attention – ignoring some things while zeroing in on the activity, skill, or lesson we wish to fulfill. This is true whether we are a young child struggling to tie a shoelace or a manager crunching numbers for a mid-year report. Nothing gets done without focus and attention.
  2. Working Memory – Working memory is the ability to hold pieces of information in our minds while adding to it, updating it, or working with it to create something new. Dr. Diamond highlighted oral storytelling as a way of challenging working memory. When a student is listening to a story, they have to keep track of the actions, words, and interactions of the various characters in order to understand the whole story.
  3. Cognitive Flexibility – This is the ability to think creatively and problem solve. Without cognitive flexibility, it is easy to get stuck. Cognitive flexibility is also the ability to see someone else’s perspective; the ability to take advantage of an unexpected opportunity or admit to a mistake.
  4. Inhibitory Control – We do not often think of the ability NOT to do something as an important skill, but anyone who has taken a few deep breaths to control an impulse has practiced such control.

So, how does the teaching of executive functioning show up in Waldorf education, particularly here at Waldorf School of the Peninsula in Silicon Valley? I see it throughout the curriculum. In fact, every recommended activity that Dr. Diamond identified as supporting the robust development of executive functioning takes place at a Waldorf School. From Early Childhood through high school, our core curriculum attends to each of the four categories of executive functioning skills. Executive management skills are also directly addressed through the high school years, often as a focused topic of study for incoming high school students. Here are a few of many examples across the curriculum:

Oral storytelling
Dr. Diamond talked about a study of First Graders that found that the children who heard a story, rather than having it read to them with pictures, had improved vocabulary and an ability to recall (working memory) the details of the story. Every day in Early Childhood, teachers tell stories to their children. These stories feature advanced vocabulary (with words such as “precipice” and “horrendous”) and challenge children to remember the actions and interactions of various characters. Verbal storytelling features in the early grades as well, but the teacher now adds a review, challenging students to recall details of the story the following day.

Starting at around four years old, children transition from something called parallel play into the richer world of role play. Here they work with friends to create worlds together and populate them with characters and actions. When a child is role-playing, they need to inhibit the desire to go “out of character”; they need to keep their character and other character’s words and actions in working memory; they need to respond flexibly when their friend does something unexpected, and they need to remain focused on the story and all its moving parts. Dr. Diamond described role-playing as hugely important for developing executive functioning skills. Fortunately, the Waldorf school day provides lots of time and space for children to pursue such play and not only in the Early Childhood. In the first and second grades, formal instruction ends at 2:05 pm so students can have an open class period, which allows for role-playing and social interaction. 

Traditional games and toys
WSP’s Early Childhood program abounds in open-ended toys such as blocks and play cloths. A block is simply a piece of wood – a child needs to think flexibly in order to make it into a chair, table, part of a slide, or a cave. In the grades, teachers frequently play games with children that require them to keep a sequence of movements in working memory. Properly executing the sequence of movements requires focus as well as inhibiting the impulse to move when they are not supposed to move.

Eurythmy also involves keeping a sequence of movements in working memory while focusing and inhibiting impulses. In fact, Dr. Diamond specifically cited storytelling, dance, art, music, and play as being healthy and powerful drives in developing executive functioning skills. She described the distinction between “academic” and “enrichment” activities as arbitrary and wrong. In addition to developing vital executive functions, these activities also address social, emotional, and physical needs.

Avoiding the negative impacts of stress and “teaching to the test”
Dr. Diamond opened her talk on executive functions with a discussion about stress. She cited studies that show that, while some people perform well under mild stress, many people perform markedly worse. She was clear that even those who performed well under mild stress did not perform better – they were just less negatively impacted by the mild stress. 

For this reason, Dr. Diamond dislikes the emphasis on tests and grades, and especially “teaching to the test.” Research shows that this emphasis leads to lower executive function, less critical thinking, and much higher rates of stress among students. 

At WSP, we foster a healthy rhythm of learning that’s free of unproductive stress or competition. Faculty ensure that students are evaluated on articulated, visible and relevant learning goals, and encourage students to strive for excellence in order to reach their highest potential rather than do merely enough to arrive at an arbitrary end.

Student crafted lesson books
Opportunities for developing and strengthening the capacities to organize and synthesize are inherent in Waldorf students’ lesson book work, which goes considerably deeper than simply recording data. Students capture not only information but also their impressions and feelings. From learning how to form letters to composing thoughts via well crafted sentences and paragraphs with neat handwriting along with artistic elements such as drawings, paintings, and well-balanced colored backgrounds deftly support executive functions. Even creating page borders helps with framing content, context, and contemplation.

Students take on more initiative and self-direction as they progress through the grades with the creation of their lesson books across a vast scope of studies. Many WSP alumni have reported that they use the “Waldorf lesson book method” to help with organizing and synthesizing their college studies.

All you need is love
Dr. Diamond emphasized that the single most important thing parents can provide for their children is love – that our caring is more important than our knowledge, skills, or resources. In the journey through the grades at WSP, the teacher generally stays with the class for grades one through eight. This enables students, teachers, and their families to learn and grow together over time. The security from these long-term relationships supports learning, confidence, and healthy development of social and emotional skills. At the high school, our small, supportive and close-knit community helps ensure that each student is known, respected, valued, and challenged.

From early childhood all the way through their senior year, students build the capacities to organize, manage and synthesize, step by step, so that they may function productively and with purpose as individuals–and in the communities in which they choose to participate.