We know from research that executive functions and metacognition are associated with positive academic, personal, and socio-emotional outcomes. School-based interventions that aim to improve executive functioning and academic outcomes have largely focused on preschool and early years however research in this area is lacking in pupils in Key Stage 2 where the transition into secondary school marks a huge period of change. During this transition, 11-year-olds will need to navigate a new school environment, develop new friendships, as well as manage the psychological and physical changes that transition them into early adolescence. 

Developing executive function skills ahead of this transition can support the transition to independence by equipping them with the skills they need to self-regulate their behaviour (e.g., response inhibition, emotional control, metacognition), deal with increasing social complexity (e.g., cognitive flexibility, emotional control), and prepare reports and assessments for multiple subjects (e.g., planning and prioritisation, goal-directed persistence, time management, organisation).

Given this clear gap in the research, we investigated the efficacy of a whole-class intervention in enhancing Year 5 and Year 6 students’ executive functions and metacognition using a randomised control trial design with a two-form entry state-primary school. The classroom intervention consisted of teachers explicitly teaching executive function skills, metacognition and supporting strategies during twelve dedicated executive function lessons across the curriculum alongside their usual teaching. The class teachers in the intervention class received training on implementing and delivering the intervention during the Autumn and Spring Term. After the research concluded, the class teachers in the control group received the training and delivered the intervention in the Summer Term. 

We used a psychometric questionnaire to measure executive function skill development pre- and post-intervention as well as conducting post-intervention semi-structured interviews with the class teachers in the intervention classes. The psychometric questionnaire results indicated that the intervention led to a reduction in executive function challenges in comparison to the control group (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Mean (+/- 1 SE) frequency of overall EF challenges as a function of time and condition. Scores are an average from a Likert scale (0 = Never or Rarely, 3= Very often).

We used thematic analysis to analyse the semi-structured interviews. Four themes were identified: improvement in executive function skills, explicit executive function and strategy conversations, increased metacognition, and embracing challenges. A full report will be shared in late 2023 on our website and LinkedIn. 

The results of this pilot have enabled us to secure funding from Mercers Philanthropy Committee to replicate the randomised control trial in Year 1 to Year 5, reaching almost 450 state-primary school pupils moving into the 2023/34 academic year. In Year 6 there will be an explicit focus on executive functioning and transitioning to secondary school in addition to a community-focused enterprise scheme so that they can put their executive function skills into practice. As the most effective interventions can be those where the school and parents/carers work collaboratively, educational staff will be providing 1:1 executive function coaching sessions to 20 pupils with the most intensive needs whilst providing targeted parent support for these pupils’ parents. For parents across the school, we will also be facilitating 3 webinars throughout the academic year to introduce them to executive functions and how these skills inform behaviour and learning at school and at home. You can find the full research report and our findings here. 

This research formed the MSc Psychology Research Dissertation for Belinda Edington, Managing Director