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How Executive Function and Stress Relate to Academic Performance In Middle Schoolers

This article is part of our weekly series Executive Function Tips for Families.

Middle school is a difficult time for many adolescents. The research presented in this article shows how EF skills can help your child overcome both stress and challenging academics during this time in their development.

Before We Begin:

This article explains the study “Executive Function, Perceived Stress, and Academic Performance Among Middle Schoolers With and Without Behavior Problems” Cumming, M. M., Oblath, R., Qiu, Y., Frazier, S. L., Zelazo, P. D., Flores, H., & Park, J. (2023). The focus of this study is to better understand how middle school students face academic challenges by focusing on executive function (EF) and stress. Understanding how EF can impact middle school students can help us understand how important it is to develop EF skills in preschoolers.

Key Takeaways

  • Middle school students are at heightened risk for high stress and the onset or escalation of behavioral and academic problems.
  • More stressors can lead to lower EF skills, which can indirectly affect academic performance.
  • Negative experiences like family or peer conflict can harm EF development.
  • Students who did better on EF tasks had higher academic outcomes, supporting the idea that EF is crucial for academic success.
  • Students with or at risk for EBD (emotional and behavioral disorders) who scored lower on EF tasks can be more vulnerable to academic challenges.

Actionable Steps for Parents

The researchers in this study noted a link between EF skills, stress, and academic performance. Luckily, EF skills can be taught and strengthened early in a child’s life. Let’s look at some things that can be done at home.

1. Practicing mindfulness is a proven way to reduce stress and anxiety. Breathing exercises are a fun way to help your child practice mindfulness by calming down and thinking about what they’re doing. This can also help reduce stress!

Activity: Check out “Let’s Breathe!” This activity will help children practice deep breathing to learn how to calm down and refocus. Focusing on one’s breath is a key part of mindfulness.

2. We know that your child’s EF skills keep developing as they get older. This supports the importance of continuous, focused EF skill development.

Watch: How Executive Function Develops from Infancy into Adolescence —This video explains how executive function develops from infancy into adolescence and even adulthood. 

Read: To gain a better understanding of how executive function (EF) develops from childhood through adolescence into adulthood, check out our blog post EF from early adolescence to adulthood


EF skills continue to grow and develop throughout life. These skills are important for your child’s academic performance and well-being. Be sure to stay updated on ways to support your child’s success from early childhood through adulthood.


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