Many smart youngsters who underperform in school struggle with executive function skills. One or a series of behaviors can manifest to indicate that students need direct instruction and coaching. These behaviors can include: procrastination, missing deadlines, forgetting to take home books and materials for assignments, and/or staying up really late to cram for a big test. Our students frequently tell us that they feel paralyzed by not knowing where to start. These are just a few of the reasons that parents first reach out to us.
Often, when a child has a deficit in executive function skills, a parent steps in to help her
keep schoolwork organized. However, that becomes unmanageable over time, especially as the child gets older and schoolwork becomes more difficult.
Below are questions that parents and students often ask about executive function coaching.
What is executive function coaching?
Executive function (EF) is considered the “CEO of the brain.” These skills are critical to an individual’s capacity to organize, prioritize, plan, and follow through on tasks. EF skills are just as important — if not more — than pure ability for success in school.
During EF coaching, the coach teaches strategies to develop executive function skills and practices these skills with the student so that they become routine. The strategies are relatively easy to teach, but forming new habits is really difficult. Coaching that takes place on a consistent basis is key to internalizing these essential habits that will serve students for life.
As a starting point, an executive function coach will conduct an assessment to determine the specific skills with which the child is struggling. It may be that a student has great organizational systems, but lacks time management skills. The EF skills that are integral to functioning successfully at school and work include:
● Time Management
● Task Initiation
● Sustained Attention
● Working Memory
Do most children or teens who benefit from executive function coaching have a diagnosis of ADHD or a learning difference?
While some students have been diagnosed with ADHD or a learning difference, many students don’t have an official diagnosis; however, their teachers or parents notice that executive function deficits are holding a child back. Typically, students diagnosed with ADHD need EF coaching, and many students with learning differences need EF coaching as well.
In our experience, individuals with the same diagnosis may have different executive function challenges. For example, one student with ADHD may grapple with time management and prioritization, while another struggles with procrastination and task initiation. Executive function coaching is customized to the individual’s specific needs.
Is there a certain age or maturity level at which EF coaching is most effective?
When schools become departmentalized — meaning that there isn’t one central classroom where most learning takes place — students’ EF challenges are most visible as there are increased demands and expectations of independence. Typically, this happens at most schools in sixth grade. At that point, students with EF deficits tend to underperform or their academic demands can be a catalyst for other issues, such as anxiety and depression. Failing to meet some or all of their daily expectations creates a vicious cycle of children and teens feeling badly about themselves and their capabilities.
How often do coaching sessions take place?
We typically start with twice a week to get students into a routine. We find that if sessions occur once a week, too much time elapses in between sessions. If a student is already feeling overwhelmed with services and other activities, we can start once a week, with the understanding that it may be necessary to bump up the frequency to twice a week to be effective.
Most students find it beneficial to have an EF coach for the full academic year. Old habits can be hard to break. It takes time to get into a routine, do it consistently, and become independent with new practices.
Why a coach vs a tutor?
We equate this kind of work to a sport — a major focus is practicing skills consistently in order to attain mastery. Also, we create a sense of student accountability, just as one would have with an athletic coach. Executive function coaches hold students accountable for goals that are within their reach.
Given the demands on students’ schedules, it is important to apply the skills and strategies to academic work so that students see the value of what they are learning. Students will most likely maintain their motivation to stick to a routine if they see the positive outcomes that their newly developed skills have on projects, homework, and tests.
How do improvements to EF skills impact family relationships and dynamics?
If you’re a parent of a child who struggles with executive function skills, you know the stress experienced in your household when your child has a daily struggle with disorganization, procrastination, and failure to meet deadlines on projects. You and your child might feel overwhelmed, stressed, or defeated. These challenges clearly impact the dynamics between parents and the child, as well as often have a ripple effect on the entire family.
Is virtual coaching as effective as in-person sessions?
This really depends on the individual. In cases where children are able to learn virtually, one benefit for them is not having to commute to an appointment. We’ve found that students attend virtual sessions more consistently and have fewer missed appointments compared with in-person sessions.
What else should I know about executive function coaching?
We strongly believe that most youngsters want to do well in school and feel ashamed of struggling with EF skills because of the expectation that they would have mastered these things by elementary school years (such as how to use a planner). We know that coaching can help a student improve their executive function skills, but it does take time and consistent dedication. From our perspective, there is no greater joy — and challenge — than working with students on executive function skills because we know that these are essential skills for school and life.
Check out our Executive Function Skills Guide that includes a self-assessment survey to identify strengths and areas for improvement.