Executive functioning skills are the mental processes that help us plan, organize, keep our focus, remember tasks, and accomplish multiple projects throughout the day.
They enable positive behavior and allow us to make healthy choices for ourselves and our families. It is the management system of our brains and we need this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize and manage tasks, plan and achieve goals, and have self-control.
Some subsets go under the umbrella of executive functioning skills, like planning, time management, working memory, task initiation, among others. And this blog is the first of a series that will cover these subsets. We’ll explain what each of them is, give you examples of students’ behaviors, and how we help them manage their skills.
Let’s get right into the first one, Impulsivity.
Simply put, it is like putting the brakes on before you do something, thinking before you act instead of acting on impulse. It includes controlling impulses mentally, emotionally, and physically. A common example we see with our students is when it’s time to do their homework but their choice is to go straight to play video games, or get right on their phone and start scrolling through social media. That’s their first impulse, and that’s what they will do.
It happens in all different walks of life too, not necessarily just young students. It happens when a project or task is challenging and they don’t want to do it or don’t have an interest in doing it. So they act on whatever impulse they have at that moment to avoid it.
It is also when students don’t think about their decisions and end up making unhealthy choices, most of the time unaware of why they did it.
Once, we had a young woman who was a freshman in college. Typically, for executive functioning students, the ages are between middle, high school, and college and for our students, it’s mostly centered around schoolwork. This young woman is very capable of doing the work, but her executive functioning piece gets in the way of her planning, time management and even starting her college tasks. The first thing I did when we met, I made sure she knew that executive function isn’t a learning disability in itself, but it will impact learning.
We were able to narrow it down to impulsivity and we needed to help her with feeling competent. That’s the whole purpose of this coaching, give her the tools so she can feel more confident in her own abilities (that are already there), but because she’s struggling with the mental processes inside, it was whittling away at her confidence.
The goals were around planning, time management, working memory, and task initiation. In the beginning, she set up four sessions of one hour with her coach. Then, together they decided to do smaller multiple sessions adding up to an hour during each week. After the sessions are done, we get back together and look at what’s working and what’s not working. Evaluate if she has met any of the goals and if she has, how can she keep maintaining those and what can we do next.
The students and parents meet with me, I do a screening and ask specific questions to narrow down which executive functioning skill we need to work on. Then I assign them a coach, that coach helps them with tools and to develop mini-goals so that they can start working towards managing better their skills.
The thing to remember with executive functioning is that their thinking skills are good, it’s their doing skills that need a little push.
A lot of times with executive functioning there can be a misconception of someone who’s being a messy or disorganized student. But oftentimes it is an emotional control piece that students have a harder time managing.
Students get in trouble at school when they don’t have very good impulse control, they have behavioral and social consequences, and that’s where it can be harder especially as they get older.
For example, there is a student, let’s say in fourth grade and when he’s doing his work around his other classmates, he calls out, makes noises, and acts on impulse. He will not be able to get his work done and affect his classmates as well as the teacher. But if we look a little deeper, the student may be struggling with controlling himself because he’s not making the connection that he’s doing something wrong.
Those actions will get him in trouble, like not going out for recess or he may have to take that classwork home that he couldn’t do in class, on top of the other homework that he has to do. This can start to become behavioral, he might get angry, or he could just shut down.
In this example, we would meet with this student and his parent, do a screening check for him to answer our questions, narrow down what can be the executive function skill to focus on, we set up on a broader goal, and then as he meets with his coach, they’ll set mini and narrow goals with him.
A really important piece is to help them understand that there are two different sides, a positive side if he does show self-control, and a negative one if he doesn’t. And how will any of his decisions impact others around him.
There is no one-size-fits-all in Impulsivity or even in any of the other subsets of Executive Function coaching. It doesn’t show up just one way and that’s why the earlier we can help our students, the better.
So what do you think, are our students more susceptible to be affected by the distractions of social media, Youtube, and Netflix?
We are going to continue this executive function coaching series, stay tuned for the next blogs.
If you want to contact us, you can do it here: Contact Us.