In this blog post, we hope to de-mystify executive function and lay down the facts.
What is executive function? How is it developed or impaired?
Executive function refers to the self-regulation skills and mental processes that enable us to be do-ers. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard has a great all-encompassing definition:
" Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses."-Center on the Developing Child
In fact, the Center on the Developing Child has a synopsis that we encourage you read. They are the best source of information in this field.
In summary, executive function skills depend on working memory (ability to retain and retrieve information), mental flexibility (the ability to *actively* focus or shift attention or to not have rigid thinking), and self-control (ability to resist impulses and delay gratification).
Children don't develop these skills right away. In fact, these skills are likely to mature over time as their prefrontal cortex (read: the executive function center of the brain) develops. Parents and role models promote the development of executive function skills by routine establishment, role modeling behavior and developing trusting, mutually respectful, and loving relationships. Children learn executive function skills as they grow--at first through creative play and developing friendships, then by coping with stress and managing multiple priorities, and finally through navigating young adulthood.
However, not all children have similar experiences and when children don't receive what they need from their formative relationships and environments, their executive function is delayed or impaired. Separation from parents, adverse childhood environments involving neglect, abuse, violence, poverty, racism and prejudice, as well as experiencing natural disasters or war has been shown to significantly impact executive function by disrupting normal brain development. For example, individuals with PTSD have disruptions in the part of the brain that "bridges" the emotional center with their executive function center and recent studies have also shown that brain volume is smaller in people with histories of trauma.
That being said, all children are affected differently by the world around them and many protective factors including growing up in healthy, safe neighborhoods increase resilience. Sometimes, executive function skill impairment has less to do with the past childhood experiences, and more to do with present circumstances that adolescents and young adults have trouble navigating such as gender identity, racism, chronic illnesses, date violence, and bullying or diagnoses including general anxiety, ADD, and ADHD.
Why is everyone talking about it? Is it coachable or intrinsic?
Executive function became somewhat of a buzzword in tutoring and academic circles in the past decade or so. Many tutoring services say they offer executive function coaching, but few understand the neurobiological basis of executive function and follow all of the research currently being conducted in the field.
Most tutoring services offering assistance with executive function focus on the following basics:
1. Organizational systems (think: clean binders, effective color schemes and visual hierarchies, accountability boards)
2. Time management (think: planners and calendars)
3. Effective study skills and note taking (think: how to study and close read)
4. Communication and self-advocacy (think: getting the guts to talk to teachers and ask peers for help and staying positive and not overwhelmed).
For us, these foci are the bare minimum because they completely miss the target. With limited by the hour tutoring services, students cannot form the relationships and safe-space that truly makes an impact.
It is one thing to teach "soft study skills" for staying organized, focused, and punctual. It is another thing to actually implement these skills effectively and create lasting impact with clear outcomes and be an engaged partner in that journey of new habit creation. It's not just about teaching self-advocacy; it's about demonstrating to the student that mutually respectful, productive academic relationships are a) possible, and b) realistic. A teaching style that mirrors a healthy peer or mentor relationship enables students to feel comfortable enough to put learning into practice. Being an authentic tutor who also makes mistakes and models how to address mistakes is truly what helps impact executive function the most. And finally, developing a close trusting relationship is incredibly powerful because students feel comfortable in disclosing present circumstances that challenge their success whether it is bullying or something much more personal that needs to be addressed.
In this way, executive function is both intrinsic and coachable.
Executive f(x) tutoring | made personal
It is heart-wrenching to listen to parents of children struggling with executive function. The stories have a common theme. Children struggle with classes and organization but excel in standardized exams. They were doing well, until all of a sudden they weren't. The students are clearly academically talented but struggled to stay organize, keep track of assignments, turn assignments on time, or were too uncomfortable to speak up. Parents and teachers hypothesize using phrases like "don't apply themselves," "just bored," or "acting out because of."
The truth is, students struggle for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it was as simple as ,"I don't have a desk or a working computer or steady wifi," and feeling embarrassed to let their teachers know. Sometimes, it is a student who worked several on-campus jobs to afford college expenses and spread themselves too thin. These issues had little to do with executive function and more with socio-economic status. Other times, however, executive function issues stems from ADHD, ADD, or more pervasive identity issues of belonging and security, and social acceptance. (It makes sense these are top of mind issues for adolescents that often hamper executive function development. Most adolescents experience Erikson's Stage of Development No.# 5-identity or confusion, but may be working to negotiate autonomy, industry, and identity sometimes all at once.) Questions like, "Why can't I do this on my own? Who am I? Am I good enough for..?" manage to find themselves buried in assignments and book reports and science fair projects, and there are no multiple choice answers.
Feeling out of control in a familial or peer situation, recognizing identity issues, and the need for approval from peers, parents, and academic institutions may be more intense in some students who have had more than their fair share of adverse childhood experiences. These issues only add to the pressure-cooker academic environments of today, increasing feelings of overwhelm and anxiety. Executive function coaching, therefore, requires a holistic, relational approach that models a healthy peer or mentor relationship (depending on the age of the student) and includes aspects of humanism and unconditional positive regard while providing coaching on organization, time management, effective self-directed learning, and communication and offering multi-subject content support. This is the secret recipe for coaching and modeling executive function skills, allowing the student to feel more empowered, in control, and confident in leveraging their increasing autonomy to make positive academic choices. It is crucial to foster this sense of confidence in independence. When parents try to rush in and save the day with excuses and emailing teachers on their behalf, students tend to close off even more, having just had their autonomy taken away. (When parents jump in to help, it really says, "I don't think you can manage on your own.")
The long process to improved executive function often gets parents impatient and students disheartened. Executive function takes time to build. It often takes at least one marking period (quarter or semester) to get the student to learn the skills, attempt to implement, learn from their attempts, and try again.
Personally, I love when I am no longer needed. That's when my job is done and the sooner it happens, the happier I am for everyone involved. Because executive function tutoring tends to be so personal, however, I never truly make an exit. Our partnership may be formally over, but I am always available via email and social media and glad to hear about published poems, graduations, acceptances, and new puppies. So much of this work is about helping a student discover themselves intellectually and artistically and I am proud and honored to be a part of that journey.