Breaking Down Executive Functioning Coaching

My Child Has ADHD and I Don’t Know What the Treatment Is

Executive functioning is a term used by educators, clinicians, and business professionals to describe a set of skills responsible for the structures and routines that we all use each and every day. Executive functioning (or EF) skills, such as attention, memory, planning and inhibition, are housed in the frontal lobe of the brain, also known as the control center. As we continue to learn more about the intricacies of human cognition and behavior, it’s becoming evident that success in any endeavor is not just about intelligence or skill set; it’s also about how effectively we manage our cognitive processes. This is where we break down executive functioning coaching. EF coaching offers a structured approach to optimizing one’s mental processes and can be helpful for individuals, children and their parents!

young boy packing notebook into backpack on chair.

What is executive functioning?

As we already mentioned, executive functioning influences many of the intricate details of everyday life. For example, executive functioning processes are what’s responsible for helping your child remember to bring his book to school, make a plan to speak with new students at lunch, and structure a homework plan. Furthermore, EF skills help adults navigate a carpool pick-up plan, organize extracurricular schedules for three different kids, and create a plan to finish an upcoming presentation for work. 

Executive functioning encompasses several key components, including:

  • Inhibition: The ability to control impulses and refrain from acting impulsively.
  • Working Memory: Holding information in mind and manipulating it to guide behavior and solve problems.
  • Flexibility: Adapting to changing circumstances and shifting perspectives when necessary.
  • Planning and Organization: Strategizing, setting goals, and breaking tasks down into manageable steps.
  • Self-Monitoring: Reflecting on one’s performance and making adjustments as needed.

These are skills that are important across the lifespan and contribute to academic, emotional, and social success. These functions are controlled by the prefrontal cortex of the brain and are especially crucial for goal-directed behavior. Helping your child learn these skills early on builds neural pathways that they will be able to utilize throughout their entire life.

woman writing with pen in a notebook on table.

Who can benefit from executive functioning coaching?

For some people, such as those with an ADHD diagnosis, executive functioning skills come online more slowly. This is because of differences in their prefrontal cortex, the very front part of the brain. These individuals do best with extra support and scaffolding—for example, by working with a coach to break things down into more manageable tasks. In fact, research shows that children with ADHD benefit from behavioral interventions that target organizational skills deficits. Furthermore, medication for ADHD (which is often the first line of treatment) does not adequately address executive functioning difficulties. So, your medicated child may show less impulsivity or disruptive behaviors, but likely will still need help in the areas of planning, time management, and organization. 

Executive functioning coaching focuses on helping children, adolescents and adults develop and fine-tune their executive functioning skills. EF coaching is beneficial for an individual struggling with ADHD, but is also incredibly helpful for neurotypical individuals who struggle with organization, time management, and attention. Furthermore, EF coaching helps individuals who are generally functioning well but want to get even better at these skills. For example,  a parent who is juggling multiple responsibilities at once or a high-powered executive with more tasks than minutes in a day. In this way, EF coaching is like personal strength training for your brain. And, like a personal strength training coach, there is no shame in seeking out EF support. Having a deficit in executive functioning has nothing to do with intellect or success. There are many extremely successful people that experience difficulties with executive functioning.

Why are executive functioning skills important for children?

As important as EF skills are, no one is born with them already fully developed. In fact, many behavioral issues in children are due to underdeveloped regulatory capacities. Furthermore, these skills really don’t finish developing until about 26 years of age. So, difficulties with emotion regulation (from toddlerhood to adolescence) and planning and organization are in many ways expected, and even developmentally appropriate. That’s why it can be so beneficial to understand what EF skills are and how they contribute to an individual’s everyday quality of life.

How does executive functioning coaching work?

EF coaching isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Services are individualized to best assess specific needs. Coaching always begins with a comprehensive assessment to evaluate strengths and areas of difficulty. Together with a coach, you create specific goals, which could include things like navigating peer and workplace relationships, creating a better system for completing homework or studying for assignments, managing competing priorities at work, or organizing a family schedule. It doesn’t stop there: research shows that the skills learned during EF coaching contribute to improved academic achievement and goal attainment.

EF coaching is also developmentally sensitive. For example, for young children, an EF coach might support a parent in setting a foundation for healthy homework habits. For adolescents and young adults, the focus might be on balancing school with sports or even applying for jobs. Often, children benefit from EF coaches most during transitions—for example, from elementary to middle school..

Regardless of the specific goal, let’s break down the main components of executive functioning coaching: 

  1. Assessment
  2. Goal Setting
  3. Skill Building
  4. Implementation
  5. Monitoring and Adjustment

Executive functioning coaches provide a specific roadmap to help you practice the skills most important to you or your child. 

What are the benefits to executive functioning coaching?

The benefits of executive functioning coaching are manifold and extend to various aspects of life:

  • Improved Productivity
  • Enhanced Decision Making
  • Reduced Stress
  • Greater Goal Attainment
young adult student sitting on couch working with a coach writing in notebook.

What is a parent’s role with executive functioning coaching?

Parents are often curious about their role in EF coaching. For younger children, parent involvement is key. Parents are supported in creating a productive and effective environment for their children, and are taught the specific EF skills so they can:

 a) model them for their child

b) support their child in implementing those skills. 

An EF coach may, for example, provide the parent with tools to support their child in managing and completing summer homework. 

Providing parents with a framework for understanding and breaking down executive functioning skills promotes an important mindset shift: parents come to understand that behaviors once thought of as defiance, laziness, or abstinence are actually best understood as executive functioning deficits that can be addressed and remedied. And, because brains are interconnected, kids (and adults) tend to do better across the board once these issues are addressed. 

Can executive functioning coaching help parents directly, too?

Sometimes parents benefit from individual EF coaching, too, particularly if a parent also struggles with aspects of executive functioning.

Even if you as a caregiver do not struggle with executive functioning, individual EF coaching can help you best understand your child and help her thrive. Research shows that parental scaffolding of skills directly relates to improved EF skills in children. An EF coach can help you better appreciate your child’s difficulties and support you in structuring the environment in a way that best suits her needs. For example, an EF coach may work with a parent in coming up with a plan to get your distractible preschooler out of the house in the morning. With new, important processes in motion, parents can best show up for themselves and their children. 

mother smiling and laughing with daughter packing up backpack holding book

What else can parents do to help their children develop EF skills?

Certainly, there are things parents can do independently—without outside EF coaching—to teach their child EF skills. For example, incorporate planning and time management into each day. If your child wants to go to the park, ask her about what she needs to pack and consider how long it will take to get there. If your teenager wants to go to an amusement park with friends, have him practice saving some money for treats. Problem-solve with your young adult how to break down the task of working on graduate school applications into concrete, meaningful steps. Create a family calendar that has visuals for the younger children in your home, ask critical thinking questions after reading or watching a show. Discuss out loud what needs to go in the backpack each morning. 

And still, sometimes parents need support. Sometimes difficulties with organization and planning create such conflict that hiring a third party can preserve the parent-child relationship. Sometimes kids or teens feel a more complete sense of independence and competence when working with a coach versus listening to a parent. Parents might not know how to approach these issues in a developmentally appropriate manner, or may feel so emotionally flooded themselves that they have difficulty modeling healthy patterns for their children. Like many things, it takes a village.  

If you think you or your child may benefit from executive functioning coaching, click here to schedule a free assessment consultation call with Upshur Bren Psychology Group to learn more about support options that would be best for you.

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