What Are Executive Functions? Q&A With An Expert

What Are Executive Functions? Q&A With An Expert

In an effort to better understand executive functions and how they impact student success, Signet CEO Jay Bacrania interviewed Rebecca Shafir. Rebecca is an executive functions coach and speech and language pathologist in the greater Boston area. Their conversation uncovered ways that students can improve their executive functions to succeed in life and in school. Plus, they discuss how students can get help with common executive dysfunctions.

Jay: The phrase executive functions is definitely an educational buzzword these days, but it’s hard to get a handle on what it actually means. Do you have a succinct working definition for executive functions you use with parents and families?

Rebecca: I think of executive functions as having three components: getting work done, getting work done well, and getting work done on time. When you put those things together, they really do encompass the more clinical aspects of executive functions, such as inhibition, shifting, working memory, and emotional regulation.

Jay: I love how concise and clear that is. So, we all have some capacity in those areas, but the potential differs from person to person. How do deficiencies in executive functions commonly manifest in teens, and what can parents be on the lookout for when it comes to identifying concerns about executive functions in their kids?

Rebecca: One of the main things students say is that they have trouble starting homework, which makes sense. There’s some mental heavy lifting involved in initiating tasks that require multitasking, planning, or the ability to shift between different subjects. It’s also common that a child will get very anxious before executing tasks, and then the anxiety continues to be ever-present, which can inhibit their ability to focus. Those are the two most common complaints, and parents as well as teachers may be able to observe students struggling with these concerns.

The complaints are similar in the adult workforce: instead of struggling with homework, they struggle with projects. The only difference is that adults have usually been struggling for a longer period of time. That could manifest as an inability to hold a job or be promoted to positions that require higher-level executive functions. The word procrastination comes up often, and adults tend to have even greater levels of anxiety, depression, and insomnia, because their deficiencies have started to affect them systemically.

Jay: What factors contribute to deficiencies in executive functions?

Rebecca: The main contributors are either genetic predisposition, passed along from the parents, or the environment in which a student is operating. Home environment, social environment, and academic environment can all play a big role.

In order to determine the root cause of a student’s struggles, I spend a lot of time getting to know them in our first interview. I like to start by learning about their strengths and weaknesses from their perspective.

It’s important to discern whether a student is anxious or depressed, or challenged by executive functions. Students who are anxious or depressed won’t demonstrate optimal levels of executive functions, but the root cause may be different than with other students, so it’s important to look at the big picture.

Jay: What’s the difference between normal variance (i.e. some things are hard for some people) vs. an issue with executive functions that requires professional help?

Rebecca: That answer varies from student to student, and has a lot to do with student and parent expectations. One question I like to ask students is, “What do you think you should be able to do that you’re not able to do?” Similarly, I ask parents or even teachers, “What are you expecting the student to do that they seem unable to do?” If expectations are reasonable, then an inability to reach goals could be one measure of deficiency in executive functions.

Another basis of comparison is to look at the level a student’s peers are performing at as a way of determining the student’s potential variance. Social comparisons come with some baggage and can be challenging, but they are still useful.

Students also take neuropsychological evaluations that measure executive functions skills when they work with me, so I look for outlier scores that might limit a student’s abilities.

It’s harder to parse out the causes of deficiencies. Working memory is one example. A student could have a poor working memory because they struggle with executive functions, or because they are sleep-deprived from playing video games too late every night.

Jay: Once you’ve identified a student with a deficiency in executive functions, what are some strategies you use to help them make improvements?

Rebecca: I like to establish from the beginning that the student and I are in partnership. Instead of throwing strategies and tactics at them, I do the opposite and invite them to share how they feel about themselves, their accomplishments, and their strengths. Instead of using the word problem, we talk about what they’re going through as a situation.

Once we’ve gotten to know each other, we work on creating the mindset for success. That involves putting together a list of “whys.” The most common reasons students come to see me are because they want better grades, to get into good colleges, or because they care about how others view them and their performance.

Focusing on the “whys” is particularly important for kids not motivated to do the work or make change. It can help students see that they don’t have to necessarily be interested in the work they’re doing. You may not be interested in taking out the garbage, but your “why” is that you want your home environment to be nice, so you do it. Connecting the short-term goal, which may be an activity the student doesn’t love or care about, with a long-term goal that is actually meaningful to the student can increase a student’s motivation. For example, with a student who doesn’t enjoy math homework, we might connect completing math homework to bringing up the student’s GPA and subsequently getting into a better college, which might be a goal that matters a lot.

Another strategy I like is turning distractions into rewards. A classic example is video games, but even something like fiction reading can be a distraction if it gets in the way of completing work. This approach makes time for this activity, but only after work has been completed, which makes it a reward instead of a distraction. It also makes the activity itself much more satisfying, because there’s no work still hanging over a student’s head.

Jay: What does a student look like before and after coaching? For some kids, it may be hard to envision life differently than the way things are for them now.

Rebecca: One example that comes to mind is a college student who had let his social life take over; as a result, his academics were suffering. Together we painted a picture of what his life looked like, and it became clear that the things that were important to him were actually controlling him. When his phone went off, he automatically answered it. When his friends came by and asked him to go out, he always said yes. Life was running him instead of the other way around, and what he needed help with was understanding when to say yes and when to say no.

So together we identified his “whys,” and then dug into various strategies and techniques.

The changes started out small. He would shut his phone off when he came into my office, for example, which wasn’t something I asked him to do. I pointed out the little ways that he was starting to exert more control, which reinforced the idea that he could set boundaries without losing himself. One of my favorite exercises for this is called A Little Dare Every Day. It’s where you challenge yourself to say no to small things, in real life, every single day.

After a few weeks, the student started to develop that control, and we could mosey into better study strategies so he felt successful on that level, too. Often sitting down to do homework feels messy and unclear, and students have difficulty focusing. But with a combination of better study tactics and the knowledge that their rewards are coming once they complete their work, they have an easier time tackling the tasks in front of them.

The end result was a student who knew his “whys,” who had his priorities straight, and who enjoyed rewards in their time and place. As a result there was decreased anxiety, an improvement in grades, and a greater sense of independence.

Jay: What happens when a student just doesn’t seem to have the motivation required?

Rebecca: Sometimes, after trying everything in our toolbox to no avail, I have to tell parents, “Let them fail.” That’s happened before; I don’t have a 100% success rate, although I do all I can.

What often happens in those cases is students see their peers graduating, and it starts to get to them a little bit. Time goes by. They don’t have money of their own, and their parents expect them to start paying for things themselves. Often, motivation starts to kick in and things start to change.

On the other hand, there could be medical reasons behind a student’s lack of motivation, which is why it’s important to get a whole picture of the student. Vitamin D deficiency, depression, and sleep deprivation can all be major contributing factors. If we can identify and get those remedied, the student may find that the motivation comes back.

Jay: Letting things play out seems like it would be so hard for parents, but I suppose it can lead to a path that’s more fulfilling in some cases.

Rebecca: Yes, absolutely. And sometimes we come to the conclusion that maybe school is just not a great fit for someone, at least not right now. A lot of stress can go away by accepting that. There are certainly other avenues to pursue. Getting a job or an apprenticeship, or shadowing somebody, are great ways to get students back on track without school.

Sometimes students need to go through the big adventure of discovering themselves before they can come back and approach school with a fresh perspective.

Jay: How do you help students and parents find the boundary between alleviating discomfort and letting students be uncomfortable as a way to promote growth?

Rebecca: The environment where a kid grows up can be a real problem. Sometimes I’ll ask the parents “What has he had to work for?” “Has she ever experienced discomfort from not getting instant gratification?” Often parents have created the situation that results in kids being not motivated, and a little discipline may be the antidote students need.

About ⅓ of my students have never been asked to do any home chores, but the benefits of having responsibilities endure generation to generation. And if comfort is ever-present, then discomfort is real torture for a lot of these kids. One of the things I’ll do in a gradual way is introduce discomfort with some kind of side benefit. For example, letting a student work through a problem on their own, and then highlighting the sense of personal responsibility that comes along with that. It’s very much about teaching life lessons.

Parents may be resistant to change because they are afraid of their students feeling discomfort. But it’s important to remember that giving a child everything without teaching personal responsibility may create conditions where the child doesn’t feel responsible for school either. It’s a touchy subject, but I’m not shy about bringing it up.

Jay: If you could share one piece of advice for parents of students with significant issues with executive functions, what would it be?

Rebecca: I wrote a book called The Zen of Listening, and the one thing I would teach every parent is how to listen mindfully, so they can try to understand where the student is coming from and what’s really going on. Don’t ramble, give advice, interrupt, or deny their reality. By listening, parents may uncover nuggets of gold that can help their kids succeed.

Jay: If you could share one piece of advice for students or adults dealing with issues with executive functions, what would it be?

Rebecca: Establish micro-routines, little steps or tiny changes that can be maintained consistently. That lowers stress and opens the mind. Once a person can see how making a few little changes every day has an impact, they are better prepared to make bigger changes as well.

Rebecca Shafir works at the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health and has her own private practice, Mindful Communication. She is also the author of the award-winning book, The Zen of Listening.

If you have questions or concerns about executive functions skills, don’t hesitate to connect with us.

Picture of Jay B.

Jay B.

Jay Bacrania is the CEO of Signet Education. As a high schooler, Jay won awards for chemistry at the state level in his home state of Florida, and at Harvard, he initially studied physics. After graduating, Jay spent two years studying jazz trumpet at the Berklee College of Music.

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