Note: Credit for some of the content in this blog is owed to learning disabilities consultant Beverly Azarchi and Architects for Learning founder and CEO Dr. Bonnie Singer. Signet is fortunate to have spoken with both specialists about executive functions over the years and absorbed their insights on this topic via interviews and guest blogs.
Have you noticed your student exhibiting difficulties in these areas?
- Planning and organization
- Initiating activities or generating ideas independently
- Determining the sequence of steps required to achieve a goal
- Completing a series of steps in an organized way
- Receiving feedback or suggestions
- Retrieving information from memory
- Retaining specific information (e.g., a phone number) while engaging in a related task (e.g., dialing the number)
If so, there’s a good chance that they could be experiencing executive function challenges, which can interfere with their academic performance.
What Are Executive Functions?
Executive functions are a set of cognitive processes that help people get things done. There are five key skills associated with executive functions:
- Inhibition, the first skill required to take intentional action.
- Planning/sequencing, which helps students set a course for the behaviors or actions they must take to reach a goal.
- Organizing, the skill a student must possess to keep track of the various puzzle pieces as they move toward intentional action.
- Working memory, which enables a student to remain cognizant of a goal in their brain long enough to achieve it without forgetting.
- Emotional regulation, a student’s ability to manage and regulate their feelings when they hit a bump in the road or get frustrated.
Students with an executive function disorder will demonstrate signs of struggling with these five skills.
Subtypes of an Executive Function Disorder
Experts have defined four subtypes of executive function disorder:
- Material-spatial disorganization manifests as the tendency to lose or misplace things or difficulty bringing home or returning assignments on time.
- Temporal-sequential disorganization manifests as confusion about the timing and sequencing of tasks, procrastination, or miscalculating how long a task will take to complete.
- Transitional disorganization manifests as difficulty shifting gears smoothly, settling down to work, or preparing to leave for school.
- Prospective retrieval disorganization manifests as difficulty remembering to do something that was planned in advance.
Getting Support for Your Student
When a student exhibits executive function challenges, there are many next steps they can take to help themselves. Here are a few of our recommendations:
Conduct a time audit
Students who struggle with time management may benefit from doing a time audit. Have them create two columns: the column on the left should list all the activities they want to do or have to do, and the column on the right should list an estimate of how much time they spend on an activity each week.
The number should total close to 168 hours. If it’s significantly above or below that estimate, the student may need to reexamine their priorities and make some changes.
Complete a Wheel of Life assessment
The Wheel of Life is a favorite exercise among life coaches and academic coaches everywhere. Different versions of it exist, but the basic idea is the same: there are 8-10 predefined categories on the wheel that make up a balanced life, and the person completing the exercise must rank their level of satisfaction with each area using a simple numerical scale.
The Wheel of Life is a great starting point for students with executive function issues to identify areas for improvement in their lives. There are guided Wheel of Life exercises available online, and our team here at Signet is also happy to connect you with our resources.
Find a great academic coach
Executive function coaches and academic coaches can be invaluable sources of support for many students. You may wonder what the difference is between “executive function coaching” and “academic coaching.” The answer—at least for us at Signet—is not much.
We use the term academic coaching to encapsulate both services, basing our work on a life coaching methodology that we then customize for each student. Our academic coaches can help students improve time management, reduce distractions to enhance focus, organize papers, overcome procrastination, build memory skills, and much more.
Signet also has an extensive network of resources and can connect students to the right tools, exercises, and specialists to help them succeed.
If your student is showing signs of struggling with their executive functions, it’s always best to act early. Contact us today and schedule a free call.