Executive dysfunction or executive function deficit is defined by Web MD as a “set of mental skills that help you get things done.” It is a simplified definition but when you break a task down into all the components needed to complete it, it is easier to see how having one or more weak areas can stop the progress. Just take a look at the processes and skills that are needed for “thinking” in the graphic to the left. That does not take into account the other skills needed to actually get something done. These executive function skills develop in the prefrontal cortex of the brain which continues to develop until around age 25. However, these skills seem to be really important during the teen age years, yet are not quite developed enough to be depended upon.
Executive function skills help you:
- Manage time and be realistic about what you can and cannot do in the time available
- Regulate your emotions and behaviors to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
- Determine what you should pay attention to and what you should not
- Switch focus based on the feedback you receive about the effectiveness of what you are doing
- Plan and organize in a logical, methodical way to complete tasks and thoughts.
- Remember what you need to remember at the right time
- Allows you to make decisions based on your past experiences and avoid repeating your mistakes
In school, executive dysfunction can look like missing homework, forgetting to study for tests, doing poorly, spending hours on homework, or not being able to find things they know they have. One thing executive dysfunction is not, is the attitude of not caring. Most students really do care and cannot understand why they can’t “remember” things. They are frustrated and feel less capable than their peers. Self-esteem suffers and unless they get some help they can spend their school years continuing to do things the same way….and getting the same (lower than they are capable of) grades.
The worst part is that they may continue to think that they are not “smart” and avoid opportunities to stretch themselves for the rest of their lives.
What’s a parent to do? We often try to “show” our children how they “should” do things, or we wonder out loud how they could have done…x, y or z (how could you…what were you thinking…why didn’t you….etc). Although well meaning, these approaches are often met with resistance and your teen may internalize the guilt and judgment that you didn’t realize came across.
It’s time to take you out of the picture. Get students to take a deeper look at what is happening and then coach them to design strategies to work for the way they think. Traditional methods often do not work because the habits are not built into them. Teens are “told” what to do and often do not take the time to think about whether it works for them or not.
The most common executive skills that affect academics are:
- planning/organizing thoughts, ideas and processes – difficulty writing essays in a thoughtful, organized manner, or completing projects, developing a study plan
- working memory – holding onto all the information needed
- cognitive flexibility- ability to shift thinking and or behavior when stuck
- focus – determine what to focus on and what to ignore
- controlling emotions – keeping them in check even when frustration builds
- taking action – doing what you know needs to be done
- getting started – taking the first step is often the toughest
- task completion
If your teen struggles with any of these skills, it may be time to try coaching. Coaches believe that individuals have all the skills and knowledge they need to solve their own challenges by guiding them to think deeper and more creatively about them through guided questions. Teens often don’t take the time or feel they have the power to make changes that will work for the way they think. Isn’t it time they took back that power? Our group coaching classes help students become proactive, design strategies and test them, and learn about how they think with a small group of like-minded peers.