What does this mean? What is an executive function anyway? Is it what a CEO does behind their desk? No. Definitely not!
Executive functions are those behaviors that your brain manages to make sure can get to meetings on time, that you remember your doctor’s appointment, and that you turn in your homework. They help us get things done.
Our brain, as you know, is a very complex organ. One way to simplify what our brain does, with respect to executive function, is to break it down into two specific parts. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain located behind your forehead. It’s the part of the brain that controls your thinking, for example, problem solving, choice making and organization. A much smaller part of the brain, the amygdala, is further back and lower in the center of the brain. This is the part that manages your emotions. This is where fight, flight or freeze is determined. When we explain this to young people, we tell them that the prefrontal cortex is the “wise owl,” the thinking brain, and the amygdala is the “reptile,” feeling brain. When something scary or dangerous or upsetting happens, our amygdala goes into action. This shuts down the prefrontal cortex so logical thinking can’t happen.
Developmentally, neuroscientists have concluded that our brains don’t fully develop until age 25-30. This seems awfully late to fully realize our ability to make decisions and get things done. Alas, it’s true. Some people just have executive function skills earlier than other. For those who struggle, there’s hope! It’s possible to teach, coach, and educate all ages how to improve their behaviors so that waiting until you are 30 isn’t necessary. Students as young as elementary school age can learn strategies to improve their skills and behaviors so they are ready to enter middle school. Middle and high school students are at a perfect time in life to learn strategies so they can function in the ever-demanding world we live in. Kids are expected to do so many things that require problem solving and decision-making. They are expected to complete homework assignments on time, turn them in, and then go on to the next task. They have demands such as sports teams to practice and compete with, musical instruments to learn and practice, and heaps of homework and other commitments such as family outings and religious practice. It’s a lot. And it seams, as generations pass, we just get busier and busier and load our kids with added stress.
What happens to the kids who fall short in these expectations? Where do they end up at school? Who’s helping them get back to speed and stay there?
We might expect teachers to help each student expand their executive function skills by teaching strategies that help develop behaviors that will stick for their whole life. Unfortunately, as well intended as teachers are, they are simply over worked and have such tight teaching schedules and expectations from the district for whom they work, there simply isn’t time to add one more consistent lesson to teach. So, what gets lost? The very skills students need to be successful. Executive Functions.
Who suffers? Not only do our students suffer from executive function weaknesses. Families suffer too. Does this sound familiar: You have two kids and a spouse. One kid has to get to school at 7:45am and the other at 8:30am. One parent runs out the door to get to the gym for an early morning workout and the other one is left to get the kids breakfast made, lunches packed, backpacks set out, and time enough to get to the bus stop. Unfortunately, the old kid who has to be at school at 7:45am is challenged with getting up on time. They then fly off the handle when nagged to get breakfast eaten and backpack packed in time to make the bus. The younger sibling is now up and reading a book. Parent is now yelling at the older kid to get to the bus stop. They are telling the younger one to stop reading and get dressed for school. Well, you can see where this is going. The older one misses their bus, the parent has to pack both kids into the car to drive the older one to school. The younger one is fussing because they haven’t eaten breakfast yet.
The problem is a family issue. It’s not just one kid’s issue. It’s every one’s. It’s not the kids’ fault that they struggle with managing their mornings. It’s no ones fault. It’s simply that their brain isn’t fully developed to manage all the details of getting out of bed on time and ready for school. They need strategies and so do their parents.
That’s where an executive function coach or instructor comes in. With just a few weekly sessions, the whole family system can improve it’s functioning. Everyone benefits and success is seen for all.