Coaching Students to Overcome Executive Function Struggles

By Emily Kircher-Morris, author of Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom

Coaching Students to Overcome Executive Function StrugglesImagine an orchestra preparing for a concert, and all the instruments are warming up. You can hear the flutes, the strings, and the tuba—all the musicians playing their scales and working to tune their instruments. When the conductor steps up to the podium, the musicians come together with a single focus and purpose, following the conductor’s direction to create a coordinated symphony.

Kids who have executive function struggles are like an orchestra whose conductor is late or absent. All the components of their brains are humming along, but nothing is coordinated or in tune. The prefrontal cortex is the conductor in this example, and without the executive functioning skills provided by the prefrontal cortex, the rest of the function of the brain is out of sync.

Whether they experience difficulty in decision-making processes (planning, prioritizing, and managing time) or in behavioral regulation processes (response inhibition, task initiation, and sustaining attention), students in our classrooms who are dealing with executive dysfunction are struggling. Their grades and self-esteem suffer and they internalize messages of being lazy and unmotivated when, in reality, they need our support to overcome these struggles.

Many clinical and educational diagnoses directly involve executive functioning weaknesses. Characteristics of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and dyslexia involve trouble with executive functioning. However, executive functioning difficulties can be present without an established diagnosis too.

It’s important for us to recognize the careful balance between accommodating and enabling. Of course, on the one hand, we don’t want to foster bad habits or a learned sense of helplessness by providing too much help and removing all challenge. On the other hand, we don’t want to put students in a sink-or-swim situation, where they are in over their heads with so little help they can’t succeed. Explicit, guided instruction with frequent check-ins and coaching is an excellent way to provide the support these students need and gradually remove it as they become more independent in these skills.

Working with students through a coaching process empowers them. Take, for example, Dylan (not his real name). Dylan is a twice-exceptional middle school student (gifted/ADHD) having a hard time with task initiation after school to complete his homework. He explained that he had trouble getting started because it always felt like the work was going to take forever.

Together, we worked through the metacognitive cycle. The metacognitive cycle involves three specific steps that help students build the habits and strategies to overcome the lagging skills in the way of their success. The three steps for the metacognitive cycle are self-monitoring, self-assessing, and self-regulating.

Dylan’s first step in the metacognitive cycle was to self-monitor by tracking how long his homework took each night. To do this, before he would begin his work, he would estimate how long he anticipated the task would take and then use a timer to record the actual length of time the homework took to complete.

We reconvened after a week and self-assessed, determining if Dylan’s estimates were over or under the actual amount of time it took him to complete his work. He learned he was continually overestimating how long his homework was taking.

He chose to self-regulate his behavior by using the data to determine the average amount of time his homework would take and setting a micro-goal to start his homework by a certain time each day.

After completing this process, Dylan told me how proud he felt that he’d been able to make this change and how good it felt to be able to start his homework on his own (without his parents nagging him). The most valuable skill we can give kids who struggle with executive functioning is the knowledge that they can find new ways to overcome the obstacles in their way.

Here are some of the ideas teachers and parents can use to help kids with executive functioning struggles:

1. View the struggles as lagging skills instead of lack of motivation.

In the words of child psychologist Ross Greene, “Kids do well if they can.” Stay solution focused as you work to solve the problems.

2. Collaborate with the student.

Students who feel some independence to find strategies and solutions that work for them are more likely to invest in the process of changing behaviors.

3. Follow the steps involved in the metacognitive cycle.

The three steps in this process are self-monitoring, self-assessing, and self-regulating. Self-monitoring has students answer the question “What am I doing?” as they collect data about a certain area where they struggle. Self-assessment has them examine the collected data and ask, “How am I doing? Is what I’m doing working?” Finally, self-regulating involves reflecting on the question, “What can I do to improve?”

4. Using the information gathered during the metacognitive cycle, help the student set narrow “micro-goals” to gradually learn new behaviors.

This allows students to feel success as they gradually make progress so they can build on that gradual growth. Micro-goals are generally the steps of a larger goal. For example, instead of immediately focusing on having a child get ready for school within a certain amount of time (which involves many steps), maybe the target behavior is for them to have their backpack ready to go the night before. Once progress is being made toward this goal, another step can be added.

5. Recognize that there is no quick fix.

Executive functioning struggles are frequently neurological in nature, and while the brain exhibits amazing neuroplasticity, developing new strategies and skills to compensate takes time. Progress is gradual, and if an intervention doesn’t have the desired effect right away, keep at it. Tweak your strategy or data collection plan; novelty is a great motivator for kids with executive dysfunction.

Emily Kircher-Morris,President and founder of the Gifted Support Network and inspired by her own experience as a twice-exceptional (2e) learner, Emily Kircher-Morris, M.A., M.Ed., L.P.C., is dedicated to supporting 2e children in a way she wasn’t during her academic years. She has taught in gifted classrooms, has been a school counselor, and is now in private practice as a licensed professional counselor, where she specializes in helping gifted and twice-exceptional kids. Emily lives near St. Louis, Missouri.

Teaching-Twice-Exceptional-Learners book cover imageEmily is the author of Teaching Twice-Exceptional Learners in Today’s Classroom.

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1 Response to Coaching Students to Overcome Executive Function Struggles

  1. Do you find it helpful to include the time a student spends procrastinating starting the work? If so do you lump it in with “homework time” or make it a separate time chunk?

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