These skills can be taught, says Paul Holland.

Executive Function (EF) skills coaching is growing in popularity as an alliance and support vehicle for neurodivergent students. But what are Executive Functions, what is EF coaching, how does it work, and how can it benefit neurodivergent students?

Executive Functions (EF’s) are the group of complex mental processes and cognitive abilities that control the skills required for day-to-day goal-directed behaviour. There are three core executive functions: inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. While there is some inconsistency as to the exact number of individual EF skill areas; in the United Kingdom, eleven skill areas are most often referred to: Planning and Prioritisation; Time Management; Goal-directed Persistence; Sustained Attention; Working Memory; Task Initiation; Cognitive Flexibility; Emotional Control; Organisation; Response Inhibition and Metacognition.

EF coaching is essentially what it says on the tin. It is supporting, via established and effective coaching methods, clients to develop and nurture the very skills, EF skills, that we utilise on a daily basis to navigate the world, including the world of education. EF skills are essentially the ‘how to learn’ while the subjects themselves are ‘the what’. Without the foundation skills of how to study and make sense of the world, what becomes that more challenging.

While students with particular diagnoses (for example, ADHD and ASD) are known to experience significant EF skill difficulties, and some may be considered, even diagnosed as having Executive Dysfunction, as imperfect human beings, we all experience strength and challenge across the realm of executive functioning. As such EF coaching is a viable model for neurodivergent students with and without specific diagnoses.

What is important to focus on right now is the fact that EF skills are skills, and because they are skills, they can be taught and learned. This is all thanks to Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, in its simplest form, refers to the brain’s ability to learn new skills and change. Our brains have this ability all throughout our lives but the younger we are, the easier it is for our brains to adapt.

For most interventions to be successful, some level of motivation is required. Although similarly true for EF coaching, where we often deviate is the inclusion of students at the pre-contemplation stage of behaviour change. For these students, intervention often takes a slightly different initial direction. Rather than immediately proceeding with target development for these students, we often embark upon a metacognition building process. This involves continued rapport building and trust establishment coupled with some learning around areas such as neuroplasticity, growth mindset, motivation, personal reflection and EF’s.

The coaching alliance begins with a formal, yet non-invasive and easy to complete assessment of EF skills. One of the more widely used is the Executive Skills Questionnaire (ESQ) developed by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. This is a 25-item self-complete checklist that identifies an individual’s EF skill strengths and areas of challenge. This assessment acts both as a guide for the coach and a form of insight for the student, parents and teachers.

The next, and potentially most important step in the coaching process, is rapport building or put simply, establishing a strong working relationship with the student. Unless a student feels a sense of rapport, they will be unlikely to be able to work well with the coach. For this reason, choosing the right coach is crucial.

Once solid rapport is established and there is baseline data on the EF skill strengths and areas of challenge, the next step in the coaching process involves target development and goal setting via the utilisation of Mental Contrasting. Mental Contrasting requires students to know what they would like to achieve while at the same time acknowledging and contemplating potential barriers. If we work towards goals without considering what might get in the way, when we meet these obstacles, they invariably throw us off course.

When a goal is decided upon, it is important that the coach encourages the student to set realistic targets. When learning new skills, especially in the beginning stages, success and positive momentum are vital, perhaps even more so for neurodivergent students, given their often questionable experiences of the learning process. Shaping can be of benefit here. Rather than solely focusing on, and rewarding only the end target, the process of shaping involves the reinforcement of successive approximations to the target behaviour. As an example, if a student has a goal to focus on homework for two hours per night, an initial target, or successive approximation to the ultimate goal, may be to study for 45 minutes. This ‘chunking down’ increases the likelihood of initial success, therefore enhancing motivation for continued change.

■ The ability to change brains and learn new skills decreases with age.
Image: Center for Developing Child, Harvard University

In terms of measurement, to ensure initial ‘quick wins’ as well as sustaining the motivation for behavioural change, it is often recommended that a success criterion of between 70% and 80% be applied to each target or indeed each successive approximation to an end goal. What must be stressed here, however, so as to continue to adopt and adhere to Growth Mindset philosophy, is the importance of process over content. To illustrate this point, if a student wanted to improve overall grades, rather than having an ‘A’ as the end goal, we would encourage them to focus on improved revision techniques instead. This strategy would not only increase transferable skills, but in addition empower the student to work towards a goal more within their control.

In summary, EF coaching is essentially the science and art of supporting learners to develop and strengthen their own capacity to get things done. It is widely accepted that children with stronger EF skills experience better social, academic and vocational outcomes. Considering this, it becomes increasingly important to teach students, parents, caregivers and education professionals these essential skills so as to nurture and enhance the quality of life of students, and in particular, neurodivergent students worldwide.

Dr Paul Holland
Author: Dr Paul Holland

Dr Paul Holland
+ posts

Dr Paul Holland is a Chartered Psychologist and Executive Function Coach specialising in the field of neurodiversity.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here