One of the key functions of the pre-frontal cortex of the human brain is to facilitate planning and prioritising and goal persistence. These skills are essential for being able to master everything from the basic requirements of life such as making a sandwich, to more complex activities such as revising for exams and learning to drive.
Children with executive function deficits often struggle with these skills and they feel like they are being pulled along by the tide, helpless and overwhelmed against the current of homework, exams and chores that they are never quite on top of. Respite often comes in the form of activities that are unpopular with parents such as watching countless youtube videos and playing video games.
One of the crucial strategies of an EF coach is to help children with EF deficits to set achievable goals and to stick to them. Goals can help children to regain a sense of autonomy and to feel more in control of what is required of them to succeed at school and home. Studies have found that setting goals increase motivation and academic achievement. An EF coach supports a child to generate their goals ensuring they are specific and achievable to avoid disappointment and frustration.
However just setting goals is not enough. We are all familiar with enthusiastically committing in January to go to the gym more, and then finding ourselves in July with an underused gym membership. To help children to persist the role of the coach is to regularly be helping the child to connect the dots between what happens today, tomorrow, next month and next year. Studies have found that providing feedback is essential in helping people to pursue goals. The coach acts as a mirror, helping the child to evaluate their actions and to consider them in the context of their goals.
In the words of one 15-year-old young man with a diagnosis of ADHD, ‘I set goals because I won’t do it otherwise. I have tonnes of work, setting daily goals helps me to know where I am, it makes life manageable.’
In order to help children then sustain motivation, the daily grind also needs to be connected to the bigger picture.
Thinking about the bigger goals helps me do the small things. For example, the subjects I picked: I am bad at physics, but I carry on because it is something to work towards in the future because I want to be an engineer’.
Researchers have also found that what can make the difference between reaching a goal and not, is taking the time to consider the obstacles and developing alongside a goal a rule for what to do when the obstacles present themselves. This process which is referred to as mental contrasting has been found to help people stop smoking, reduce eating and improve grades. For example, implementing this strategy could look like identifying that what prohibits a child from getting started on homework when they get home from school is the temptation of the television, and then deciding that their rule will be that they never watch television before 5 pm every evening.
Parents can also learn from these insights and incorporate them within interaction with their child. It can be frustrating for parents when a child’s actions are holding them back, but coaxing and reminding can often quickly turn into nagging and a child stops engaging. Parents can instead consider sitting down with their child and working with them to come up with realistic goals. In helping children to identify possible barriers it can be useful for adults to give examples of areas they have struggled with in life. To get the balling rolling external incentives can sometimes be useful and then more often than not when a child sets a goal and reaches it, the taste of success (which can be rare for children struggling with executive functions), leads to intrinsic motivation kicking in!
Give it a go and let us know how you get on.
Helping Children Succeed – Paul Tough https://hilt.harvard.edu/files/hilt/files/settinggoals.pdf http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ayelet.fishbach/research/Feedback_Frontiers.pdf