Month: April 2020

In the time of Covid-19.

In the time of Covid-19.

By Hannah Wellburn, Executive Function Coach, Connections in Mind

I found I have been slow to process what’s been happening. Each step of the way I have wanted to rail against it. Like many, I’ve found it hard to believe that this time of the Coronavirus and isolation is really happening. 

When we were told it was necessary to stay indoors I felt desperately unhappy. I’m the type of person that feels the need to get outdoors regularly to maintain a positive state of mind. This, on top of the shock that my kids were to have no school for the foreseeable future; including my 16-year-old having his GCSEs cancelled and the prospect of no school whatsoever for five and a half months, my year 6 daughter possibly missing the rest of what is an extremely important coming of age, end of primary school year. I feel she’s been robbed of experiencing the various rites of passage she’s looked forward to sharing with the classmates she’s grown up with. Her turn to be part of creating a talent show similar to those they’ve watched every year 6 perform as long as they can remember, the post-SATS fun trips out. She was even disappointed that she wouldn’t be sitting her SATS!

Trying to manage my feelings as well as those around me was a struggle for a while. Not everyone finds the same aspects of what we are going through challenging. Some feel most anxious about the illness itself, many face financial worries, some are feeling lonely and isolated stuck at home, others feel overwhelmed and overcrowded surrounded by a houseful of whom they are responsible for the daily physical, educational and mental well-being, I could go on…

When it comes to how the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic affects our executive functions, we know that in times of stress our executive functions can go completely off-line; our emotional control can go, well simply out of control. Our response inhibition, thinking before we act or speak, initiating tasks, sustaining our attention, being flexible in the face of so much rapid change all take a huge hit.

It’s taken me this couple of weeks to get myself into the right headspace, dealing with my own challenges and those of my family. It’s taken all sorts of practices to realign and manoeuvre my way to a positive state of mind. I’ve incorporated; meditation, positive affirmations, chi gong, pilates, walks outdoors, chats with friends, many humorous videos and drinking wine into my daily (well only some evenings for the wine, honest) routine. Feeling good is still a work in progress, I continue to have difficult moments.

My next goal, I think I’m ready for this now is to instil a little more routine, a little bit of planning although nothing rigid, flexibility is key here whilst we still don’t really know what’s going to happen next.

I wonder what other coaches have been doing and how you’re coping. Does anyone have any tips for making the best of this time as well as keeping well enough to support others?

About Hannah.

Hannah Wellburn is one of our Connections in Mind executive function coaches and transformational life coach. Hannah has over 20 years of experience coaching, mentoring and supporting adults and young people who experience challenges with executive functions. Hannah’s passion is working with mums and adolescents to beat the challenges life presents, enjoy life to the full whilst being the best they can be.

How to reduce stress and improve your executive functioning.

How to reduce stress and improve your executive functioning.

By Victoria Bagnall, Co Founder, Connections in Mind

As adults, we all have our share of unavoidable chaos to deal with during a typical day which can lead us to feel stressed, sometimes for extended periods of time. One particularly important set of skills that are interrupted when you are stressed are your executive functions1. Understanding how you can improve your executive functioning and reduce stress, in addition to understanding the bidirectional effects they can have on one another, will benefit you in almost every aspect of your life, whether that’s personally or professionally.

What are executive functions?

Executive functions are a set of higher cognitive functions that help us with daily skills such as organisation, planning, forethought, concentration and goal-directed action. Essentially, our executive functions influence all of our thoughts, actions, behaviour and emotions. Whilst these skills peak in our 20s, they still need conscious and consistent work to be improved and maintained at all stages of life.

What effect does stress have on executive functioning?

When you feel stressed, your adrenal glands release high levels of catecholamines which impair the functions of the prefrontal cortex2. The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that is necessary for our executive functions to operate properly. When you feel stressed it disrupts executive functions such as working memory and cognitive flexibility which alter your ability to be organised, work productively and remember information3.

It is important to understand that the relationship between stress and executive functioning works both ways; stress impairs our executive functioning, whilst decreased executive functioning can increase stress. For example, those who struggle to make a plan, get organised or make a good decision will end up putting themselves in a stressful situation.

After a certain point stress can start causing major problems to your health, mood, relationships and quality of life. Stress can have adverse effects on our bodies including low energy, insomnia, frequent colds or infections and chest pain. In extreme cases, chronic stress can lead to shrinkage in the branches of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which can increase a persons’ vulnerability to stress-related disorders such as depression4. The good news is that due to the neural plasticity of the brain, the negative effects of stress on executive functioning can be reversed in healthy, cognitively intact adults5.

How can we reduce stress and improve our executive functioning?

Take control.

The feeling of losing control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing. The act of taking control in itself is empowering. One way you can do this is learning how to manage your time effectively. This will help you feel relaxed, focused and maximise the use of your time. You can achieve this by spending 10 minutes in the evening before work writing a list to help you work out what your goals and priorities are for the next day. Colour code your tasks into one of four categories: (1) urgent and important, (2) not urgent but important, (3) urgent but not important, or (4) neither urgent nor important. Learning how to reduce the number of urgent and important tasks will help you feel less stressed. Remember, focus on completing high-quality work, not quantity.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is having an awareness to present-moment experiences whether that’s thought, feelings, body or purpose. Practising mindfulness can help you control racing, repetitive and non-productive thoughts that can lead to stress. Research has shown that mindfulness can advance your executive functioning including working memory, self-control and the self-regulation of stress3. There are a number of mindfulness practices you can start incorporating into your daily life. For example, mindfulness meditation involves sitting silently and sustaining attention on the current moment by focusing on your breathing or body. There are plenty of mindfulness apps available such as Headspace or Calm to help you get started. Remember you can do this pretty much anywhere; on your commute to work (when that becomes a regular thing again), on your daily walk or run, or even when you’re cooking.

Stay connected.

Spending quality time with someone who makes you feel safe and understood is a huge stress reliever. In fact, our bodies naturally respond to social connectedness in ways that help us feel calmer6. Building and maintaining a network of friends and family will improve your ability to combat stress and help you build resilience so that you can deal with life’s curveballs. They may not be able to fix the problems that are making you stressed, but they are there to listen, relate and empathise with you.

As we are currently experiencing huge changes to our daily working and social routines due to the coronavirus pandemic, it can be difficult to feel like you have a supportive network when you are physically distant from some of the people you rely on for this kind of support. Make sure you schedule plenty of time to talk and video call friends, family and work colleagues. With platforms like Zoom, Skype and House Party you can maintain your personal and work-related relationships without feeling isolated.

How can Connections in Mind help?

At Connections in Mind, we are a team dedicated and caring executive function coaching experts. Our coaches combine their expertise and knowledge acquired through experience and education with strategies based on the latest empirical research to create bespoke coaching programmes tailored to individual client needs. If you struggle to cope with stress or can identify challenges with time management, emotional control, prioritisation, working memory or motivation we are here to support you. You will get to work one to one with one of our amazing coaches who will help you regain control by developing new strategies you can use in both personal and professional aspects of your life. You can read testimonials from our clients here. To help you understand the coaching process and to find a bespoke programme that works for you, book a free consultation call with Sarah, one of our executive function coaching experts today.

1 Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.

2 Arnsten, A. F. T. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 410-422.

3Shields, G. S., Sazma, M. A., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2016). The Effects of Acute Stress on Core Executive Functions: A Meta-Analysis and Comparison with Cortisol. Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews, 68, 651-688.

4Akbaryan, F. (2014). Executive Function and Mental Health: A literature review. Retrieved from (PDF) Executive Function and Mental Health: A literature review

5Williams, P. G., Tinajero, R., & Suchy, Y. (2017). Executive Functioning and Health. Oxford Handbooks Online (pp. 1-53). Oxford University Press.

6Eisenberger, N. I., Taylor, S. E., Gable, S. L., Hilmert, C. J., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural pathways link social support to attenuated neuroendocrine stress responses. NeuroImage, 35 (5), 1601-1612.

How to build motivation in your child.

How to build motivation in your child.

By Victoria Bagnall, Co Founder, Connections in Mind

Every parent wants their child to succeed, whether it’s with their school work, socialising or in developing general life skills. Naturally as parents we often hold high expectations for our children and lack of motivation can be a huge barrier to their success. Your child’s motivation to learn is encouraged by the experiences that you provide for them. In other words, you play a vital role in fostering motivation in your child.

Why is motivation important?

Motivation is essential for self-development and for maintaining well-being during periods of rapid change where we need to adapt quickly*. It interacts with our executive functioning and explains why we set goals, make plans, start tasks and strive for achievement. Research with children has also shown that motivation is one of the most important factors in determining school success**.

So, how can you build motivation in your child? Based on psychological research, there is now a set of science-based approaches that can be used to build motivation and support learning during development.

Let them decide.

Children are more motivated when they have self-determination to complete a task or activity that is personally meaningful. For example, start a conversation with them to set the goals for the day or decide how a task is going to be carried out. By letting them make meaningful choices and supporting them, this will not only keep them engaged and motivated for longer but they will also learn that they are capable of initiating their own learning.

Challenge them…just enough!

Like all of us, children are motivated to work towards achievable goals. Create levels of challenge according to their current capabilities and give them feedback on their performance. If a task is too easy or too hard they will lose motivation. Make it fun by turning it into a game. For example, you could switch roles and let your child step into the role of the educator and explain concepts as the teacher. This works very well for science subjects! You could also plot their progress on to a graph and challenge them to improve on yesterday’s progress. Remember, the more they relish the challenge, the more they will persist and not give up. If this brings them success, this will build their internal motivation which will lead to more success!

Praise the effort rather than the outcome

When we praise children for their effort this helps them learn that even if they fall short they can use it as an opportunity to reflect, improve and develop new approaches. Say your son or daughter performed well on a piece of school work, don’t just share your excitement. It is better to praise them for the process by asking them what they did to achieve it and how they did it. This will motivate them to work hard and they will be more likely to believe that they can achieve anything they put their mind to. This process will support the development of your child’s ability to reflect, an executive function skill that is essential for more complex and systematic thinking.

Foster a growth mindset

A growth mindset revolves around the belief that we can improve our intelligence, ability and performance with effort and with the right strategies. Children with a growth mindset have a willingness to confront challenges and view failures as an opportunity for growth.  As children can often avoid trying new things when they experience negative outcomes, it is important to have a discussion with your child that focuses on what they can do to improve next time. Encourage reflection by talking about a time that you fell short and what you did to improve. Ask them questions, discuss new strategies and emphasise the importance of practice. At Connections in Mind we particularly like the WWW (What Went Well) and EBI (Even Better If) approaches which are really positive but also support growth. By doing this you will be supporting the development of a growth mindset within your child. Not only will this increase their motivation and encourage them to take on new challenges independently, research has also shown that a growth mindset is strongly associated with greater happiness and achievement in life***. Fostering a growth mindset in your child will be one of the greatest contributions you can make towards building their motivation, and their success! Following decades of research Carol Dweck, a world-renowned psychologist, has a bestselling book that explains more on how to foster a growth mindset to achieve success professionally, academically, interpersonally and in general daily life. You can find the link to her book here. You can also download our free growth mindset poster here to add to your child’s workspace!

Does all of this sound interesting – these are the fundamental underpinnings of our Connected Minds Parenting Course which has recently moved online to our new online learning portal. This evidenced based approach to parenting, focuses on empathy and connection whilst building a shared language and set of tools to overcome executive function challenges at home. Hear from the course facilitator Imogen Moore Shelley in her informative video.

At Connections in Mind, our executive function coaches combine their own experience, expertise and strategies with the latest research to create bespoke coaching programmes tailored to individual client needs. Our coaches are available to help your children, and even yourself, overcome challenges with motivation and executive functioning. If your child or yourself have difficulties with starting tasks, prioritisation, time-management or even just staying focused for longer periods of time, a coach can help you develop new strategies so that you and/or your child can continue to succeed. 

Our Executive Function Adventures programme is a fun and engaging programme for children who are struggling with executive functions at home or with school work. They will work one to one with an executive function coach and will learn new strategies but in a fun, story-telling way! Watch our video here to find out more!  If you would like any further information about any of our coaching services then please book a free discovery call with Sarah, our Client Services Manager today.

*Psychological needs, motivation and well-being: A test of self-determination theory across multiple domains. (Milyavskaya & Koesnter, 2011).

** Gender differences in school success: What are the roles of students’ intelligence, personality and motivation? (Spinath, Eckert, Steinmayr, 2014).

*** The neuroscience of growth mindset and intrinsic motivation. (Ng, 2018).

Maintaining friendships is key to your child’s resilience.

Maintaining friendships is key to your child’s resilience.

By Victoria Bagnall, Co Founder, Connections in Mind

Most children will see their friends nearly every day of the week. However, with schools closed and access to outdoor play facilities and social spaces restricted, reduced contact with friends can be quite upsetting and stressful for some children. Maintaining these friendships will help your child develop resilience by learning how to manage periods of difficult change, both now and as a skill that will be carried into later life.

What do we mean by resilience?

When we talk about resilience we mean a persons’ ability to bounce back and recover from stress, challenges and difficult life events. Remember, resilience is not something that we either have or don’t; it is a skill that needs to be built and nurtured within your child.

Why is resilience important?

Research has shown that children who are more resilient are happier, less stressed and are better equipped to handle life’s curveballs*. They are also more likely to take healthy risks as they don’t fear falling short of expectations**. Building resilience will help your child learn how to manage their emotions when faced with adversity so that they can continue working towards their goals. In terms of executive functions resilience is a mixture of goal directed persistence and flexibility.

Why is maintaining friendships key to building resilience?

Like all of us, children need to spend quality time with the important people in their lives. Staying connected will give them the opportunities they need to talk to a friend about a concern or something that they may be finding difficult to adjust to. This will provide them with the emotional support necessary for developing coping strategies that can help them overcome the issue. Maintaining these friendships will help them build resilience by better equipping them to cope with stress and uncertainty and can help them recover from periods of difficult change quicker***. The more quality social support they can draw upon from friends, the more flexible and resilient they can be in stressful situations. Essentially, these friendships will provide the support system that your child needs during these times of social and educational adjustment.

As a parent, how can you help your child stay connected?

Make it routine

With the daily juggling of home-schooling and working from home, it can be easy for time to slip away. As a parent, it is important that you set enough time aside in your children’s schedule so that they can regularly connect with friends. Including it as part of their daily routine will make them feel safe, less stressed and create a calmer household.

Set up virtual playdates

There are plenty of apps and services available such as FaceTime, Skype or Zoom that can make it easy for your child to stay connected whilst remaining physically distant. You could organise a virtual playdate where they cook or watch a film together. You could even create a classroom-like environment by letting them video call their friends whilst they are doing their school work. They could also play some games across a video platform, games like Battleships or Hangman work brilliantly. Better yet, these types of online social interactions can actually support their executive function development. For example, it can help them practice turn-taking and inhibiting responses, and help them learn how to maintain focus in a distraction-rich environment.

Write a letter…and get creative!

It may be a bit retro but in today’s society, the opportunity for children to learn the mechanics of writing and sending letters is fairly limited. Particularly for younger children, this is the perfect opportunity to help them develop their handwriting skills. You could also get creative by sending photos, drawings and including small care packages for friends or relatives. Just imagine the excitement when they receive a letter back in the mail addressed to them!

Write a story

Use email to encourage your child to start writing. Get them to write the first chapter and then send to one of their friends to write the next chapter or section. Not only will this help your child develop planning and prioritisation, but will link the components of executive functions (working memory, cognitive flexibility) with the components of imagination, such as symbolic thought and imaginary companions. Plus, you will have a wonderful story memory to share when your children are reunited in person again. 

But my child hates doing anything I suggest. What can I do in this situation?

It is natural and normal for teenagers to reject the suggestions of their parents – it is part of what has made human societies so adaptable over the years as teenagers reject the status quo and opt to do something different. Working with a trained professional in these circumstances can be invaluable. They can offer a safe space to discuss how your child is feeling and work on a practical plan to boost EFs according to your child’s goals.

If a coach was helping a child with this particular issue they would find a good time to discuss how they were feeling about being in self-isolation and then set some goals around milestones they would like to achieve. Like: I would like to chat to my favourite Aunty once a week on Zoom. They would then brainstorm and put together a workable bespoke plan to do this: teach Aunty Kate to use Zoom, and then schedule a convenient time, and have a topic they can discuss so that the chat is more meaningful than just a chit chat. The coach can then check back in to tweak the plan over time.

If you would like to know more about executive function coaching and how it can help your children, you, or even yourself as a parent then book a free discovery call with our Client Services Manager today.

* Resilience in development: The importance of early childhood. (Masten & Gewirtz, 2006)

**Resilience giving children the skills to bounce back. (Hall, Pearson & Reaching, 2003)

***Best friends and better coping: Facilitating psychological resilience through boys’ and girls’ closest friendships. (Graber, Turner & Madill, 2016)