When do Students Benefit from Support to Develop their Executive Skills?

When do Students Benefit from Support to Develop their Executive Skills?

The answer to this question is simple – all students can benefit from input across childhood and adolescence. Childhood and adolescence present an opportunity to embed strong skills early on that are the foundation for success in later life (Dawson and Guare, 2009).


Studies have shown that executive skills keep developing through adolescence until they fully mature in early adulthood (Best et al., 2009). During the early years, there is particularly rapid developmental change, but much of the development of executive skills happens gradually over time, as is demonstrated by studies that show that children perform better on executive function tasks beyond early childhood (Miller and Best, 2010).


Supporting children to practice and strengthen their executive skills during childhood can prevent them from facing challenges later in their school careers when they are required to be independent learners and to manage their own workload. For some students, it is not until they are in secondary school when more demands are placed on their executive functions that it becomes evident that they require extra support.


All students can benefit from our executive skills workshops that help children to understand how their brains work, how it effects their learning and behaviour and how they can use this information to revise, complete homework and manage everyday life. However, there are some groups of students for whom more intensive support to develop good executive skills can be critical in helping them to reach their potential.


These children and young people with executive skills challenges are often bright and able, but just can’t manage their daily lives. These children are often seen as lazy and unmotivated and adults become increasingly frustrated by their apparent difficulty in doing the ‘basic things’ in life. Problems with task initiation, time management, planning and organisation, shifting and task monitoring can have a significant impact both academically and behaviourally. The result can be a young person who is isolated from adults around them and achieving well below their potential in school.


There is also a well-established link between poverty and EF deficits, which can translate into students experiencing the challenges described above and displaying behavioural issues linked to the executive function inhibitory control. Children from low socio-economic status backgrounds can benefit from additional support to strengthen their EF skills.


Best JR, Miller PH, Jones LL. Executive functions after age 5: Changes and correlates. Developmental Review. 2009;29:180–200.


Best, J. R., & Miller, P. H. (2010). A Developmental Perspective on Executive Function. Child Development, 81(6), 1641–1660. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01499.x


P. Dawson & R. Guare. (2009). Smart But Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential. New York: The Guildford Press

The Magic of Goal Setting

The Magic of Goal Setting

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.


Further reading

Helping Children Succeed – Paul Tough https://hilt.harvard.edu/files/hilt/files/settinggoals.pdf http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/ayelet.fishbach/research/Feedback_Frontiers.pdf