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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.

The Best Ways to Revise – what does the evidence say?

The Best Ways to Revise – what does the evidence say?

Revision Strategies

It is revision time in the UK, with many children facing internal and national examinations in the next few months. Here at Connections in Mind we have been reviewing the research evidence for the best revision strategies so our coaches can provide the best advice to students at this busy time. The evidence is surprising as many of the strategies students turn to have a poor evidence base for being effective ways to learn and commit information to memory.

The winners

Three key strategies are the winners when it comes to revising and they all fit with what we know about how the brain works. The following have been shown to be the top three ways to learn information:

  1. Distributed learning – also known as the spacing effect, is most effective. This means learning information more than once and distributed over a period of time. Cramming is not the best way to learn as things get quickly forgotten. The forgetting curve (see table) shows us that information is quickly forgotten and needs refreshing. The spaces between each ‘refresh’ can increase as the information becomes more embedded. So learning something on day 1 and then refreshing on day 3, then 7, then 20 is a sure way to learn. This fits with what we know about brain circuits needing reinforcing to strengthen and increase in efficiency.
  2. Testing is best – the fluency illusion is the term used to describe the fact that we often have a false confidence about what we know. Students can read through something and think “oh I know that” but when tested, they don’t remember as well. Testing has been shown to be the most effective studying technique to commit things to memory. Unfortunately, testing is loaded with negative connotations and students’ sense of self is often tied up with how well they did on tests. However, kids testing themselves on material learned, without the associated link to how ‘clever’ or not they are, is one of the most effective ways to learn.
  3. Mixed drill practice – mixing up your practice within subjects such as maths and science is important. For example, in maths, rather than doing a whole page of fractions, mixing up a fraction question with a simultaneous equations questions with a BIDMAS question is best. This prepares the brain for the unexpected and encourages students to recall the strategy or technique independently.


The losers

Some of the strategies known and loved by students have been shown by research to have low impact on learning and remembering.

  1. Re-reading – reading is a passive activity that has been shown to be an ineffective strategy for later recall. Perhaps reading something through once to familiarise yourself with the topic at the beginning of revision is helpful, but re-reading over and over again is not the best way to use your time.
  2. Highlighting and underlining – this can be helpful as a first step towards further more detailed study but it won’t be a good way to actually learn that information for later testing.
  3. Summarising – summarising is a skill that takes quite a bit of practice to get right. At the beginning of the learning process it can be helpful if done correctly and with support, but as a learning strategy it is also not a good use of time.


The take home messages:

Executive functioning skills are going to be key to ensuring your child is most effective in their revision and are therefore able to use time most effectively to not only do well, but also to have time off to relax and stay calm during the examination period. Skills to support are:

  1. Planning – having a good plan for each topic which ensures each subject is covered and they are reviewed a few times with increasing periods of time in-between sessions.
  2. Organisation – having access to testing questions and past papers will be crucial for enabling that all important ‘testing’ session at the end of each block of revision.
  3. Time management – this is such an important skill when revising to make sure sessions are started and finished on time. Breaks are as important as study sessions and sleep is crucial as this is when the brain consolidates memories. So without sleep the information may not stick!

Many other executive skills will be drawn on at this time, most notably emotional regulation which will enable the young person to stay calm and keep focused in the moment.

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