Reflections on 5 years of working with EF’s

Reflections on 5 years of working with EF’s

By Victoria Bagnall, Co Founder, Connections in Mind

I have recently been chatting to lots of people about executive functions, and one question that always comes up is how I first learnt about executive functions.  

Well, I have Dr Claire Casey to thank for that. In late 2014 Claire and I were working on a particularly concerning adolescent case, I was supporting the young lady in question with her school work as a tutor and Clare was supporting her from a psychiatric perspective. I was flummoxed by our ward’s seemingly endless intellectual capacity but her inability to complete some of the simplest tasks, also her crippling perfectionism and performance anxiety and how it inhibited her ability to crack on with her school work. 

Claire recommended I read ‘Smart but Scattered Teens’ by Dr Peg Dawson and Dr Richard Guare, a pioneering parent handbook about executive function development in teenagers. I was hooked from the first chapter. Everything in the book all made absolute sense to me and what’s more I could identify with these struggles myself as dyslexic who has unknowingly struggled to cope with executive function challenges all my life. 

How did reading a book lead to setting up Connections in Mind

After reading the book I signed up for Peg Dawson’s next available one day training in Boston USA and jumped on a plane to go meet her and learn from the master herself. We met over lunch and discussed ideas about bringing executive function coaching to the UK. I began piloting executive function coaching with a number of clients online and found the results to be phenomenal. 

Convinced by the approach, I wrote to Peg to ask her to come to the UK to train the first round of executive function coaches in the UK. She didn’t need much persuasion and we set a date for December 2015. Peg did the first two days and I concluded with a 3rd day about EF coaching in the UK environment. During the course I met Imogen Moore Shelley and later Dr Bettina Hohnen where we discovered we had a shared passion for executive function development and later agreed to form a company to start offering coaching through Connections in Mind at the beginning of the next school year, September 2016. 

Before we began we enlisted the help of eminent Professor of Child Psychiatry Peter Hill to record an informative video about our services and how executive function coaching can help develop strong executive functions and put together a website. In September 2016, as planned, we began offering Peg Dawson’s model of coaching in the UK with a team of just 4 coaches including ourselves. Things have gone from strength to strength: we now have a team of over 40 coaches delivering a range of services to 6 – 90 year olds based on our learnings, research and development. 

What 10 things have you learned about executive function development in the last 5 years? 

  1. Everyone has a unique executive function profile. No one is perfect and everyone can improve their executive functions, from childhood, through to adolescence and right into adulthood. It might surprise readers to know that not one of the 500 teachers we trained last year through the Connections in Mind Foundation had a perfect profile. 
  2. Executive function terminology is easy to learn and natural for people to adopt. We have seen time and time again, in a variety of different contexts, that children as young as 6 can adopt and skilfully deploy the executive function terminology we use in our work. Indeed it helps them immensely to have a term to use to name their challenge so that they can recognise it and seek help to work on it. 
  3. Executive function challenges are not character flaws. Those with weak executive functions carry around a lot of shame about their character which is totally scientifically unfounded. When we hold public talks about executive functions we often have people close to tears as they realise they are not a bad person but their brain works slightly differently to others. 
  4. Executive functions wax and wain. Executive functions change depending on sleep, nutrition, exercise, stress and other environmental factors. In order to start working on executive functions we must first get the ground work done in terms of the environment before real and lasting progress can be made. 
  5. Coaching only works if you are committed to change. When we started Connections in Mind we took on any client whose parents wanted their child to try coaching. Sounds great, right? But we soon realised that just because the parents were keen on coaching it didn’t mean their children were. Progress with these clients was slow, if any progress at all, as the students self awareness or need to change was holding them back. As a result of this we developed our metacognition building programme, a six week introduction to coaching. This programme paves the way for coaching, teaching adolescents about their executive functions, brain plasticity and growth mindset to help them to investigate if working on their executive functions is something they are willing to invest time and effort in.
  6. Coaching is more tricky with younger children. Young children simply don’t have the metacognition to understand why they should work on their executive functions nor the motivation to change, so any work on development of executive functions needs to be fun and engaging. Off the back of this we developed Executive Function Adventures – our 10 session play based intervention which helps develop executive function literacy and works on every day strategies which form the basis of subsequent parent lead development. 
  7. Coaching is most effective when the parents are on board with our approach. We find that parents find it very difficult to stop being their child’s prefrontal cortex and step back and let them develop their executive functions at their own pace. We have developed our Connected Minds Parent course to help parents learn the tools to support strong executive function development at home. Enticing all parents to attend the course is a challenge and we are looking into flexible ways to deliver this course to fit in with busy lives. 
  8. The skill of the coach and the strength of their connection with the client is key to success. Without doubt the key to any professional relationship is trust and connection as the client has to trust they are completely understood and in a non judgemental space. We urge all our clients to look for a spark of connection with their coach, if it isn’t there with one coach it doesn’t mean it won’t be with another.  
  9. Executive function coaching is an expert skill. When we first started coaching we tried to keep costs down for clients by recruiting younger, relatable coaches such as psychology graduates and tutors. However, we quickly learnt that people with executive function challenges have often developed quite sophisticated coping mechanisms to protect themselves against the shame of having weak executive functions. They are often completely charming and adept at telling white lies and diverting you from the real issue in hand. Thus coaches need to be experienced in working with people and know how to hold them to account in firm but empathetic ways. 
  10. You need a strong support system. The best way to develop strong executive functions is through a collaborative home and school support system which actively works on developing strong executive functions. We have written a whole chapter in an upcoming book on neuroscience to be published later this year. Watch this space for more information. 

I am hugely passionate about sharing all there is to know about executive functions and how, by learning and understanding them we can support clients to change their lives in order to flourish.

If you would like to find out more about Connections in Mind and the services we provide then please visit our website. Or, if you feel you or your child, could benefit from executive function coaching then please book a free, 30 minute, discovery call with our executive function coaching expert to better understand the process and tailored programmes.  

Also, we are currently hosting a series of free webinars about executive functions please find more information online here.

About Victoria

Victoria, is a pioneer in the field of executive function skills development and passionately believes that applying the latest developments in neuroscience is the key to unlocking the potential of the human brain. She regards poor executive functions as the bottleneck to productivity and is committed to working with people of all ages to help them overcome their executive function challenges in order to flourish.

Sarah Holgate
Sarah Holgate