April 15, 2021

The Executive Function Connection

Executive Function is like air traffic control for your brain. It is where working memory, thinking, and self-regulation work together to get you through the day – learning, making decisions, interacting with others, and dealing with life. Research shows that executive function is a more reliable indicator of success than test scores, IQ, or socio-economic status. We are not born with these skills; they develop over time. There are different factors that play into our development – some within our control and others not. It goes without saying there are situations that create challenges in developing these skills such as brain trauma and autism, but there are other influences as well such as anxiety, bullying, technology, sleep, nutrition, exercise, and practice. Below are some strategies to help in the development of executive function skills which in turn build empathy, humility, mental flexibility, and confidence.
1. Reflect daily on your habits – eating, learning, interacting with others, etc. Self-advocate by communicating goals and needs to others. (i.e., eliminate junk food from kitchen to help me eat better, turn off the television so I can sleep better, designate a place where I can keep my things that no one can get to)
2. Be clear on expectations, have well-structured and consistent rules, and experiment with tools like calendars, trackers, and list makers. It does not matter if it is on a phone, in a journal, or on the refrigerator. What matters is that it is used, and it works. Integrate planning tools into the daily routine.
3. Set aside time for preparation and follow-up. For example, schedule thirty minutes before bed to set out items needed for the next day. Be sure to allow for time to clean up from one task before moving to another.
4. Prepare for transitions. Use timers to provide reminders that you will soon need to finish what you are currently doing to move on to the next thing.
5. Experiment with different organizational tools. (i.e.,3- ring binder vs file folders vs accordion folder; pencil pouch vs box vs cup).
6. Know thyself – what are your qualities, character, interests, talents? What type of learner are you? What is your ideal environment for learning (noise, temperature, body placement, time of day, etc.)? Modify your environment if necessary. If you study best while listening to music but must be in a room with others, then wear headphones. If you need quiet, wear earplugs, etc.
7. Engage in projects that require planning, not just the timeframe but the necessary resources, mentors, etc. to get the project done as well. Be sure to start with short timeframes and build up from there.
8. Don’t confuse avoidance with laziness. Oftentimes, the task can just be too overwhelming. Whether you are a manager asking someone to coordinate a meeting or a parent asking a child to clean their room, keep in mind you might be asking them to eat an elephant and must break it down for them...one bite at a time.
9. Meet new people and ask questions to get to know their feelings and experiences. Connect with peers and share and listen to different life strategies that work for them.
10. Visit new places, engage in new activities, and explore new areas of study.
11. Identify the purpose behind the work by connecting with real-world problems of interest. Visualize careers and practices that can change the world. Connect academic tasks with personal goals.
12. Provide choices to build skill and confidence in good decision-making and the ability to weigh the risk with reward.
13. Recognize and put strengths to good use. While it’s nice to be noticed for your musical, literary, comical, athletic talents...understand how they make the world a better place – even if it’s just your family’s world.
14. Mentor and model assertiveness. Advocate for self without anger, yelling, insults, or tattling. This comes more natural for some than others, but it can be done, it just might take more work.
15. Build healthy friendships by scheduling time with friends, getting involved in activities, and having conversations about what makes for a healthy relationship.
16. Instill respect by looking for value in others.
17. Take time to fulfill intrinsic desires like the connection with family, friends, and community.
18. Be aware of when, how much time, and how you feel before and after engaging with electronics and technology. Avoid electronics at least a half-hour before sleep.
19. Exercise and play daily. (They are not always one and the same, play requires enjoyment).20.Move your body and/or practice Square Breathing* whenever your brain needs a break.
21. Avoid the highs and lows of blood sugar caused by sugary and starchy foods; keep protein-rich snacks at hand for an easy go-to. 
22. Give and seek meaningful praise and encouragement.
23. Be sensitive to needs but don’t do for someone that they can do for themselves.
24. Embrace failure as an opportunity for learning. As far as learning value, it is better to do something on your own and fail than have someone else’s help and succeed. It is a little like the cheaters never prosper concept.
25. Walk tall, make eye contact, you got this.
*Square BreathingResources:
The Marshmallow Test https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yo4WF3cSd9QThis is Your Brain on Sugar https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dacv_OoM62s