What is Executive Function and why is it so important?

Welcome to the very first episode of the Executive Function Podcast! I’m over the moon happy to have you join us to discover strategies to support you and your child! If you’re not sure what Executive Function (EF) is or how it could be impacting your life, you’re in the right place! Today we’re going to jump in and explore EF—what it is, why it matters, and how supporting its development can change lives in huge ways!

Before we start, I have some notes on the podcast structure. Each week will have a focused strategy with specific steps to try and tweak. We’ll explore examples and address potential challenges related to each strategy. Each episode will end with a quick pep talk for your child: a “here’s the deal” sort of coaching that empowers and validates your child. I’ll give him or her specific things to think about and try each week.

If a specific strategy proves to be incredibly helpful for your child, be sure to share the episode with your child’s teachers. Research shows that some students will use strategies in environments where they learned them but forget to use them in other places. If teachers are aware of what your child is doing to support their success, the teachers can also remind and allow your child to use the tools you learn here!

In this first episode, we’re learning about EF—what it is and where we use it (spoiler alert: we use it everywhere!). So, I want to walk you through a school day that may seem pretty familiar to you (because sometimes it’s easier to notice when skills are lacking. We tend to take EF skills for granted, like they just “are” what we do).

It’s morning. You’ve reminded your kids to get dressed about 35 times in the last three minutes. Your brilliant but jumbled son is suddenly very invested in finding a piece to his headphones that he just realized was missing. He doesn’t need his headphones today. When you remind him to please get dressed, that school starts soon, he mumbles that his teachers hate him anyway. Your kids pack their backpacks, after your son spends few minutes finding the homework that’s late but complete. You make a mental note to beg the teacher (again) for understanding. Your partner says goodbye on their way out to work, mentioning to your son that he just needs to try harder. Your son slumps.

At work, you get a message from your son that he needs his cleats for practice and he thinks they’re in the bag in his room or maybe the garage. His math teacher has also sent a message that he’s not paying attention (he doodles during lectures). Your son passes every math test, but he’s failing for missing homework points. Later your son texts, simply, “I hate school.”

The after school rodeo progresses much like the morning did. Lots of reminding, lots of frustration between you and your son. After dinner, (and after he’s stated that he has no homework about 27 times), your son asks if you can take him to go get a poster board for this science thing that’s due tomorrow. This starts the lecture portion of the evening, where your partner lays into your son, stating he “should this” and “just that.” You’re caught between the two, wondering what on earth got the three of you into this dynamic. Your son is smart. It shouldn’t be this hard.

Sound familiar? Lots of us live this reality every day. It’s frantic and frustrating and confusing and can feel hopeless. The school may complain about your child, but, at the same time, may not be able to provide special education or other support services because he doesn’t qualify for help. Your partner may see the results of the lacking skills (being late, disorganized, emotionally dysregulated) but does not seem open to understanding why your son is acting this way.

I feel overwhelmed just narrating this. The great news is there is something we can do right now to start changing these frustrations for good. We can learn about EF. We can see where it’s lacking. And we can learn ways to either improve or augment it so we can get around what used to hold us back.

So, what is EF? The short answer is it’s the tools you use to plan for and be successful in life. It fits roughly into 6 main categories: organization, planning, emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, and flexible thinking. Common examples of executive function skills include preparing for the school day by choosing an outfit the night before; starting a project with plenty of time to finish it; realizing when your brain has wandered and bringing it back to focus; adjusting your tone when you enter a new social space.

EF skills build upon one another and are not regularly, explicitly taught in schools—although, in a cruel twist of fate, they are heavily required in schools. They can be tiny adjustments, like setting a phone notification, or larger schedule shifts, like Sunday night planning hour. (I can’t wait to teach you both of these strategies!)

So how do we know when we need to teach an EF skill (or maybe even learn one ourselves?) The struggle is the spotlight. What I mean is, if your child is struggling with something again and again, then he’s probably missing an EF tool. Use the struggle to spotlight (or draw awareness to) the need for help. For example, if he’s always running late, he could use some strategies to support his planning for steps to prepare, his organization so things are easy to find, and his attention, so he can boss his own brain and stay on task. You could choose to spend 18+ years fighting about tardiness, or you could step back and make the thought switch:

Maybe the problems aren’t behavioral choices. Maybe they’re showing me that my kid needs some strategies.

 Today I want to teach you that EF is everywhere and directly contributes to success! It’s also hackable—we can learn and adapt strategies. A first step is to become aware of EF’s roll in our lives and where it might be lacking.

 This week, challenge yourself to make the thought switch:

When you notice your child having what you might call a “problem behavior,” ask yourself what you’d like to see instead. My child is always late, I would like him or her to….instead.

Then, consider how you are able to do that ideal behavior. I’m not late because I…

As soon as you’ve thought about your own EF strategies, chances are you’ll be ready to think of your child’s struggles in a new way.

Your second challenge is to make a list of everything you tell your child that starts with “You should…”

Like, you should know you need your cleats. Or, you should have done your homework. Or, you should not yell at the dog. This list will be important in a few weeks, and again, it gives you an idea of where your child is specifically lacking some skills. You can download a reflection sheet to help you get started with this week’s challenge. Go to Sarahkesty.com/episode1 and grab it!

Of course, this sounds good, but how will you remember to do this? (Woot! EF opportunity right here!)

One strategy I teach students is to use a visual prompt: something you can see to remind yourself to do something. This week, you can download use the printed reflection sheet as a visual prompt! Print out then put the pages somewhere you are sure to see them when you’ll have time to do them. For example, if you get up before your kids, put the reflection sheets near where you eat breakfast, so you can use them when you have the best opportunity. Go to sarahkesty.com/episode1 to download the sheets. They’ll help you get a jump start on EF awareness!

Grab the top tips sheet at Sarahkesty.com/toptips

We’ll close every episode with a pep talk for your child. So, pause and go grab your kids. Here we go:

I want to start by recognizing that school is probably tricky for you. You do your best but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Maybe the work is overwhelming, or you’re sometimes bored, or you feel like your teacher doesn’t like you. Maybe it’s all of those things.

You’re not crazy. School can be tricky because most schools ask you to be good at things that they don’t teach you. Like having a clean backpack or getting focused or dealing with boring times. Teachers want you to be automatically great at these things, and they can get very mad when you’re not. Maybe it seems like they’re mad or you’re always messing up and you aren’t sure why.

The bad news is that this may be tricky for a while. When you change grades or teachers, some of the things they need you to do change too. But the great news is that there are tons of hacks, strategies that work like cheats codes in a game, to help you get on track, do well at school, and maybe even enjoy school!

Doing poorly at school doesn’t mean you’re dumb. It probably means you are missing some skills that help you play the school game. This podcast that your grownup (whoever played this for you) is listening to is going to teach the skills you need to be great at school and at life! I’m so excited to be on this journey with you, kid. We got this! Have a great week and I’ll talk to you in a few days!