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By Dan “Yi” Wu, Director of Operations and EF Coach @ Executive Functions Coach

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You may have heard about executive functioning skills, but what exactly are they? There are so many other blogs out there talking about the 8, 5, 7 or x amount of executive functions. Instead of running through a list of definitions, it might be more useful to understand the fundamentals. In some content, executive functioning skills are described as our ability to perform purposeful, goal-orientated behaviors in an unstructured environment. The emphasis is on the unstructured part. Our brains don’t use up as much executive functions capacity when we are not stressed and unfamiliar with our situation. When we are calm, collected, and understand what is going on, our brains generally don’t eat up as much energy. It is when something, no matter how minute it might seem to others, messes up our mojo, does having executive functioning skills matter.

Understanding The Science Of Executive Functioning Skills

Let’s take a deeper dive into executive functioning skills. The actual process of making purposeful, goal-orientated decisions in all parts of our life take place in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of our brain. However, executive functions in the brain aren’t as simple as strengthening your PFC. Sure, the PFC is where all of the magic happens, but it works with almost every other part of the brain depending on the function. For example, the executive function to use existing memory while doing a task, AKA our working memory needs both the dorsolateral PFC and portions of the parietal lobe. Executive functions in the brain are interconnected. This means that every skill requires the cooperation of multiple parts of your brain. Think of these connections as activities. Some of these executive functioning skills come easier, while others could use some training for your brain. 

How Do We Make Executive Functioning Skills Less Complicated?

Each executive functioning skill is inherently complicated and can take up a lot of energy depending on your environment and your skill level. Each one uses a combination of different parts of the brain, but why is knowing this so important? Well, if we are in a stressful situation, will it be easier or harder for our brains to activate complex pathways? Harder. For people that have an executive function disorder, this becomes orders of magnitude harder. For students that have learning differences, it gets so hard that giving up on a purposeful, goal-orientated life just makes more sense. Staring off into space, having emotional breakdowns, and/or not understanding why people are staring at you is just hard. Nevertheless, executive functions coaches don’t tell students to give up. This is where introducing structure to stressful situations is so important for coaching executive functioning skills.

Get The Right Help To Improve Your Executive Functioning Skills

What typically causes stress in any situation is the lack of structure or guidelines. When we don’t have these, it makes our executive functioning skills hard to execute. It takes a lot of energy, causes burnout, and typically a sense of hopelessness. This is why simple tools like lists, calendars, and a timer will introduce some structure. Creating mechanisms for self-awareness, self-advocacy, and social-awareness will go a long way as well. However, what is most important is to work with someone that understands your challenges with executive functions. It can be your parents, siblings, teachers, or a mentor. It can be an executive functions coach, but getting any form of guidance is extremely important. Figure out what situations cause you stress and find some way to introduce structure to it in a way that works for you. No matter what, do not get discouraged because executive functioning skills can be trained.