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Executive Functions and Coaching

What is executive functioning?

Executive functioning is a term used to describe a group of higher level cognitive processes (or, mental processes), like:

  • Planning and prioritizing

  • Decision making

  • Problem solving

  • Action sequencing

  • Task assignment and organizing

  • Effortful and persistent pursuit of goals

  • Inhibiting impulses

  • Mental flexibility

These processes use multiple areas of the brain to access language, judgment, logic, and reasoning. Although we use these mental skills constantly in our day-to-day lives, we aren’t born with executive functioning. Instead, we learn and develop these skills throughout childhood and early adulthood.

For various reasons explored further below, some people experience problems with executive functioning. This can create challenges with processes like planning, remembering, focusing

, multitasking, and self-control, making it a struggle to keep up with daily life tasks such as going to work or school.

What is executive function coaching?

Executive function coaching is an intervention aimed at helping people to develop and learn strategies to improve attention, manage their emotions, organize and plan activities, and reflect on and change their approaches. It is usually delivered via one-on-one sessions with a coach so that you can work on your individual goals.

What can executive function coaching help with?

Challenges with executive functioning are associated with various conditions, including:

  • ADHD

  • Learning disabilities

  • Dementia

  • Schizophrenia

  • Depression

That said, executive function coaches don’t only work with people who have a diagnosed condition. People who want to improve their current level of executive functioning, or slow their decline also seek coaching.

Does executive function coaching work?

There has not yet been a great deal of research into the efficacy of executive function coaching, so it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about whether it works. The early research suggests that it is a promising intervention that can improve executive functioning for students with ADHD (1).

However, it is clear from the research that having strong executive functioning is beneficial in many ways. It has been associated with (2):

  • Job success

  • Career advancement

  • Marital happiness

  • Making friends

  • Weight management

  • Resisting substance abuse

  • Happiness and quality of life

Executive function coaching is one of many interventions proposed to improve executive functions, alongside other activities, like (1):

  • Computerized training

  • Games

  • Aerobics

  • Resistance training

  • Martial arts

  • Yoga

  • Mindfulness

  • Theatre

How does executive function coaching work?

Executive function coaches aim to help people improve their functioning in various ways. They help to identify the executive functioning challenges unique to the individual. They might review any assessments that have been undertaken to measure the various aspects of a person’s executive functioning, such as neuropsychological testing.

Once the target areas are identified, goals are set, and the coach teaches targeted strategies and tools to help with the specific challenges. Coaches might aim to help by:

  • Focusing on strengths to increase confidence

  • Teaching organizational skills and routines

  • Teaching time management skills and strategies

  • Teaching strategies to help manage distractions, and improve attention and concentration

  • Teaching skills for gathering, analyzing, and synthesizing information

  • Teaching strategies for solving problems

  • Using tools to help with memory

The aim is for each person to have the tools to be able to independently function better, without the ongoing assistance of the coach.

Length and frequency of executive function coaching sessions

Executive function coaching does not follow a particular protocol, so the length, frequency, and duration of sessions can be decided between you and your coach. Initially, sessions are weekly and are usually an hour in length.

You’ll be working together towards achieving particular goals and changes, which usually requires new behaviors and strategies to become established habits. This might mean working together for anywhere up to around 18 months. Coaches tend to reduce the frequency of sessions towards the end, as you become more confident and skilled.

What happens in a typical executive function coaching session

The content of a coaching session depends on individual needs and the particular aspect of executive functioning in focus. Typically, however, you and your coach will, in the initial sessions, have identified the area of focus and set some goals relating to this.

Each session is likely to start with a review of the previous week and any homework tasks assigned for practice; this is also an opportunity to problem-solve any difficulties encountered.

Together, you’re likely to set an agenda for the session; identifying the difficulty you’d like to focus on and discussing what you’d like to get out of your time together.

You’ll then learn skills and strategies to help you work towards your particular executive function goals. For example, you might have a big project coming up at work and be concerned about how you’ll complete it. Your coach might help you break the project down into smaller parts and then develop plans for approaching each part, and teach you how to use a time management tool so that you stay on track.

At the close of a session, you’ll usually agree on some homework tasks, such as practicing the use of the time management tool.


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