What in the World is Executive Functioning? - Guest Blog Post from Carrie Bonnett

Dec 20, 2023

Maybe it’s because I love it, but it seems that Executive Function is having a moment. (Do you know this term - Executive Function?)


I hear from parents all over the world that people are definitely talking about it. Parents, especially those who have children who struggle in school, are hearing it from pediatricians and teachers, from counselors and therapists. And I am so happy about that! I want people to talk about Executive Function. More importantly, I want people to understand it.


Before we get too far along, let me introduce myself! Hi - my name is Carrie Bonnett, and I’m an Executive Function coach. I work with students and families (and adults, too) to help them better understand their brains and figure out strategies to make school and life easier. Another goal is to spread the word about this Executive Function thing and make sure as many people know about it as possible. 


But just because we know a term does not mean we understand it. So here’s an introduction to what this thing - Executive Function (EF) - really means. 


The short definition is that Executive Functions are the brain skills that help us get things done. They are skills. That part is important - because skills can be taught. In fact, the research shows that these EF skills must be explicitly taught. Students don’t just learn them by watching others use them. They must be taught.


So what are these skills exactly?


They are things like managing time and attention, planning and organizing, switching focus, adjusting and refocusing, attending to details, developing timelines, maintaining clutter-free space, managing stress and anxiety, and controlling and regulating behavior.


Looking at this list, it’s no wonder that parents contact me when their student is struggling in school. This is a LOT to manage during a school day. I hear from parents all the time that their students are easily distracted, have difficulty getting started, have many missing assignments, and are losing important items. They’re staying up too late to finish homework. They have trouble managing impulsive behavior. They have difficulty balancing tasks and learning from past experience. These kinds of things are the red flags that a student needs help with EF. And it’s my belief that just knowing that these are Executive Function challenges is half the battle.


I approach my work from a brain-based lens. I encourage families to blame the brain for these challenges, not the child. It is not a character flaw that a student has trouble remembering their homework. It’s a brain thing. It’s a skill thing. Their brain is challenged in these areas. Blame the brain. Teach the skill.


Today, EF experts do not have one standard list of all the Executive Functions, but this is the list that I like. It comes from Drs. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare.


These are the skills that I teach:

  • Response inhibition
  • Working memory
  • Emotional control
  • Flexibility
  • Sustained attention
  • Task initiation
  • Planning and prioritizing
  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Goal-directed persistence
  • Metacognition 


There’s a quote I love from John Medina from the book, Brain Rules: “The single greatest predictor of academic success is Executive Function. It even trumps IQ.”


Executive Function skills are THAT important! 


But these skills are not just needed for school. These are life skills! So it’s doubly important to teach these skills to students. Strengthening executive functions will improve performance in school, at home, and in the workplace. 


If you see your child struggling to get something done (usually a non-preferred task, let’s be honest), I invite you to consider which EF skills are related to completing that task. Get curious. 


Maybe even name it: “I notice that you’re having trouble getting started on your math homework.” And then offer your help: “Can I help you in any way?” Your child might not take you up on your offer. But I believe the noticing and the naming (and also blaming the brain) can be a powerful first step at improving your child’s EF skills.


And if you need help with Executive Function issues, I’m here for you! Come over and join me on Instagram (@coachcarriebonnett) or my website www.carriebonnett.com. You can grab this free resource,  my quick-start Blueprint to help your student get things done (without constant reminders). 


About Carrie: Carrie Bonnett is a veteran teacher and lifelong list-maker. She is an Executive Function coach based in Bend, Oregon, where she lives with her husband and two children. Carrie works with students and families all over the world. Her no-shame approach and the strategies she teaches:


  •   empower students to thrive in life and in school, 
  •   help parents and teachers to better support their children, and
  •   help adults get on top of all that life requires. 


In addition to coaching, she is also an adjunct instructor for early-career teachers at University of Portland in Oregon.


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