Debunking the Myth of Linear Growth in Children Who Have Executive Function Challenges

Within the past few years, executive function coaching has emerged as a well-known and essential service for students with learning differences. While the data on executive function coaching has been very good, there are several misconceptions that we come across daily. 

Addressing the misunderstandings of executive function coaching is needed, as they can set unrealistic expectations and frustrate students and their families. Let’s explore what executive function coaching actually is, debunk common myths, and develop an understanding of the non-linear path of personal growth. 

What is Executive Function Coaching? 

Executive function coaching helps students improve their organization, time management, and goal setting. The coach or mentor typically works one-on-one with the student, helping them to develop systems for planning, completing tasks, and systemizing their lives in a way that helps them maximize their gifts. 

As we delve deeper into what executive function coaching entails, we’ll unravel why it’s not about “fixing” anyone, why a universal approach doesn’t work, and why the path to improvement is rarely a straight line. Understanding these facets is key to setting realistic goals and understanding how the process typically unfolds. 

Myth #1: Fixing the Brain 

“Fixing the brain” is a fundamental misconception of executive function coaching. It’s important to clarify that individuals with executive function challenges often have unique cognitive styles that come with their strengths. These can include: 

– Hyper-focus 

– Out-of-the-box thinking 

– Thriving in chaos 

These attributes can be powerful assets when harnessed correctly. Instead of attempting to “fix” these distinctive traits, executive function coaching aims to develop strategies that allow individuals to control and maximize their unique abilities. This approach involves identifying specific challenges, like task initiation or impulse control, and implementing personalized systems, habits, and routines that promote efficiency and success. 

This approach helps students feel good about themselves by focusing on their strengths and creating systems where they can improve. 

Myth #2: Everyone Develops the Same Process 

Each brain is wired differently, making the coaching process highly individualized. Foundational strategies such as establishing routines, promoting physical activity, enhancing sleep, and teaching self-advocacy are crucial. The way these strategies are implemented changes a lot from person to person. What’s effective for someone might not help someone else at all. This is especially true for people with neurodiversity, as their ways of thinking are unique. 

For example, I would never sit still and try to read. My attention is too poor to comprehend the text. However, my comprehension is great if I walk and listen to the text. I have a system where I stop every 10 minutes, pause the recording, and write down what I have learned. This does not work for everybody, but it is very effective for me. If I had understood this before I was 30, I would’ve saved a lot of headaches and tuition money. 

An executive function coach can provide insights where the individual can understand their brain and build a lifestyle that works best for them. A great coach understands the research behind being neurodivergent and can help individuals leverage their gifts and build support around their challenges. 

Myth #3: Linear Growth 

The expectation of linear progress is among the most common and frustrating misconceptions for students, parents, and coaches. The development of executive function skills is complex and highly variable. There are moments of rapid progress followed by periods of apparent stagnation or even regression. This pattern can lead to doubt and frustration, particularly when nothing seems to work. However, it’s crucial to understand that this is a normal growth process. Skills are being built and consolidated, even when not immediately apparent. 

There are plenty of stories of students who suddenly make significant leaps in self-management, problem-solving, and independence after years of steady work. These breakthroughs are often unpredictable but are usually the result of persistent effort, support, and the gradual accumulation of skills. It’s a vivid reminder that growth isn’t linear but a series of plateaus and peaks. Embracing this reality is key to maintaining motivation and commitment during coaching. It’s about celebrating every small victory, learning from setbacks, and understanding that each step forward, no matter how small, is a piece of the larger journey toward self-reliance and success. 

As we navigate the complex terrain of executive function coaching, we must remember that growth is inherently non-linear. Misconceptions can lead to misplaced expectations and unnecessary disappointment. By understanding cognitive development’s unique and varied nature, we can set more realistic goals, maintain a positive outlook, and provide the support and encouragement needed to foster genuine progress. 

The path may be unpredictable, but the destination is worth the journey. Keep faith in the process, celebrate each individual’s strengths, and embrace every step of this transformative journey. Your resilience, understanding, and support make all the difference in unlocking the full potential of those embarking on the path to improved executive function. 

Case Study 

I began working with a young man in middle school as a teacher. He was intellectually gifted but an organizational mess. Each day was a struggle; he was usually tardy, frequently missing the bus, arriving disheveled, and often failing to turn in assignments he had actually completed. His teachers viewed his lateness and incomplete work as disrespect, not recognizing the underlying issues. Despite his charisma and gifted intellectual capabilities, his academic life was in disarray, leading to frustration for him and his family. 

I worked closely with him from 8th grade through college graduation. Despite the ongoing support and strategies we tried, the same challenges persisted, leading to periods of frustration and doubt for everyone involved. His family, at times, questioned the effectiveness of executive function coaching and worried about his future. 

Everything started to change around his junior year of college. The habits and routines we had been working on for so long began to take root. He established a consistent bedtime routine, dedicated a specific study area, regularly attended teacher office hours, and sought out structured environments conducive to success.

He graduated with honors, secured a great job, and started a family. Today, while he still has to balance life’s demands, his progress is undeniable. This journey was far from linear, with many years of laying the foundation before the sudden visible leap in progress. His story is a reminder that with time, dedication, and the right strategies, even the most daunting challenges can be overcome. 

For More: 

Learning Isn’t Always Linear 

Common Myths about Executive Function Challenges

What is Executive function Coaching

7 Myths of Executive Functioning

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