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Executive function coaching: The definitive guide (2023)

Updated: Aug 10, 2023

By Sean G. McCormick | ✅ verified | updated: Aug. 10, 2023


In this post I am going to tell you everything you need to know about executive function coaching.


You might be here because you've noticed a pattern of missing assignments, low test grades and avoidance of communication with teachers from your child for some time.


Or perhaps, you are a savvy educator who has realized that a portion of your kids NEED assignments broken into manageable chunks with clear deadlines, otherwise things just don't get completed.


You've heard the words "executive functioning" mentioned, but you're not clear on what it means or encompasses and you want to learn more.

Four images of people being productive and getting executive function coaching
Executive Function Coaching: The Ultimate Guide

What is EF coaching in a nutshell? 🌰


At its core, EF coaching is the science and art of guiding learners to strengthen their own capacity to get things done.


What makes this process unique is that it focuses on empowering children and parents to do the heavy lifting through the repetition of habits like:

  • Plotting out deadlines

  • Organizing assignments into manageable chunks

  • Setting timers to task initiate

  • Updating teachers on progress or asking for extensions and feedback

  • And so much more...

When those habits are the center of the interaction with the child (rather than content), they blossom into essential skills that research tells us enhance the quality of life for students for decades to come.


Who is it for?


While this approach can apply to anyone to some degree, it is essential for middle school, high school and university students, in the midst of trying to keep up with the demands placed upon them by society, all while experiencing massive psychological and physiological growth.




Table of Contents


Cartoon image of people around a brain with cogs in it doing various productive tasks.
What are executive functions?

The executive functions are the brain processes that allow people to plan, initiate, and complete goals. They are also the source of our ability to reflect on and evaluate the approaches we take to problem solve and refine our process to improve our productivity and efficiency.


The executive functions primarily stem from the frontal lobe, which sits directly behind the forehead, and is the largest of the brain's four paired lobes in the cerebral cortex. This was the last area of the brain to develop and accounts for about 40% of the human brain in most adults.


What is the frontal lobe responsible for?


The frontal lobe is a beautifully complex section of the brain and is responsible for many basic abilities (and complex ones) that make us uniquely human including:

  • Language production

  • Social interaction

  • Problem-solving or "playing with information"

  • Reward-seeking behaviors, also known as motivation

  • Inhibition or impulse control

  • Maintaining focus

  • And more!

Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child, defines executive functions as:

...the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.

Caregivers and educators who are looking for an easy way to explain this complex concept to others can use the acronym P.O.S.I.T.I.V.E. to describe EF skills which stand for:


Executive function skills are planning, organizing, self-management, initiation of tasks, time management, inhibition, and impulse control, visualizing outcomes, evaluating priorities infograph
What are executive function skills?

Regardless of which definition you subscribe to, this is certain -- children with stronger EF skills have better academic, social and vocational outcomes when observed over the span of their lives.


Knowing this, it is vital to teach students, families and educators these essential abilities in order to enhance the quality of life for students worldwide (especially those with ADHD, aka Executive Dysfunction).


How are executive function skills assessed?


EF skills can be assessed both formally or informally.


For the informed educator, mental health professional or parent, it is quite obvious when a child is struggling with this skill set and common indicators may include:

  • Poor time management or time blindness

  • Emotional dysregulation

  • Chronic disorganization both of physical and digital items

  • Apprehension or avoidance of communicating with teachers

  • Decreased motivation due to constant overwhelm

  • Addiction to "unproductive" behaviors such as YouTubing or video gaming

  • Reduced problem-solving abilities

Oftentimes, due to the lack of abilities in the above areas, students have additional executive function challenges such as:

  • Diminished sense of self-worth

  • Low-grades

  • Decreased desire to continue with schooling past the required thresholds

  • Declining grades

  • Loneliness and feelings of isolation

  • Fragmented relationships with parents

To be certain that the issues are related to executive functioning, licensed professionals will use a range of tools to evaluate the abilities of a client. The licensed professionals who conduct testing for EF issues include:

  • Neuropsychologists

  • School psychologists

  • Speech-language pathologists (SLPs)

  • Physicians

  • Therapists

What diagnoses are related to executive dysfunction?


Oftentimes, EF challenges will be connected to a more formal diagnosis of a learning disability or mental health challenge. These include:

  • ADHD

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Dyslexia

  • Dyscalculia

  • Non-verbal learning disorder (NVLD)

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Tourette's syndrome

Less formal assessment approaches are also completed by unlicensed professionals which include:

  • Educational therapists

  • Executive function coaches

  • Academic coaches

When EF challenges are diagnosed, it is also the role of the assessor to make recommendations around the next steps for parents and students.


In addition to medication, coaching to support students struggling to manage the demands of school and life has been shown to be an effective and trustworthy approach.

White background with blue images of a coach speaking to student through the computer screen.
What is executive function coaching?

EF coaching is a designed alliance that empowers a client to improve their ability to experience successful outcomes in school and life.


The alliance begins with an assessment of EF skills done by a coach or completed beforehand by an assessment professional.


Once there is baseline data on the strengths, struggles and goals of the client, a support plan to enhance the essential abilities is developed with input from parents, teachers and other allied professionals.


One key element in this alliance is that the child or young adult MUST be involved in the development of goals and the plan of service. When adults reasonably center the student's voice throughout this cycle, the child begins to take executive ownership of both the procedures and the outcomes.


This plan should include ways to improve study skills, and self-management skills, as well as strategies to compensate for working memory challenges that are often associated with ADHD, anxiety, traumatic brain injury, and other disabling conditions that impact the executive functions.


Executive functioning coaching is NOT:

  • Traditional tutoring focused on improving one specific content

  • Enforcing the completion of homework

  • Serving as a proxy to persuade students to meet unreasonable expectations set by frustrated parents

EF coaching develops expertise that can be applied across ALL curricular areas.


When competencies like task initiation, self-monitoring, extended focus, and prioritization are the focus of the work (rather than the content itself), students are more likely to develop a growth mindset that improves their confidence and ability to generalize those skills to any area of focus.


Ultimately, the goal is to support a client in strengthening their self-management skills so that the frequency of coaching interactions is decreased or removed entirely.


How does executive function coaching work?


If you've decided you're ready to utilize an EF coach, answer the following questions to establish clarity on what would be a good match for your needs:

  • Does the location of the coach matter to you? For example, will you need this coach to be available to transition with your learner to college, and thus online options may be better?

  • Do you want your coach to help your child or client develop competencies within the home (where they do their homework) or would you prefer they work outside the house?

  • Does the gender of the coach matter? If so, does your child prefer male, female, or non-binary?

  • What type of personality are you seeking in a coach? Someone who is more outgoing or energetic or calm and laid back?

  • Are there other factors that the coach must account for such as knowledge of special education, dyslexia, or traumatic brain injury?

  • Are you looking for a coach with specific expertise in areas such as transitioning to high school or college?

  • Are you looking for group coaching or individual coaching?

  • What is your budget for coaching?

Remember, while you may know EXACTLY what you want in a coach, keep yourself open to the options that you identify.


Sometimes the best coaches don't look, sound or feel like you would expect, but are just what your family needs to get to where you want to go.



Have you worked with an executive function coach?

  • Yes

  • No

  • Not yet, but I plan to

You can vote for more than one answer.


How do you teach executive functioning skills?


Some of the most common strategies are the following:

  • Using motivational interviewing, also known as solution-focused questioning and an inquiry-based approach. For a step-by-step guide to using motivational interviews, check out the article, "5 Ways To Motivate Your Students."

  • Teaching the externalization of reminders, To Do's, and goals through tools such as calendars, planners, post-it notes, and whiteboards.

  • Guiding students through explicit self-advocacy communication approaches such as how to follow up with their teachers via email about missing assignments, low test grades, and other areas of academics that need attention

  • Reverse engineering or backward planning by starting with the end goal in mind

  • Framing things in the context of client preferences and interests

  • Facilitating family team meetings so students can hear feedback in a safe setting

  • Instructing clients on how to self-monitor their goals through data collection and review

  • Celebrate the micro-wins! Clients need to hear praise so they feel motivated and eager to continue working on their challenges.

This alliance has the effect of not only improving the organization competencies of a person who is struggling but also helping them to improve their ability to stay emotionally regulated when inevitable frustrations arise.


When the strategies above are judiciously applied over an extended period of time, clients learn how to manage school with increasing independence, and the need for a coach is gradually reduced.


How long should executive function coaching last?


For the coaching alliance to take root and yield results, a minimum of one semester working with a coach is necessary.


This gives the learner and the coach an opportunity to experiment with strategies and fine-tune an approach that can be replicated in the following semesters.


When the coaching alliance is cut off too soon, students may experience distressing setbacks that make revisiting coaching more difficult.


Remember, coaching is relationship-based, not a "transaction".


When a coach can establish a safe, secure attachment with your learner and provide them with tuned and attentive guidance in their areas of development, these abilities can lead to a richer life and a more harmonious family dynamic.


Conversely, the coaching relationship should also be revisited each subsequent semester so the student, parents, and coach can evaluate whether new goals can be developed as the rigors of education increase or if it is time to gradually phase out support.


How much should executive function coaching cost?


This will vary greatly based on your region, as well as the experience of the coach.


For a detailed analysis of four popular executive function coaching services, check out my article, "How much does executive functioning coaching cost? (2023)".


From this review, I found the pricing ranged from $150 per hour all the way up to $300+ per session. Many local executive function coaches will charge significantly less for their services, so if you are seeking someone local, check out the directories below to discover coaching options near you.

White background with blue images of woman with afro analyzing a trend increasing.
Why is executive function coaching important?

Multiple peer-reviewed studies have found that EF skills impact almost every facet of life, from the start of education, all the way through adulthood.


For example, in Dr. Adele Diamond's systematic review of 179 studies on executive functions, she found the following conclusions:

"EFs are more important for school readiness than are IQ or entry-level reading or math." (Blair & Razza 2007, Morrison et al. 2010)
"EFs predict both math and reading competence throughout the school years." (Borella et al. 2010, Duncan et al. 2007, Gathercole et al. 2004)

Furthermore, Dr. Adele Diamond went out to describe the impact that EFs have on job outcomes, marriage, and mental health, which can all be read in the original study.


Hattie's Research


Another study by Australian professor and researcher, John Hattie, sought to understand which variables were the most important to improve learning.

In this 25 year study, Hattie reviewed more than 108,000 studies involving 300 million students around the world and was able to rank the 256 influences that are related to academic success.


Each influence was given a score or “effect size”, according to the impact it has on learning.


"The average effect size was 0.4, a marker that represented a year’s growth per year of schooling for a student. Anything above 0.4 would have a greater positive effect on learning."

At the top of Hattie's list is the strategy, "Teacher estimates of achievement," which is the sensitivity that a teacher or coach exercises in gauging and adjusting learning in order to support a student in reaching their goals.


But at the VERY bottom of the study, below all the factors that positively impact student achievement, are factors that actually have negative impacts.


And can you guess what the most negatively impactful factor was (an effect size of more than two full school years of learning loss)...


ADHD 😱


What this tells us is that learning critical EF skills are essential in reducing the harmful impact of ADHD on students.


In summary, when students focus on organization and goal-oriented skills, they are enhancing their chances to succeed in not only their school or career but also in creating an improved quality of life.

White background with blue images of a women searching through the internet to find a coach
How do I find an executive function coach?

Most established educational institutions have not yet pivoted to address the growing need for executive function support in the "age of attention".


At this time, EF coaching is an unregulated industry meaning anyone can call themselves an EF coach. Therefore, use caution when seeking an EF coach. Here are my top tips:


So who can be an executive function coach?


In order to find a skilled and experienced coach, look for the following qualifications:

Where can I find an executive function coach?


The best EF coaches are found through referrals from trusted sources. Talk to your physician, therapist, or another mental health professional for recommendations.


Additionally, use the directories below to find prospective coaches to interview:


When searching nationally you can use:

When searching locally, you can use:

How do I choose the right executive function coach for my child?


I recommend interviewing at least three coaches or programs before deciding to move forward.


When speaking with prospective coaches or programs, use the following questions to guide your inquiry:

  • What is the process of your coaching program?

  • What strategies and approaches do you use to improve EF skills?

  • What do you do when the student continues to struggle even after implementing coaching?

  • How are your coaches trained? What are their minimum qualifications?

  • If it is a group practice, ask "What is your process for matching my child with a coach?"

  • How will I know if my child's executive function skills have improved?

  • How do you keep parents updated about what you are working on in your coaching sessions?

  • Is your coaching service available online or in-person?

  • What is your cancellation policy?

  • What is the cost of your services? Are there any additional costs besides the coaching fees?

  • What forms of payment are expected? When are we expected to pay for service?

  • What is your refund policy or guarantee for clients should things not work out?

By taking the time to educate yourself on the various approaches and methodologies that are available, you will surely find the right match for your family.


Is executive function coaching covered by insurance?


No, it is very uncommon for an insurance plan to provide EF coaching. If you figure out how to do that, leave a comment below and share your success story!


Some insurance plans provide support classes for ADHD which can address some aspects of EF coaching, although these tend to be group classes for adults and not for an individual client.


Some clients use their Flexible Spending Account/Health Savings Account (FSA/HSA) benefits to help pay for coaching services. FSA/HSA providers have varying requirements or approval processes, so check with your FSA/HSA provider to see if our services qualify as an approved use of those funds. If they qualify, you can then ask that your EF coach or coaching company be added to the FSA/HSA provider’s approved vendor list.


Some families have successfully used 529 Plan college funds to pay for EF coaching services. Contact your 529 Plan provider to see if that can be an option for you.


If your executive function coaching services are being paid for by compensatory funds, ask your coach for a super bill or statement to be used for seeking reimbursement by school districts. This statement should include dates of services and payments received.


Many families have successfully advocated to have executive function coaching be written in as a related service on an IEP plan. Check out our article, How to advocate for executive function coaching services (as part of the IEP), to learn more about how to have executive function coaching services integrated into your child's IEP.


Conclusion

As you reach the end of this definitive guide on executive function coaching, remember that you don't have to navigate this journey alone. It's essential to recognize when professional guidance is needed, and reaching out for help is a courageous step.


An executive function coach can provide tailored strategies, techniques, and support to help your student flourish. Don't hesitate to take action for your child's future success. By investing in their development now, you are setting them up for a lifetime of accomplishments.


Connect with an executive function coach today and witness the transformation in your student's academic and personal growth. The journey to unlocking their full potential starts with just one step – reach out now and make a lasting, positive impact on their lives.


About the author

Sean G. McCormick founded Executive Function Specialists, an online coaching business that guides middle, high school, and college students in overcoming procrastination, disorganization, and anxiety by teaching time management, prioritization, and communication skills so they feel motivated, prepared, and empowered. He trains educators, parents, and other professionals to support students with ADHD and executive function challenges through his courses in the Executive Function Coaching Academy.


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About 👋

EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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