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Strong Executive Function Skills Are Crucial to College Success

Lori Bender

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The conversation with “Nick” (not his real name) went like this.

Nick: “Honestly, I feel like everything I'm doing is causing me to feel overwhelmed.”

Me (coach): “Are you able to pinpoint one or two sources of the heavy feeling?”

Nick: “It feels debilitating because I get so stacked with schoolwork and it all seems to accumulate.”

Me (coach): “I hate that you’re feeling so overwhelmed. Let’s figure out how best to lessen the load. When we get you to feel more organized and self-managed, I think you'll feel less anxious. What part of this would you like to start with?”

In the four years I have coached college students how to design effective stress management strategies, “overwhelm” is the word used most often as they describe their struggles to navigate college.

They express the most common cause of stress as the inability to simultaneously juggle multiple tasks while “staying organized in the brain.” Being able to learn while balancing and managing life feels unattainable.

Life for students who have executive function deficits can truly seem unmanageable. They feel like a failure, experience low self-esteem, and can even get depressed and anxious.

The Correlation Between "Overwhelm" and Weak Executive Function Skills

Executive function skills, according to Michael Delman, author of Your Kid’s Gonna Be Okay, are “self-management skills that allow us to get things done.”

This set of cognitive processes, abilities and skills is how students “execute” tasks.

As teenagers and young adults, students start to figure out how they fit in to the world around them. For them to successfully navigate themselves in the world (thrive in jobs and relationships, and complete responsibilities), they need to know how to manage multiple parts of themselves.

In order to manage themselves, they must be able to cognitively process thoughts and execute actions to complete daily tasks. This ability to integrate all of life’s responsibilities with efficiency is determined by executive functioning.

While the pre-frontal cortex conducts the execution of these skills, executive functioning is based on a continuum where, over time, these skills are built and strengthened as the brain develops and as life experiences shape each skill set.

Professionals identify three areas of executive function:

  1. Working memory
  2. Inhibitory control
  3. Mental flexibility

To further explain these skill areas, some professionals categorize them into (a) thinking skills and (b) behavioral skills. All of these skills of cognitive processing and behavior management should work together for students to be feel productive and successful.

When a student feels overwhelmed because of waiting until the day before exams to organize a study schedule, or when the due date for the semester project is TOMORROW!”, this is a sign of weak executive function. Taking class content home and not remembering how or why the material is useful could also be a sign that executive functioning is weak.

These types of behaviors indicate some attention is needed to strengthen skills.

Learning to Manage Overwhelm

For college students to feel in control while navigating their new role (with new expectations and new habits), it is imperative that they strengthen the less developed executive functioning skills. Mastery of these skills yields a new independence, adaptability and self-motivation.

Three vital skills are critical for managing overwhelm:

  1. Time management: the ability to estimate how much time one has and how to make the most of that time.
  2. Space management: the ability to organize and function in one’s physical environment.
  3. Memory management: the ability to use and apply the information one has acquired.

These management skills are “the system software we need to get things done in our lives” (The CEO of Self: An Executive Functioning Workbook, Jan Johnston-Tyler, MA, 2014.). Drilling down a little deeper, these skills include the ability to:

  • communicate
  • organize ideas
  • make decisions
  • prioritize
  • remember/recall
  • solve problems
  • plan and set goals
  • multi-task
  • think flexibly
  • control emotions

Emotional regulation is believed to be the foundation of all executive function skill masteries because it directly decreases overwhelm. When a student successfully initiates, controls and appropriately expresses their emotions, they begin to shape the ability to pay attention, organize, understand others and complete tasks.

As students practice storing and using information and ignoring distractions, they feel more able to problem solve. As they become more efficient in self-reflection, they are capable of considering multiple options. This, in turn, allows them to make conscious decisions and perform conscious actions.

It is these intentional actions that help students live a happy and productive life.

Tools and Practice Support Success

Tools such as planners, timers, routines, study stations, schedules, visual reminders and graphic organizers help facilitate executive function strengthening. Professionally designed strategies train the brain to create a vision of success and see the larger picture.

Just like learning to properly brush teeth or ride a bicycle, practicing is one of the greatest ways to improve efficiency and minimize feelings of defeat.

As students practice strategies and begin to learn from their experiences, they gain the ability to self-direct. They make appropriate choices, set attainable goals and follow measurable action steps.

Helping students build strong executive function skills so they can live a balanced and productive life is laying the foundation not only for their survival on campus, but for sustainable life success.

As for Nick’s overwhelm?

We traced it back to the point of origin. Nick revealed, “Thermodynamics is kicking my butt. I am so lost in that class and I have so much catching up to do. Plus, I have to carry out my secretarial duties of the SGA because I was voted in for a whole year.”

We explored his time distractions, his space distractions (studies in his noisy dorm suite versus the library), and his memory management or working memory. Nick made adjustments. We established specific and measurable tasks and goals for him to practice with consistent effort.

It was at this session that Nick's overwhelm started to decrease.

He was strengthening his executive function skills and turning things around. The future looked bright.

Executive Function & Self-Regulation

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Lori Bender, MSW is a licensed stress management coach for teenagers and college students. She founded Students Stress Less Coaching LLC, a virtual stress and anxiety management service for students, five years ago and has worked with students across the country. She is also creator of “Everything but Books – 8 Skills to Self-Manage and Thrive in College.” Lori has two passion projects in her community, Dress for Success and The Phoenix – Rise, Recover, Live. Lori has been married to the same dude for 30 years, moved with him to six different states, and has grown two awesome kiddos with him. Plants, hikes, workouts, and quiet time are her chosen de-stressors. Oh, and shopping and eating.
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