A few weeks ago, I touched briefly on a topic that affects many of us: executive function. Harvard researchers have called it our brain’s air traffic control system; it’s what allows us to manage our thoughts and emotions, focus our attention, remember instructions, and prioritize tasks. Executive dysfunction is tied to emotional regulation, and it’s common in conditions like depression and PTSD. Many neurodivergent people also experience executive function issues, but it can affect anyone.

Rising incidents of mental health conditions in children have led the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association to declare “a national emergency” in youth mental health. This means that more students than ever are having difficulty with executive function.

Challenges with executive function

If you suspect your student (or yourself) is experiencing these challenges, consider if any of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • Difficulty with planning a project and following it through to completion
  • Inability to create and execute a routine
  • Leaving important emails or texts unanswered
  • Struggle to maintain focus during classes, meetings, or work
  • An absence of initiative or drive
  • Making self-sabotaging choices, like drug abuse
  • Frequently misplacing important documents or objects

While there is no one trick to address executive function challenges, there are behaviorally-based strategies that can help. This week, I’ll share how you can combat some of the most challenging symptoms of executive dysfunction.

Time and Energy Management

  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule and practice good sleep hygiene. Students between the ages 13-18 should get least 8–10 hours per night, and adults should strive for 7+ hours.
  • Plan your schedule in monthly, weekly, and daily increments. This allows you to see both big-picture priorities and urgent tasks.
  • Sherri Fisher, author of The Effort Myth, suggests using time blocks to schedule your day, so that each task is tied to a particular time.
  • Try using ChatGPT to create schedules! It’s a very handy tool that can help you get started.

Focus and Distractibility

  • Examine your relationship with your smartphone. What is its role in distractibility? Procrastination? Sleeplessness? For students, consider a family smartphone use contract outlining the times of day that devices are allowed to be used. For adults, utilize the “do not disturb” feature on your phone, or set a timer when scrolling.
  • Physical activity boosts the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels, all of which affect focus and attention. Activities such as team sports, theater, and yoga can be a focus game-changer.
  • Organize your physical space – at work or at home – to discourage distraction. If possible, avoid having your student use their bedroom as an office.

Reflection and Self-Awareness

  • Journaling has been found to have myriad mental health benefits, and can help with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. The simple act of writing out one’s thoughts, tasks, and priorities can clear your mind, allowing you to focus on what’s most important.
  • Engage in self-awareness activities that allow you to identify challenges and work through problems. Activities like executive function coaching, psychotherapy, and meditation can all be extremely helpful.

Optimize your executive function

Developing executive function strategies helps us to maximize professional opportunities, encourage mental health, and maintain balance in our personal lives. When we optimize our executive function, we increase our emotional capacity to take on whatever life throws at us, giving us space to live our most authentic lives.

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