Executive functioning skills are the systems, structures and routines we establish in our daily life that make us successful. Do you always put the mail on the end table when you walk in the door? That’s a perfect example of this.

These skills are housed within the prefrontal cortex and that part of the brain isn’t fully developed until we are in our 20s! So all children, whether they are neurotypical or struggle with an executive functioning skills deficit like ADHD, can benefit from exercising this “muscle.”

This week I am talking with the cofounder of our group practice, Upshur Bren Psychology Group, Dr. Emily Upshur along with our executive functioning coach, Donna Jarecki, to offer parents easy and fun suggestions they can use all summer long that will build upon this skillset. We’ll also discuss the brain science of executive functioning and how what might seem like behavioral issues may actually be a sign of an executive function deficit, plus when it’s time to consider bringing in additional support.

Dr. Sarah (00:00):

Having a child who has executive functioning deficits can be really frustrating for a parent if you don’t know that’s what’s going on because it can look like defiance, obstinance, not caring, not listening, being lazy. Like, if you are not educated about what is functionally happening in your child’s brain, these behaviors can look to be problematic.

Dr. Sarah (00:26):

As the school year comes to a close and the summer begins many of the natural routines and structures of our daily life disappear. And that can be a tricky transition for kids to manage. One of the ways we can help them both with the change to the less structured months of summer, as well as gearing them up for a smoother transition back to school in the fall is to help them focus on building their executive functioning skills. Now we’ll get into exactly how to do that in this episode, but it’s helpful to also understand a bit about the fundamentals of executive functioning. These skills consist of three separate functions within the brain working memory. So keeping us focused mental flexibility, allowing us to shift our attention and self-control, which allows us to inhibit impulses. So now let me translate that basically executive functioning skills are responsible for all the structures and routines we use to make us successful in daily life. It’s the command center of the brain, the user’s manual. This can affect everything from academic to emotional, to social development, helping your child have a system in place so that they remember everything from their multiplication tables, to putting their homework into their book bag once it’s done, to making a plan for how to ask to sit with the new people at lunch. Strengthening these skills in childhood builds neural pathways that your child will be able to utilize throughout their entire life.

Dr. Sarah (01:49):

Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two in this podcast. I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.

Dr. Sarah (02:23):

Hello everybody. This is a very special podcast today. How are you guys?

Dr. Emily (02:28):

Hey Sarah. Good to see you.

Donna (02:30):

Doing well. Thank you.

Dr. Sarah (02:32):

So we have a new voice. You might have recognized Emily Upshur’s voice, but we have Donna Jarecki here with us today and Donna is, she’s on our team at our group practice Upshur Bren Psychology Group in Pelham, New York. And Emily and I asked Donna to come on today to talk about a topic that I think a lot of parents are curious about and people talk about it, but we’re not always sure what it means. So Donna is our, our practices executive function coach. And we’re gonna talk about executive functioning skills today. We’re gonna talk about the, what that means about the brain science of it, but also like the practical day to day, like life of exercising, executive functioning skills for parents of young kids, parents of older kids. So this is gonna be a really fun episode. And I’m so excited that you guys are both here, cuz I love seeing you both.

Donna (03:22):

It’s great to be here. Thank you.

Dr. Sarah (03:26):

So I thought it would be helpful to start out just with a little bit of like the neuroscience of like, okay, what are executive functioning skills? Where do they live in the brain? What do they do? What are they responsible for?

Donna (03:37):

So it’s funny cuz when I say I’m an executive functioning coach, you know, people look at me, little they’re quiet. They step back a little bit. And they were like, well what does that exactly mean? You know, what are executive functions? So the term is, you know, recognized by some, not recognized by others, but to break it down for ease and understanding, executive functions are brain based skills. So they live in our brain, they live in our prefrontal cortex, but there are other structures in our brain that help these executive functioning skills process and work along the way. But if we think of it, basically they are help us in our completing tasks. With our memory, our thinking and our behavior, they are a day to day. Something that happens instinctually throughout the day for some but not for others.

Dr. Sarah (04:26):

Yes. And people who listen to this podcast might have heard me or other people who come on, talk about executive functioning skills, a lot in the context of emotion regulation for young kids or in the context of tantrums because also a lot of behavioral issues in young kids are, they’re present because, little kids, young brains, executive functioning skills are pretty underdeveloped. They live in a part of the brain. Like you said, the prefrontal cortex that’s that’s, you know, not done developing until like 26 years old. So at 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, it’s still really coming online. And then of course in toddlerhood and in adolescence, it’s really heavily under construction, which is why we see in those particular times of life, a lot of dysregulation, whether it’s toddler tantrums or teenage tantrums or other executive functioning issues. Like your teenager, who does their homework, but never remembers to turn it in, or who cannot remember to clean their room, or you have to ask them a hundred times to do the same thing. To complete those tasks require executive functioning skills. And if that part of the brain’s under construction, that might be harder. But that’s like normal development, right? Normative development does sometimes have times when the executive functioning skills aren’t as accessible. And then there’s also atypical neurological development. Right. Emily, can you explain a little bit about like sort of like the clinical picture versus the non-clinical picture of executive functioning?

Dr. Emily (06:08):

Yeah. I mean, I think that, I always say that executive functioning is, is a lot of the things that when you don’t have a deficit in it, it’s sort of back of mind, right? You walk in your house, you drop your keys in the bowl. That’s where the keys always live. You have a system in the little mental system. People children, adults, even who have executive functioning deficits, they don’t have these internal systems, right? So there’s not a place, there’s not a home for things there’s not a, I always do it this way kind of thing that gives you regularity and a sense of control and mastery, right? Because you know where things are and you have sort of a mental map of things. So when I break things down, when I recommend people to go to executive functioning, right? It’s mostly, you know, there’s the childhood diagnoses that are most readily is really attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, but that’s because some of those functions are more pronounced. So impulse control is part of executive functioning, right? If you have poor impulse control, it’s harder to slow down and plan, you know, organize and complete a task. Right. So I think that’s partly what we’re dealing with when we have kids that have a little bit of a non-neurotypical development, right. Meaning they’re prefrontal cortex is even just slightly slower developing. So we don’t, it’s not, not developing, it’s just uneven development, right? So it might be a little bit slower than somebody else. That doesn’t mean it won’t get there. So we have to provide a little bit more support or scaffolding is what I call it, guardrails and really break things down into really manageable tasks in order to help that population sort of like catch up and, you know, meet their potential and get to where their peers or where they, you know, their own personal growth milestones where they wanna go.

Dr. Sarah (08:05):

So the idea is people could use executive functioning coaching, or build up their executive functioning skills, whether they have ADHD, whether they have just some minor deficits in executive functioning capacity, or if you’re just like a regular, totally neurotypical kid or adult that maybe you forget things or you are disorganized or you, you know, maybe you’re like, I think a lot of, in the adult world, I think people can take executive functioning almost even further. Like it’s not a deficit it’s like to get really good at something. Like if you have a really high powered job and you are, you know, navigating or like kind of have tons of plates in the air, or if you’re a parent who’s juggling 50 things at once because you have, your executive functioning part of your brain is being taxed at a really high level because of the amount of work you’re trying to do, sometimes executive functioning coaching can be very helpful for that. It’s like, it’s kind of like personal training for your brain a little bit, right? Maybe it’s physical therapy, you’re taking something that’s not working at the way at the level. It should be and bringing it to the baseline. Or sometimes you’re taking something at baseline and you’re making it kind of more advanced That’s sort of the way I think about it. What do you guys think, Donna? What do you think about that analogy?

Donna (09:31):

I think you’re absolutely right. You know, for some of the children that I see, I say, well, when you play a sport every day, you go out and you practice the drills and you do the same things over and over again. And so they become instinctual. And so, you know, the play. And so, you know, the next thing that’s going to happen. So you’re organizing your mind and you’re processing these steps so that you can get to the next step. And as for adults just recently, you know, with so much going on in the world with COVID and hybrid learning for students and parents being home, we’ve had to have so much cognitive flexibility, you know, just to get through our days and have routines. So as an adult, even for your child, you are making your own routine within your own day to help yourself and to help them. So routines are necessary and practice is necessary to train your brain, cuz it’s a, it will remember what you feed it.

Dr. Emily (10:25):

I think that’s a great point, Donna. Cause I think one of the things that we come a lot up in our practice is, is really about of course what’s been happening for the past couple of years. And I think to your point, there’s a lot of muscle memory and executive functioning and there’s been so much change. Right? There’s a lot of novelty in the last couple of years. So there’s actually it’s to your point, Sarah, it’s more taxing because there are more novel situations. Like we’ve had to pivot, we pivoted to, you know, hybrid learning. Oh, now we’re back to full time. Oh, now we’re back to hybrid, you know? So it’s like parents and children have to create new systems each time that there’s a shift like that. And I think that’s why we’re seeing a little bit of an escalation in the need for having a little bit more support in that area.

Dr. Sarah (11:11):

Yeah. Yeah. And I wanna, before we get into like what an executive function coaching session might even look like, or like what we’re kind of focusing on in a really concrete way. Like I was curious, Donna, like, can you share a little bit like how you got into this work and like a little bit about your background?

Donna (11:28):

Right. So my background is in social work, I started as a social worker after graduating from college. And then I moved from that. When I had my own children, I was working many hours. I moved to a preschool teacher and I did that for several years and I kept finding things, unfulfilling that I needed more and more and more. And I was with the young children. I could see that some were delayed, especially in pre-K. I had a, you know, having those conversations with parents saying, what’s going on at home? What are you seeing? This is what I’m seeing. And just even with my own children, you know what what’s missing, you’re forgetting your football equipment. And that’s really important to you. I wonder why you’re forgetting that. Like what can we do to make that better? How can we make that system work better? So I think throughout my career, I’ve always wanted more information and to learn more. So I’ve looked into executive functioning and how, even in my own day to day how it helps me, you know, when I organize my day in a certain way, maybe I’ll put the heavier stuff in the morning. Cause I know that I work better in the morning and the lighter stuff in the afternoon, or if I’m procrastinating things that I don’t wanna do, I try to get them done right away. Same for kids and teenagers. They’re things they’re gonna push to the side and how can we help them get through their day, get the grades they want be where they wanna be. Even people, adults working, their performance appraisals. There are things that, you know, are getting in the way of our functioning every day to get us to where we wanna be and be successful.

Dr. Sarah (13:04):

Yeah. And I think it’s so important that like, you know, I’m an adult mom who works a lot and I have ADHD. I’ve had it my whole life and I’ve had to figure out systems because you know, the reality is, is I’ve done a lot of education. You know, I’ve been in, I was in school for like a million years and really high demanding academic situations getting a PhD. And like I had to figure out how to do it because my brain doesn’t work the same way that my peers was working. And like I would sit in these classes and I was always the one who was like pulling all nighters to write papers. And because I would put things off till the very last minute. And then I would just stay up for an entire night and write a huge paper. And so like it, I had these systems that were not very, they weren’t very efficient, but they kind of like, I had to figure out my own way of doing it. As I got older and I had more practice with figuring out ways to not be pulling all nighters, but to actually create more functional systems that allowed me to work with my different brain rather than constantly working against it. I like my life shifted.

Dr. Emily (14:27):

I think that’s a really important point too. Just Sarah from a clinical perspective having a deficit in executive functioning has nothing to do with intellect or success, right. There are ton of extremely successful, very, very smart people that have ADHD, or even like we were saying, even, you know, on a spectrum, like a little bit of a difficulty with executive functioning. And so this really is an area that we can impact a lot. And that’s why I think we, you, and I think so passionately about having Donna on our team because it’s, there’s, it’s a great area of intervention. There’s a really wide age range with which we can address things. So you might be a parent of a younger child and we’re gonna address some very basic developmentally appropriate skills, like, hang your jacket on the hook and bring your lunchbox upstairs when you get home from school. And those are things that even very young children can do, but we’re also gonna, you know, coach on sort of the more independent level adolescence where they have a lot more nuance to their schedule all the way through adulthood, where maybe you’re an adult with a career and you need a little bit more structure or system set in place to help you.

Dr. Sarah (15:44):

Yes. And I think the beautiful thing about it is it’s very individualized. Like you can, it’s not a manualized treatment, right? It’s like there is, it’s the nice thing about coaching is there’s a big assessment in the beginning of like exactly where you are, whether you’re coming in as a child or an adult, because Donna works with kids and adults and Donna, maybe you could speak to this too. This idea that like, there’s a really comprehensive evaluation in the beginning to find out exactly where each person is. And from there, we’re looking at how to get you to the next step you’re trying to get to in this really systematic way. So it’s, it’s very different for everybody. So yeah. Donna, could you talk a little bit about that? Like what does, what does an executive functioning coaching process look like? What would an individual session look like?

Donna (16:33):

So as a coach, my, my role it’s, it’s a collaborative process. So my role is gonna be different between, you know, young children, teenagers, and adolescents. So generally the session is about managing life skills and goals and navigating peer and workplace relationships, social relationships, academics, and strengthening emotional understanding intolerance and it’s different at different ages. So as you might expect, but the assessment is definitely the same across the board in regard to identifying what, what are, what are the missing pieces? What may be lacking? And that’s done a number of ways. It’s done by personal interviewing. It’s done by self evaluation. It’s done by school or parental evaluations and if necessary a neuropsychological exam. But once these areas are defined and, and we, we plan together even as even with young children, we plan together what stages we’re going or what systems we’re gonna use. And with younger children, parents are really a big player and they need to be on board because they are the role model. They are going to, you know, come what comes along with all of this is a little bit of frustration, maybe feeling a little overwhelmed. And what we’re trying to do is calm that we’re trying to take that system and make it work and doable for parent and child, teenager, and teacher, you know, adult and workplace environment. So for children, parental envi environment is really necessary. And it’s crucial because they’re gonna set up the process along with me. So it’s not just me working with your child. I am also working with the parent to make it a successful environment and to ease the, the unrest and the messy. And what’s important to remember is with parents as well. You know, children, we all have a number, right, but we age and mature differently. The number doesn’t define where our brains are and maturity level. So we have to not just look at the age of the child, but look at where the child is. And we have to see them for where they are and not expect what they can’t perform, what they can’t do. So that could be a little hard for parents to first take in and digest. But generally when the parents are on board and they see the differences and how progress happens, if you start where the child is, then everyone feels better and everyone’s more successful and they, they get it. Parents really get it.

Dr. Sarah (19:19):

Yeah. I could see that. I could see that at the beginning being like, and I feel like we get this in our practice too, a little bit of like one of two ways parents coming in and wanting to be very involved in the process and having really realistic expectations up front of where they think their child is in the moment and where they’d like to help their child get to. And then I think sometimes we have parents come in and again, very understandably, cuz it takes some learning about how this process works, but they’re like, there’s something wrong with the way my kid’s doing things. And it’s frustrating. Cuz actually, you know, very understandably having a child who has executive functioning deficits can be really frustrating for a parent. If that’s, if you don’t know that’s what’s going on. Cause it can look like defiance, abstinence, not caring, not listening, being uncooperative being lazy. Like, these are things that parents, if you are not educated about what is functionally happening in your child’s brain and have an explanation for it, these behaviors that get, that occur as a result can look to be problematic and can be very frustrating for parents. I mean, who hasn’t gotten frustrated having to repeat themselves 10 times for one thing to happen, you’re gonna get mad. Now if you have that mindset shift, as the parent being like saying one thing to my child, 10 times is never gonna result in them being able to do the thing. So I actually need a different way of supporting them. I actually need to say it differently one time and maybe that is I get down on their level, to put a hand on their shoulder, I make sure that there’s eye contact. I’m talking in a lower tone and I’m saying, I think you’re having a hard time doing this thing. How can I help you get this accomplished? What can we do together? So there’s like a collaborative approach. There is, you know, you’re speaking to a child and this is, you know, obviously you can shift it developmentally for younger and older kids, but like a parent needs to know why they have to do that. And so I think that’s sometimes part of the work initially as a parent will come in, be like my kid will not listen. And then we are like, oh, you know what, actually, it seems like there might be executive functioning deficits going on and we can help support both you in understanding what’s going on and have realistic and appropriate expectations and strategies for engaging them and also help support the child in exercising those executive functioning muscles in quotes cause they’re not exactly muscles, but they kind of work like muscles to get better systems in place so that mom and dad don’t have to ask 10 times in the first place. There’s like more independent action on the part of the child, more independence and more autonomy and more mastery. And that helps the kid feel better about themselves and helps build confidence. So I think that, like there’s a lot of stuff that’s interconnected with executive functioning deficits, like self-confidence issues, frustration tolerance, and getting very frustrated and angry easily. Like we see a lot of emotional and behavioral dysregulation, more commonly in kids who have executive functioning deficits as well, because it’s frustrating and it’s irritating to not be able to get the thing you’re trying to do done the way you wanna do it. Emily, what do you like, could you speak to that a little bit about like the blurring of the presentations when you have. Like yes, we’re talking about executive functioning skills kind of in an isolated package, but in what ways can it show up in other areas of a child’s functioning when you have those deficits?

Dr. Emily (23:08):

Yeah. I mean, I think of you know, obviously all the parts of the brain are interconnected. So I think that that’s a really important thing to keep in mind when this is going on, but I think what ends up happening a lot is, is with executive functioning deficits is like a broader sort of emotion dysregulation, right? You’re more vulnerable, sort of at the tipping point of that more frequently. And I think the other thing that I think I wanted to circle back, that’s kind of important with that emotionally is, you know, when, when we, when I have a parent that comes to me with a lot of those similar things, like my kid’s so bright, but they don’t seem to be able to be like getting to the other side or they’re not getting good grades or, you know you know, they lose, they keep losing their jacket. How could they lose that backpack? You know, stuff like that, you know, like how is that even possible? You know? And those types of things, I think, I think it’s really important that that becomes like a social dynamic, right? So with kids that that becomes either like a frustrating reciprocal cycle or it has other social implications. But the thing we haven’t talked about is sometimes that means that the parent also might have ADHD or a deficit in executive functioning and that’s like a double whammy, right? Because that means it’s really difficult for the parent to be helping scaffolding the child be more organized. And I think that’s where I always pull in a Donna. Right. Because I think that’s both and as Donna has touched on, I think that’s both for the parent and the child, you know, to learn some of these skills. Cause the parents, as we always say, execute you’re with your kid all the time, you execute them at home. And Donna sort of sets you up with some, like a roadmap and some guidelines and some tools to help you also like practice the skills that she’s doing in the sessions at home.

Dr. Sarah (24:58):

Yeah. Yeah.

Donna (24:59):

The other side of that is the parent who doesn’t have those deficits and these things are like so foreign to them that they can’t even imagine why you would have to break something down. So on both ends of that spectrum, it’s extremely important to get sort of that coaching and that sort of learning from Donna. So that again, the emotional life is taken care of in that there’s like a feeling of being seen, not for your deficit, but for your best self. And then your deficit is sort of like a side show that you’re working on improving and bringing up. So it’s not that I want to lose my homework. I always say like, no person wants to not be successful. Right. So we have to keep that in mind. And when we see someone who’s really trying and not successful in these kind of areas, that’s when we, we really think for a Donna, you know, we really say, listen, we think you could get to the other side and learn some better systems and have a little bit of that. It’s like a skillset that you’re behind on. And we wanna bring you up to speed on that.

Donna (26:04):

Well, most definitely I think that with all of this executive functioning talk and you know, in these diagnosis, as people become a little fearful or hesitant, you know, these labels that we put out there are, are hard, are difficult. And I think when we look at labels, we don’t really see the individual. Right. And when parents look at their kid and maybe we say, oh, he’s just lazy or spacey or he’s just, can’t get it done. There’s a reason behind that. There’s a reason behind that. There’s a voice in this little child’s head. There’s something happening that we have to identify. And there’s a lot of subtleties in executive functions and, and you know, like ADHD is more apparent now than it was before. And there are ways to calm the system. There are systems we can put in place that make it easier and more rote for people to make it through their day, do their homework well be successful. But for parents, I think, you know what Emily said, sometimes we have the parent who also struggles. So when working with the child, if I see there’s something going on with the parent, it’s not that collaboration is a benefit for both, right? So the parent learns the skill. They’re doing the skill. They’re the mentor, the role model. And as the child looks to the parent, they’re gonna gain more confidence when they do it, right. Or when you know, dad, mom let’s do this together. Oh, you know, we’re gonna read this like for the summer, say this summer, I know people are gonna say, what’s up for the summer? How am I gonna keep these skills going? And I say, there are things you can do. You can read a book together, family picks one book. You can read the book every hour after dinner, you can drop everything, sit together, read a book, talk about it in the summer. You can plant gardens cuz that shows planning and organization and routine and watering. So these skills are just not, you know, having to do homework, they can be fun in the summer. Let’s make it fun. Let’s do things, plan a trip and have maybe the child help you. I wanna go to Great Adventure. What does that take? What ride do we wanna go on? Do we wanna go in July? When is it most busy? You know, all this stuff, focused time planning organization. And how are you gonna act at the park? You know, that’s important. We have to stay together as a family. So impulse control, all of these things are executive functionings. And like I said earlier, for some, they just come naturally and for others they don’t, but that doesn’t, that’s not bad or good. That’s just different.

Dr. Sarah (28:37):

Yeah. And I think that’s such a good point that like, if this isn’t just homework, right? These are life skills. These are family skills. These are fun skills. This is how we play. Play is a huge way to build executive functioning skills. Having to take turns and navigate conflict and, and, you know, plan out a game and follow a set of rules or social rules. All of those are executive functioning skills. So even like navigating the playground requires executive functioning skills and we can scaffold kids to say like, you know, we’re gonna be going to the park today. What do you think you’ll play with? What do you think would happen if someone else wants to play with that? So a lot of forecasting I think is also very helpful. Like I think that’s a really helpful tool for parents whose kids struggle with with some of these, these tasks and activities.

Dr. Sarah (29:34):

But you brought up a really good point about summer. And that makes me think about, so summer’s coming up, right? Like a lot of kids who do have ADHD or other learning disabilities or other neurodiverse brains, or just kids who don’t at all, but, but generally thrive on the structure of the school year. The fact that every day is the same schedule and it’s routine. And we wake up at the same time and we tend to go to bed at the same time. And I know what’s expected of me. And there’s all of these like built in structures that happen during the school year that almost all go away during the summer. And we can see a lot, whether you, whether your kid has a neurotypical brain or neurodiverse brain, like summer is hard. It’s hard for parents. It’s hard for kids because of the lack of structure. And so I’m thinking, you know, for a lot of kids, it’s like they spend a couple months sort of atrophying some of these executive functioning muscles. And then we may start the school year. A lot of kids have a hard time transitioning back to that. So are there things that we can do in the summer where it’s a little bit more loosey goosey to sort of supplement what’s missing from the school structure to help make sure that our kids are kind of exercising their executive functioning muscles regularly. So they’re, they don’t struggle so much when the structure comes back in the fall.

Dr. Emily (31:02):

I actually recommend executive functioning coaching or tutoring for summer because I think it’s a great time to push the boundaries a little. So like I might get a little like as a parent, I might like over accommodate my kid that has executive functioning difficulties by like helping them pack their school backpack every day or something like that. Right. However, in the summer it’s like, you know, like you said, it’s a little more loosey goosey. And I feel like, I might say like, let’s take a stab at teaching you how to pack your camp backpack, and then you try your on your own and we’ll create a system and let’s see if you can do this, low risk. Right. Not the same tensions that parents feel about academia or about the regular school year. So I actually, I’m sure Donna has a million other tips in that kind of regard, but I, I actually often recommend for patients that I work with or even consultations that I do to either keep up the executive functioning work in the summer or to start it, you know, because it’s kind of a nice time to sort of lay really good foundations.

Dr. Sarah (32:09):

Yeah. It’s almost like a supplement for some of the work that’s done at school kind of naturally.

Dr. Emily (32:14):

And also like you were both saying, this is a life skill. This isn’t an academic skill. This is a life skill. You know, self care, personal hygiene, you know, these are things that, you know, need to happen all the time. And, and those are also areas that Donna works on, you know, not just school based or work based stuff.

Donna (32:35):

Right. I think that you’re right in saying that the summer is, you know, we wanna have pleasure and fun in the summer and you can do executive functioning and still have fun in the summer. I think coaching is, it’s a soft introduction in the summer. Whereas, you know, you can straighten out your room, make a box for your toys, put a label on it. You know, you can start, but you said doing your backpack, maybe preparing for school, color, coding, some folders, having your child involved in the things and picking the items that they like. Maybe finding a workplace, a workstation at home, setting that up. What do I need? What might I need? I might need scissors. I might need color pencils. You know, you know, things that you can set up in your house to make finding things more easily, or having a calendar on the board every morning. You know, we’re not gonna wake up at eight, but we’ll wake up at nine. And what happens at nine? Well, this happens at nine and then maybe we do a chore at 10 before we call a friend, or there are processes that you can follow and things that we can implement so that when school starts in September, it’s a little bit easier. But also, so during your summer things don’t get messy and they don’t start interfering and frustration begins. Let’s make it easy. Let’s figure out how we’re gonna start the day. Let’s make a plan. What exciting things can we do today? What things do you think we need to work on? You know, teachers may say maybe he needs to work on reading for school again, after dinner, find a book that you can read together and discuss, or maybe there’s creative writing. Someone may like to write poetry or, you know, for a teenager, something that can be inspiring and fun. If you go to a movie when you’re in the car on the way home, talk about it, what, what happened? What was the subject? You know, how do you think that person felt, especially for kids or children who have a little bit difficulty acknowledging how others feel or can sense how others feel well, what, what do you think happened? How do you think they felt, you know, how do you feel those kinds of things? Those are nice things that we can do that are entertaining, but still you’re integrating executive functioning in the process. And, you know, I think that summer is a smooth, smooth journey into that.

Dr. Sarah (34:59):

Yeah. And I think this is all really helpful strategies. And I think a lot of these things parents can do by themselves, at home without a coach, right? Like predictable routine home calendar that has visuals for younger kids, like reading the reflective question, like the critical thinking questions after we do an activity or watch something or go somewhere right. That reflective functioning is getting built up. When do you think that calling in a sort of professional support might be in order?

Donna (35:30):

I think that parents are intuitive and know that, or they have a feeling when things start to get frustrating or overwhelming or there’s a lot of arguing and a lot of maybe crying, the children are crying or there’s, when those emotions start to get a little fiery. I think, you know, we hope to get there before that time. But as as things get a little messy, if a child is forgetting over and over again, if homework is not being put in the right, you know, not being brought to school over and over again, if someone in school maybe is emotionally impulsive and speaking out of turn or, or is upset too easily, you know, seeing those little markers are really important. You know, the school report on certain things, but at home, if things are a little messy and things are getting a little more frustrating and, and, and you just think just some guidance, some guidance and some systems in place. So having, having to learn and develop skills and practice them, that’s what coaching is about. It’s managing life learning skills, practicing them, caring for your emotion, self care, all of, all of the things across the board.

Dr. Emily (36:49):

And I’ll add that. Often I recommend parents, like when I hear a parent sometimes I’ll say like, you know, it’s worth preserving a positive relationship with your child to not be the one who’s doing some of this stuff with them. Right. So I might say like, look particularly, I mean, that might be at any age, really, to be honest kids that have executive function deficits, as we’ve said, can also be more dysregulated, but they’re gonna be more dysregulated with their parent. And so I think it’s a valuable investment, both in the child’s brain development, but also in your relationship when you can sort of take that some of those pieces, instead of me going, you know as a parent, you know, trying to organize my child’s backpack or trying to figure that out, like maybe that’s one of, when I hear a parent being like I’m so frustrated and all we do is fight and we just argue back and forth, or I feel like I’m just saying the same thing over and over again. Or my child won’t even listen to anything I’m saying none of my, you know, those are the times when I say like, look, you know, investing in having an executive functioning coach or tutor is so valuable because it’s not just about getting the task done, right. It’s about the emotional safety and viability of the relationship sometimes. Right. And you can sort of, if you can sort of get support in that way, I always say it takes a village, right? If you can get support in that one way, it’s extremely helpful to, it can be extremely helpful to your relationships,

Donna (38:26):

Right? As a parent, we don’t always wanna be the drill Sergeant, right? The priority is maintaining a very solid, loving relationship.

Dr. Emily (38:34):

And that I would say that’s the same. Also you might find like, cuz Donna also does coaching with, you know, adults like that might be with your partner or your, you know, that might be that your one partner’s always nagging the other partner about something, you know, or there’s some, there’s some aspect of that that can happen in adults as well. In terms of when I refer adults to executive functioning tutoring, often adults who have very big careers or high successful careers often feel like imposters overwhelmed, don’t know where to start, have a trouble feeling accomplished about their really very real accomplishments. So those are also times. So it’s not, you know, not just about kids and parents. I think there’s also a space for adults and particularly young adults who are trying to find their identity and feeling a bit overwhelmed. That’s a nice it’s a really good compliment to, to help this, this tutoring is a really good compliment to help them succeed in those areas.

Dr. Sarah (39:34):

Yes. I think bringing up young adults makes me also think about that huge shift from high school to college and how this, the jump and the reduction in support is really exponential for that particular leap, right? Like you go from living at home with your parents, having a high school system where you are going to the same school, every single day, same classes, every like the schedule is really predictable. The expectations are really predictable. The supports are really there ever. Most people are known to some degree by the adults at the school. Your parents are obviously helping you with some structure at home and there’s tons of predictability and routine there because you’ve been living there for most of your life. You go to college and you are in a dorm room, you are living with other peers who don’t likely have the same, are dealing with the same. All of a sudden, no structure. Classes are, you gotta go to different buildings to get to different classes. And each day is a completely different schedule. And like there’s so many more things you have to hold in your mind and there’s so much more expectation that you do it by yourself, not to mention the self care, getting your food showering, keeping your space clean, like all the stuff, those life skills that we talked about when it comes to executive functioning. Like I actually have worked in the past a lot with college students. And our work often includes a tremendous amount of executive functioning support just because it is a time in life when they are expected to grow and be at a particular level with very little support. So I actually think that made me think of that too, that I’ve actually done a bunch of EF coaching with college students for that very reason.

Donna (41:28):

And especially time management in college. You know, you have all this excess time where, you know, 8:00 to 4:30, you were in school now you have class two hours here, one hour there and getting your work done you know, with all that free time, you would think that it would be easier, but it’s much more difficult for a college student to manage their time. Because they have so much of it and they procrastinate maybe delay. And as you said, you know, the environment with living with people you don’t know and how to interact socially and be comfortable in an environment of uncontrollable is daunting, you know? We let them go and we let them fly, but they need a little help along the way.

Dr. Sarah (42:18):

Yeah. Yeah. And I think it helps build some confidence too, because I think a lot of kids can feel really anxious about that or feel ashamed about that. And so having, you know, some support that isn’t their parents, because they don’t wanna tell their parents, that they’re struggling with that sometimes they wanna be seen as this like really competent kind of young adult and to have that little like buddy that can kind of help them with accountability and plan and sort of execution of that plan, I think is also very helpful at that age, you know?

Dr. Emily (42:48):

Yeah. And I think like one of the things we see a lot and we’re seeing a lot just in general is when parents feel overwhelmed by their children’s constant contact. Right. So there is a lot of, we haven’t taught skills, like some are lacking a skill, so they need to rely on us. And I think that’s when, again, to your point, Sarah, I think that’s when it’s nice to say, like look, there’s this other person. It doesn’t have to be us. Right. That even that gives them a sense of independence and competency on their own because they’re addressing it, not with their parents, you know, after they’ve “launched.” Right. And so I think that’s a really nice sort of supplement to that is that we can help them with that both literal, you know, skill set, but also emotional journey of like continuing on a trajectory of independence.

Dr. Sarah (43:35):

Right. And I think the nice thing too about coaching is like, you can do one or two consultation sessions and get a game plan, or you could do long-term support. It’s like really kind of what you wanna make of it. So sometimes people just need like a little bit of a like, okay, here’s a game plan and I can go and run with it. And some people need more handholding, more accountability, more checking in, more support. And so that that’s again like why I like the individualized nature of coaching. It’s a little different from therapy in that way, right? Like it’s, it could be more targeted.

Dr. Emily (44:08):


Donna (44:10):

Right? You’re, you’re narrowing down the skills that need to be worked on and they can, you can have that learn that process in two sessions, you can learn that process in six sessions. It depends on your age and the maturity and how much practice this takes practice, you know, and that’s where the frustration and the overwhelm comes because it’s not just, you’re not gonna do this one thing and it’s gonna be done. You know, when you have a routine, you have to set the routine and there’s a pace and there’s a timing and a flow. And so sometimes for some, it’ll take a little longer and for others, it’ll be, it’ll be that much quicker. So like you said, very individualized, very collaborative. And you know, my sessions generally meet one time a week, you know, for an hour. And then depending upon the age and maturity, it’s a 15 minute check-in, how’s it going? What can be better? Where are you struggling? You know? So it all depends really on what the focus is and what the goal, what’s the goal.

Dr. Sarah (45:12):

Yeah. Well, this is all really helpful. And I feel like it’s a perfect time to talk about this since summer’s like upon us. And I feel like this would be a helpful time for like kids who are about to go to college or kids who are home from the summer and don’t have their school supports and mom and or dad are starting to feel the effects of their own anxiety or their own frustration or their own dread over how the summer is gonna even, how we’re all gonna survive. It, it might be worth taking a thought, like taking a moment and considering something like executive function coaching and because it’s coaching, we can offer it to anyone anywhere. So you do a lot of virtual sessions, right?

Donna (45:54):

Definitely this is doable virtual or, you know, face to face.

Dr. Sarah (45:59):

Yeah. So that’s perfect. So I think, yeah, if people wanted to reach out to you and get in touch and have maybe like ask some questions about if this is the right fit, like how can they get in touch with you? How can they reach you?

Donna (46:13):

So via email at DJarecki@upshurbren.com is the best way to reach me.

Dr. Emily (46:20):

Also a great place for resources for some of this information is finding Donna Jarecki on our website. And we also have some information just about executive functioning, tutoring, and coaching. Just to give you a sense, a little bit more of a sense of what it is and who might seek it and why we think it’s helpful.

Dr. Sarah (46:37):

Yeah. So, okay. So upshurbren.com or emailing Donna directly at DJarecki@upshurbren.com. And that’s amazing. Thank you guys so much for coming on the show and sharing all this wisdom. It’s been really fun talking to you guys.

Dr. Emily (46:51):

Thanks, Sarah.

Donna (46:51):

Thank you.

Dr. Sarah (46:59):Thanks for listening. If you wanna find out more about executive functioning coaching, and if this might be a good fit for you or for your child, I included a link to our website Upshur Bren Psychology Group in the episode description. And while you’re checking out that link in our Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you’re streaming your podcast, it would be so amazing. If you could also follow Securely Attached and leave a rating and review. Your support will let the algorithm know people are listening and liking this podcast and help us spread the word to more parents. Plus, I love hearing from you and knowing what has helped you, what topics you want me to tackle next and what you’d want to hear more of. Thank you so much for listening and as always, don’t be a stranger.

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56. Setting your child’s brain up for success this summer: How to keep executive functioning skills strong without the structure of the school year