Let a Body Roll: Why Our Kids May Need Less Coaching and More (literal) Down Time
There is a new service parents with resources can supply for their kids: executive function coaching. Numerous companies train, market and match executive function coaches to families in need. In my suburban town, parents, therapists and physicians all seem to agree these services are in high demand and worth the hefty fees of well over a hundred dollars per hour-long session, with some kids receiving two to three hours of executive function coaching per week. But what is executive function coaching and do so many kids really need it?
Executive function became a buzzword in classroom teaching over the last ten years. As every middle school teacher knows, eleven year-olds will not always do as asked, and do not always adapt well to receiving assignments from three or four different teachers. Many coaching services advertise for teachers experienced with ages eleven and up. Middle school students are expected to become more independent in school than their elementary school siblings, but their executive functioning is famously erratic. I asked my oldest daughter why she thought one of my students rolled around on the floor every day after lunch period. My then seventeen-year old replied “Mom, in my head, I’m rolling around on the floor last period, too.” That’s executive functioning— becoming mentally, but not physically, prone.
Good classroom teachers engage, motivate, organize, and discipline students while remaining warm, empathetic and, on occasion, fun. Kids need to know what to take out of their book bags at the start of class, how to organize themselves for work, how to get started on a big project. Some kids need additional help with these “task-initiating” skills. Some kids have book bags that smell suspiciously foul. Unsurprisingly, the kids with old sandwiches molding between the pages of their text books are the kids who are missing assignments, never have a pen, and ask to go to the bathroom every day in every class. Executive function coaches distinguish themselves from tutors because coaches address the habits and beliefs that surround school work, and not only the work itself. Kids who struggle to remain organized often fall ever farther behind, in part because they spend less time on task. Most experienced teachers know how to address these issues and dedicated ones will use their own lunch periods to help floundering kids catch up and get help processing multi-step directions.
But if teachers are great executive function coaches (and most companies hire former or current classroom teachers as coaches), why are parents hiring executive function coaches at all? Shouldn’t kids be learning these self-regulating and organizational skills in the classroom?
The answer is two-fold. Some kids have inherent struggles with executive functioning and this has an impact on learning. Students with Attention Deficit Disorder often have other cognitive disruptions that affect language learning. Language, in the form of self-talk, is essential for good executive functioning. You tell yourself not to roll around on the floor, even when you are tired and frustrated. A good special education-trained teacher can help students with this struggle; many kids with ADD diagnoses receive supplemental services during school hours. But not all parents seeking executive function coaching have kids with ADD and ADD, itself, has become a common diagnosis, with some parents worrying that screen-time, social media and over-scheduling are interfering with the development of essential executive function skills. At a recent networking event, several therapists remarked to me that they were in “dire” need of executive function coaches for client referrals. The room buzzed with theories.
As a parent, educator, and (yes) self-employed executive function coach, I have my own hypothesis. First, the increased attention paid to yearly tests may be creating a hyper-vigilance in some parents, leading parents to seek expert help for children who are already doing their best. Executive functioning coaching companies may not promise improved test scores, but the cognitive abilities targeted—increased frustration-tolerance, time on task, working memory, speed of processing would all seem to a concerned parent likely to improve performance on high stakes tests.
Second, homework struggles, which I can personally attest can sometimes last hours, turn parents into tired, frustrated, unpaid, untrained teachers. Helping kids get organized, focused, and to move efficiently from one task to another, while answering the occasional technical question, is more than most parents can handle in an evening filled with other tasks—driving, cooking, cleaning up, making lunches and trying to get an hour to relax or catch up on the work emails you don’t want to face in the morning. It’s unclear whether kids really get more homework than they did twenty years ago, but the perception that they have too much is widespread. That there are more distractions in the home for all of us is irrefutable.
I am happy to coach children in their homes and believe some executive function coaching companies provide a service that helps kids develop essential skills. However, we ought to keep in mind that one go-to strategy in executive function coaching (and classroom teaching) is to give “brain breaks”—a moment to get a cold drink, snack, or take a walk. Breaks, however, can themselves lead to that dreaded executive function bugaboo: procrastination. At a certain point, the cure (which itself consumes time and energy) becomes a toxin. What the developing brain really needs is rest, the kind of sustained break that marks the blessed end of a hard day’s work, a break from self-scrutiny and the judgment of others, a break from focused attention, and the long-awaited chance to go ahead and roll around on the floor.