How do Executive Functions Impact Learning?

High school and college students crave independence, but some are not equipped with the skills and tools needed to navigate the increasingly complex demands required of them.

Added to this are social demands that include endless sources of technological distraction.

To be successful, students need to understand what executive function is and equip themselves with the tools to learn HOW to learn.

Executive function processes are what we use when we identify a goal, use what we know to figure out what to do and make it happen.

Simply stated, executive function is what we use to get things done.

The source of a student’s struggle to get things done include:

  • Difficulty identifying goals and initiating tasks: knowing what you want to do, the steps to take to get there and the obstacles that might get in your way.
  • Not planning effectively: knowing WHAT you need to do and WHEN you are going to do it.
  • A lack of organization: making sense of and ordering materials and ideas into a structure.
  • Overloaded working memory: holding information in memory to do something with it (like a mental sketchpad).
  • Trouble thinking flexibly: shifting from one task to another and seeing things from multiple perspectives.
  • Inability to self-monitor: thinking about and reflecting on learning and then adjusting actions accordingly.

The impact of these challenges leaves students without the skills required to be successful at school and ultimately in life. Without these skills, students can be misunderstood as being unmotivated or even lazy.

The main focus for most educators is to teach students what they need to know, but curriculum demands and challenging classroom dynamics leave little time to teach students how to learn. Students need someone to teach them skills and strategies to become more effective – that’s where a coach comes in.

Students may have been suffering for some time, so they also need someone who is patient, empathetic and understands how to facilitate change.


If you are a student who is struggling to complete assignments, manage your time and get the grades you want, a coach can make all the difference. A coach works 1:1 providing personalized support to:

  • Identify what you want to accomplish and how to get there
  • Establish routines that make it easier to complete homework, get to bed on time and feel energized during the day
  • Put systems in place for organizing materials at home & school so you can find what you need when you need it
  • Use planning tools such as a calendar and to-do lists to stay on top of assignments and meet deadlines
  • Manage time to be efficient and create balance in your weekly schedule
  • Prioritize what to work on so you feel less overwhelmed by trying to do it all at once
  • Organize ideas in writing so you communicate ideas clearly
  • Study strategically and take tests effectively so you get the grades you want
  • Take notes to improve focus and make learning stick
  • Shift thinking, consider the perspectives of others and change course when needed
  • Monitor actions and avoid distractions to reduce procrastination
  • Understand what is personally motivating and apply strategies to be productive
  • Use constructive self-talk to feel capable and open to tackling challenges

The ultimate goal of coaching is to GROW BRAIN POWER and BUILD LEARNING MUSCLE so students feel confident and well equipped to handle all the learning challenges that lie ahead.

Who is the Best Fit for Coaching?

All learners can benefit from support in learning how to learn. My particular skill set and style of coaching are effective for learners who are in high school or college (14+) and understand what they are being taught. Their challenges are the result of not knowing how to complete the work or struggling to produce the output (e.g. essays, assignments, projects, tests, etc.) that matches what they know. They may never have learned study skills and experience anxiety when taking tests. Oftentimes, they are described by their teachers as capable but not meeting their potential academically.

Coaching is also for students who are transitioning to a new level in their education and looking for effective systems to help manage the new and increasing demands.

Students who benefit from coaching may or may not have learning differences or ADHD.

Coaching is a significant investment and best suited for students who are open and ready to change. It is a process that can be challenging and requires a high level of dedication and commitment in order to see results. Students who are the best fit for the coaching I offer will be interested in exploring who they are as a learner and what strategies might help them to accomplish their goals.

See ‘Ready for Coaching?’ page for more information.

Motivation to Learn

Staying focused, engaged and motivated to learn can be really hard to do. Motivation is a lot more complex than we make it out to be and this is especially true for students with executive function challenges. A lack of motivation is often a source of frustration for both students and parents and can lead to conflict if not addressed. This is why it is one of the main areas of focus in executive function coaching sessions. Coaching can help students to identify how to stay motivated to reach both their short-term and long-term goals. Understanding how motivation actually works is incredibly empowering.

There is good news and bad news when it comes to motivation. The bad news is that feeling motivated is not simply an act of willpower or mind over matter. For example, you’ve probably found yourself saying things like “I just need to get motivated” making it sound like motivation is a thing we can conjure up. In fact, students may never feel motivated to do schoolwork and yet it has to get done. That’s where the good news comes in. When we don’t feel motivated, there are a variety of tools we can use to help us get it done. 

For the most part, students want to get their work done. They can even feel motivated by the idea that if they get their work done, they will have more time for the things they want to do, but without the tools to create a bridge from what they want to do to actually accomplishing the task, they often just waste time stuck and feeling bad about not getting stuff done. This is especially true for students with executive function challenges. When students aren’t getting things done, adults sometimes think this means the student doesn’t care about getting it done or that they are being lazy. What is often happening is that the student doesn’t have the right tools to get it done. 

According to Jessica McCabe, the voice of How to ADHD, students have trouble with tasks that are lengthy, repetitive and boring; however, they can be motivated by tasks that are urgent, novel and of interest to them. She uses the analogy of a bridge with ‘motivational planks’ to explain how students can use these tools to get their work done. Each plank on the bridge takes them one step closer to getting a task done. Watch the whole video to find out more about how to stimulate and to engage students brains.

Dr. Maggie Wray, an Academic Coach and founder of Creating Positive Futures, has a unique take on motivation proposing that how we understand motivation is backwards. She introduces the idea that we need to experience a bit of progress first before we start to feel motivated. In other words, motivation kicks in after we get started on a task. Unfortunately, getting started can be the hardest part, so she makes 3 recommendations that can help us to get started:

  1. Move your body. It can be as simple as getting up to get a class of water, doing a quick stretch or it could be actual exercise. It doesn’t matter how you move your body, the important thing is that you get the blood flowing in your body. 
  2. Start small. Identify something small that seems absolutely doable like putting headings in a blank document or titles on PowerPoint slides. The blank page can be so daunting for our brains, that the simple act of adding some headings, questions, outlines to a blank document is enough to signal to your brain that you can do it. 
  3. Get support. Reach out to a friend to be a study buddy or brainstorm ideas, text a coach to let them know you want some ideas to get started or schedule a co-working session (silent work time together). You are not alone and there are people around (family & friends) that can help you focus, create a sense of urgency and hold you accountable if that is what you need to get it done. 

The full article can be found on her blog and you can also subscribe to her newsletter to receive more helpful advice from Dr. Maggie Wray.

In coaching sessions, we explore these tools and how they apply to a student’s unique circumstances. We also look at a student’s routines, the team of people they have that can support them, the self-talk they use and how their self-care is supporting them to feel motivated to get stuff done.