When students first begin their work with EFCNY, they often have long histories of difficulty organizing their workspaces, backpacks and rooms; managing time and meeting class deadlines; and successfully completing and handing in homework assignments. EFCNY works with students to create an external scaffolding to help them begin to strengthen their performance in these areas, experience success, and rebuild potentially damaged self-esteem. In concert with this important work, our mentors help students and families integrate a deeper level of understanding of Executive Functions (EFs), thereby facilitating a global and holistic strengthening of core and higher-order EFs.
EFCNY employs an EF mentoring model that combines a direct and indirect approach to maximize success. Our mentors provide direct support to help students understand their relative strengths and vulnerabilities in each area of EF. This work is paired with individualized scaffolding aimed at helping students create systems for better managing time, space, and school items so that they may complete and submit assignments on time; successfully prepare for quizzes and exams; and better navigate multipart projects and research papers. This aspect of our work often includes the active embedding of EF scaffolding in academic subject mentoring, thereby allowing students to strengthen underlying academic skill deficits while developing the EFs necessary for facilitating long-term success in those subjects.
At the same time, our approach involves minimizing stressors to the prefrontal cortex. Leading neurocognitive researcher Dr. Adele Diamond views this as critically important for successful EF acquisition. Research has shown that the lateral prefrontal cortex—on which EFs depend—is both the newest structure of the brain and its most vulnerable. In normal development, the neural circuitry of the prefrontal cortex is not fully completed until the individual is approximately 26 years of age. If students—particularly those under the age of 26—are sad, stressed, sleep-deprived, lonely, or not physically fit, the prefrontal cortex is the first place to take the hit, and it takes it the hardest. These stressors make it difficult or impossible for students to exercise the level of EF necessary for success in school.
Our indirect mentoring approach helps students to build EFs through joyful activities engaged in the setting of a supportive community of mentors. We employ scientific knowledge and a growth mindset to engender a belief in success on the part of each student, helping them understand beyond the shadow of a doubt that we believe in them. At the same time, we educate students and families so that they are aware of the detrimental EF effects of lack of sleep, poor health, and living in an environment of blame and pressure.
In all of our work, we link EF support to topics and activities students care most about. Learning about EF in the abstract is difficult, and far too often people try to “train” students in EF using abstract—and boring—didactic materials or through exercises they do not enjoy. However, by showing students that EFs are in fact necessary for success in areas and activities they care deeply about, we create a personal connection and motivation for students to invest time and energy in EF development. This is “the hook” to our work.
Thus, the key is to find something each student loves, or to introduce things they may love. It could be woodworking, dancing, wilderness survival, pottery, math, science or history. The goal is for each student to develop the cognitive, intellectual, and emotional skills they need to control their impulses; exercise perseverance; maintain friendships and relationships; and hold information in their mind while creatively manipulating it to come up with new solutions to perplexing problems. We have found that many of our students enjoy and make progress through indirect EF mentoring in areas as diverse as Music (drumming, electric guitar, piano), Tai Chi and Tai Chi Sword, Argentine Tango, Art (painting, drawing, sculpture) and Yoga. If the activity involves passion, motion and joy, it may well be learned better and practiced more often. For students whose EF vulnerabilities contribute to difficulties forming and maintaining friendships, many of these activities serve as “social connectors.” We have correspondingly helped students create small social groups using these social connector activities to catalyze connection.
In short, students can refine their EF abilities in how they work with wood, how they move their feet on a dance floor, or how they do calculus. As Dr. Diamond puts it, “I don’t see such a huge difference between academic and enrichment activities for EF training. I see what we need are activities that challenge Executive Functions and that kids can connect to, so that they’ll work at improving these cognitive abilities that are so critical for whatever they do in their lives.”
For most EFCNY students, we embed EF mentoring into their academic subjects and, if time allows, into one or two social connector practices as well. Our mentors work to help students move toward independence in their EF capacities by providing them with appropriate challenges, improving those challenges over time, and helping them develop the requisite discipline and perseverance to navigate future problems. We mentor students in their homes, at our learning center in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, through distance mentoring technologies with students across the US and internationally, and—for schools and universities we collaborate with—on campus.
We Don't Just Mentor EF Skills
The idea that individuals of enviable strength of character use what we would today refer to as Executive Functions to control their emotions and distractions dates back to the ancient Greek philosophers. Neurocognitive science has since given us more elegant models to help us compassionately deal with emotions and lessen the workload on Executive Functions. Through the practice of mindfulness/loving kindness, parents and children can learn to breathe, take a moment, and respond rather than react impulsively. With introductory Emotional Intelligence training, they can recognize and name their mood states. And through the practice of Self Regulation, they can come to understand their arousal states and how to respond to them most effectively. The EFCNY approach includes mentoring aspects of these practices and skills, along with education about the importance of sleep, nutrition, and avoiding loneliness and isolation, all of which lessen the workload of Executive Functions.