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Executive Functioning: The Benefits of a Strengths-Based Approach, with Sarah Lovell, MSW

Written & Edited By: Caroline Griffin Special Guest: Sarah Lovell, MSW Date Published: January 7, 2022


 

We reached out to Sarah Lovell to discuss her work as an Academic, Career, and Executive Functioning (ACE) Coach. In return, she gave us great insight into understanding what Executive Functioning is, how to increase skills and confidence from a strengths-based approach, and how to learn more about this area of our daily lives. Below is our discussion with Sarah Lovell, as well as supplemental research and resources to further the conversation. We hope you enjoy.

 

Sarah Lovell began her work as an Executive Functioning Coach in 2014 and opened her own private coaching practice in 2019. She completed her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Boston University in 2017. She offers her clients strength-based and person-centered practices through a collaborative and structured approach, with the overall goal of providing manageable steps towards reaching specific goals.



If you're wondering what Executive Functioning is and how you can identify it in your own life, consider the skills you use for general tasks and organization. Do you ever feel like the "normal" way of getting things done just doesn't work for you? Maybe you write everything down with fierce dedication and an intention to recall the information later but it gets lost in yesterday's notes. Maybe you try to stay organized with time management but just can't seem to establish a flow. This might be because you have yet to identify the unique Executive Functioning techniques that work best for you.

“Executive functions are a set of cognitive skills we rely on every single day to help us manage our daily lives. Clients often feel alone with their executive functioning challenges and need to hear that they are not alone." - Sarah Lovell

Frustration when applying the "typical" approach to Executive Functioning tasks can be especially common for individuals who identify as neurodivergent (for example: ADHD, Autism, OCD), or have experienced developmental differences or fluctuations in mental health. This is because the typical approach was designed for only one sub-group of people, and set as the normal standard for everyone. Nothing in life, however, is a "one size fits all", and our unique strengths in these areas have simply yet to be embraced and given the opportunity to thrive. Learning new Executive Functioning techniques can help us do that.

Executive Functioning can be defined as a set of mental and self-regulation skills, dependent upon three main types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control.



We are not born with these skills, but rather with the potential to develop them. This potential can be impacted by our environment, relationship with caregivers, and stress intake in addition to more genetic-related factors such as mental health, developmental differences, and neurodivergence, as mentioned above. As unique individuals, there are many aspects about our own lived experience and perspective that can impact our Executive Functioning Skills throughout our lifetime.

"I help clients explore their goals and break them down into small, realistic steps. We discuss the different ways that executive functioning can impact our daily lives and our ability to work towards our goals. I work with clients to identify strategies they think will be most helpful for them. Each client creates their own plan and toolbox of strategies with my support."

Coaches in this area offer the opportunity to identify your unique needs, strengths, and abilities, so you can engage with your inner and outer worlds in a way that resonates and makes the most sense to you.


 

The Interview

 


HC: Let’s start with the definition of and terminology around Executive Functioning. Could you explain what executive functioning is and how we can recognize it in our own lives?

Sarah Lovell: Executive functions are a set of cognitive skills that we rely on every single day to help us manage our daily lives:

Executive function skills include:

  • Planning

  • Organizing

  • Prioritizing

  • Sustained Attention

  • Time Management

  • Metacognition (or thinking about how we think)

  • Self-Regulation

  • Task Initiation

  • Problem Solving

  • Flexible Thinking

We learn and use strategies to strengthen our executive function skills. Sometimes people may have challenges with executive functioning which may make daily tasks at school, work, or in daily life more difficult. We use executive functioning skills all the time, often without us even realizing it.

HC: What kind of services do you offer to those seeking assistance in this area?

Sarah Lovell: As an executive function coach, I work one-on-one with clients who would like to strengthen their executive function skills while working towards their academic, career, and personal goals. I work with high school students, college students, recent graduates, and adults.

My Approach

I help clients explore their goals and break them down into small, realistic steps. We discuss the different ways that executive functioning can impact our daily lives and our ability to work towards our goals. I work with clients to identify strategies they think will be most helpful for them. There is no one-size-fits all solution for executive functioning challenges; each client creates their own plan and toolbox of strategies with my support.

Strengths-Based Coaching

As a "strengths-based" coach I focus on building the client's strengths and identifying strategies to navigate challenges. In addition to talking about strategies to strengthen executive functioning, we also talk about mindset and self-care. Mindset and self-care are intertwined with executive functioning, which is why I think it is so important to discuss in coaching sessions. Mindset, or what we say to ourselves (self-talk), matters. I help coaching clients reframe negative thoughts that may pop into our heads when we hit barriers or challenges navigating our goals. It takes practice to change our thought processes.

Self-Care is Essential

Self-care is something everyone should be talking about more. I talk about it with my clients because we need to take care of ourselves in order to work towards our goals and at the same time we need to utilize executive functioning skills to practice self-care. Most of my clients aren’t looking for support with self-care goals when they first reach out to learn about coaching, but once we start talking about executive functioning it becomes more clear how important self-care is everyday.

Support

Coaching also offers support. Clients often feel alone with their executive functioning challenges and need to hear that they aren’t alone with these challenges; many people have challenges with executive functioning. Coaching is not counseling or therapy though, and I make sure clients understand the difference between the different supports.

Accountability

Coaching offers extra accountability. Coaching offers a specific day and time to talk about goals and create a concrete plan. Some clients use our meeting time to begin working on the specific tasks or assignments, sometimes having someone “there” (even if it’s over Zoom as a form of body-doubling), can help clients take the first step. I also check-in with clients between meetings over text. Coaching also offers a “push” when clients may need one.

I’m a firm believer that coaching meetings shouldn’t feel like “more work” after work or school; my goal is for clients to leave each meeting with a solid, concrete, realistic plan that they feel confident about.

HC: How do you approach work with a new client? Do you perform any tests or assessments?

Sarah Lovell: First, it is extremely important that there is a “fit.” Potential clients need to feel comfortable with my coaching style, my personality, and the idea of working with me. As a coach, I also make sure that I feel that I am the right person to support a new client. To make sure that working together will be a fit, I offer a free 30-minute consultation over Zoom to have an initial conversation about coaching, the client’s goals, and for both of us to determine if we think working together will be the right next step.

Once we’ve determined working together will be a fit, our first coaching session is an intake or “get to know you” meeting. While tests and assessments are beneficial in different clinical and educational settings, I do not do any formal tests or assessments in my coaching practice. I am a firm believer that each person is an expert in themselves, therefore, I ask a lot of questions to help my clients think about what has worked and not worked in the past. We collaboratively create a plan and strategies to try each week and adjust as needed along the way.

Some clients share neuropsychology reports or assessments from other providers/professionals on their team to provide additional information about their strengths, challenges, and areas for growth, but this isn’t a requirement to work with me. While many of my clients have an ADHD diagnosis, clients do not need to have any diagnoses to work with me.

HC: What are the most common areas you find yourself guiding people in?

Sarah Lovell: My clients are all in different phases of life: studying at school, transitioning to a new chapter in life, entering the workforce, living independently for the first time, raising a family, running their own businesses, working for large corporations. Even working with such diverse clients, I see many of the same topics come up in coaching:

  • Creating and sticking to routines (morning routine, work routine, self-care routine, etc.)

  • Creating a plan for the day, week, month (prioritizing tasks and keeping track of tasks over time)

  • Navigating procrastination

  • Identifying and navigating barriers to starting or completing tasks

  • Self-reflection and learning about their own strengths and challenges

  • Time management, time blindness, and strategies

  • For clients who are newly diagnosed with ADHD or wondering if they may have a diagnosis, we discuss how executive functioning challenges can relate to an ADHD diagnosis

  • “Big picture” goals and breaking goals down into small, realistic steps

  • Navigating perfectionism, self-doubt, imposter syndrome and negative self-talk

  • Practicing positive self-talk (reframing our old ways of thinking) and creating realistic self-care plans

HC: What are some ways we can measure our own executive functioning abilities, highlight our strengths, and address areas for improvement?

Sarah Lovell: These are such great questions; this is exactly what I help clients do in our sessions and practice independently between meetings. Here are some questions I ask clients during meetings and have them ask themselves outside of our meetings:

  • What is going well? Why is it going well? What am I doing that is making things go smoothly? (These are often your strengths.)

  • What isn’t going well? What am I finding challenging or stressful? What am I doing (or not doing) that might be contributing to this? (These are often your areas for improvement with executive functioning.)

I help clients identify patterns of what is going well and what is challenging. Executive function skills are transferable; if we create systems that work for us in one setting or situation, it will most likely work in a different scenario.

If you are working to address areas of improvement, focus on small, realistic steps. Small changes create big changes. We often burnout or use unsustainable strategies if we are trying to create changes quickly. It’s okay (and good!) to take things slowly.

It is important to carve out time for self-reflection. Even a few minutes can make a difference. Recognize that this is a practice and be kind to yourself. Give yourself credit along the way.

HC: What is one highly-discussed topic in your field that you are grateful for, and one topic you would like to bring to the forefront of the conversation?

Sarah Lovell: I am grateful that executive functioning is becoming a more talked about topic in general. Executive functioning is highly discussed in the academic world: elementary school through college. I am grateful that educators are putting more of an emphasis on helping students learn, practice, and apply executive functioning skills. I am a huge proponent of self-care in relation to executive functioning. Self-care relates to finding a work-life balance, prioritizing mental and physical health, and doing the “hard work” to take care of ourselves (setting boundaries, asking for help, and doing things that bring us joy). Self-care and executive functioning are extremely intertwined. In order to practice self-care, we need to utilize our executive function skills. In order to use our executive function skills, we need to practice self-care. As society (schools, employers, and even social media) is putting more of an emphasis on self-care, I think it is important to emphasize the skills and strategies needed to implement self-care (time management, prioritizing, task initiation, organizing….executive function skills!). Self-care is hard work. If someone has challenges with executive functioning skills, self-care becomes even harder, which is why it is so important to me to discuss with my clients.

HC: What aspect of your work excites you the most or brings you the most fulfillment?

Sarah Lovell: I love that as a coach I have the opportunity to meet so many amazing people. I truly love connecting with people and being part of their journey to learn about themselves. I know it’s been a great coaching session when a client says, “that’s a good question.” I get so excited when a lightbulb goes off for a client because of a question I’ve asked. I get excited to celebrate all of the “small” wins with my clients along the way to achieving their goals. The small wins are often the biggest wins; seeing progress along the way is so rewarding.

While it is bittersweet, it is also exciting when a client wraps up coaching. I work with some clients short term (1-3 months) and other clients more long term (1-5+ years). When a client decreases coaching sessions or wraps up our work together, we celebrate all that they have learned and accomplished along the way.

HC: What is one thing you would like people to know about executive functioning?

Sarah Lovell: Everyone uses executive functioning skills every single day (not just students or individuals with executive functioning challenges). We use executive functioning skills when we cook, clean, do hobbies, commute, travel, have conversations, watch movies, read, work, exercise, play games, run errands, do chores… the list goes on. Almost everything we do requires us to use our executive function skills. You do not need to have a diagnosis to experience challenges with executive function skills. We can also learn strategies to help us with our executive functioning skills at any point in time in life.

HC: For those interested in learning more about this topic, what resources would you suggest they explore? Books, podcasts, websites, organizations, YouTube channels, etc? Also, how can we get involved?

Sarah Lovell: There are so many resources out there to explore this topic further. Here are a few I would suggest to start:

Websites & Online Resources:
Books for parents:
Books for adults:

Anyone who is interested in learning more about executive function coaching can connect with me to schedule a free 30-minute discovery call to see if working together would be a fit:

  • Email: sarah@myacecoach.com

  • Website: myacecoach.com

  • Instagram: @executivefunctioningfirst

I currently offer one-on-one coaching and hope to offer courses and groups in the future!

HC: Anything else you'd like to share?

Sarah Lovell: Thank you for this opportunity to highlight executive function coaching as a resource!



 



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