Executive Function Strategies Blog

Can Executive Function Coaching Improve Relationships?

Over the winter break a friend of mine tells me about one of his coworkers, and his story sounds something likeImprove_relationships_with_executive_function_coaching this:

“I had an important work meeting last month that was scheduled to begin at 9am, sharp. At 9:03 I start pacing a bit because Jackson, my colleague who’s supposed to be presenting with me, hasn’t shown up yet. He texts me at 9:06 saying “running late. start w/o me.” So, I just dive right into things as best I can, and about 15 minutes later he strolls into the room.”

With an exasperated look on his face he turns to me and asks, “What's wrong with this guy? How can he be so rude?”

My friend’s story is not an unfamiliar one; often, workplace clashes center around issues of communication, expectations, and punctuality.  When someone displays behavior like Jackson’s, it can look like disrespect and irresponsibility, but it is typically symptomatic of Executive Function challenges.  As Executive Function coaches, our primary focus is working with students so that they won't have to continue struggling with these self-management skills into adulthood. My friend’s colleague struggles in the Executive Function areas of perspective taking, time management, planning and prioritizing, all of which can damage his workplace relationships.

Time Management

Let’s imagine that our less-than-punctual friend has worked at the company for 2 years, and has traveled the route to work from the same homebase.  One would imagine -- maybe even expect -- that Jackson would know how long it takes to get to work.  However, this assumption may not be true.  Without mindfully timing the commute and paying attention to traffic patterns, Jackson might have a ballpark guess about his travel habits, but anyone who’s seen a ballpark knows there’s quite a difference between hitting it to the outfield and a grounder to first base.

To improve his time management skills, Jackson could use a Budget versus Actual chart (or BVA, in coaches’ lingo) of his daily activities to get a sense of his typical pacing.  In coaching our students, we frequently use BVA charts to help students gain a clearer sense of how long specific homework tasks take to complete. Once Jackson gathers data about his morning routine, he could couple that with auditory reminders to help him transition from one task to the next. For example, he might budget 15 minutes to shower and 30 minutes to commute. Then, for a week or so he can set a timer on his phone each time he showers and commutes, calculating the average amount of time it takes for him to complete both tasks, as illustrated here:


Budgeted Time

Actual Time










If he finds out he’s actually a 20 minute shower-taker and the commute averages 38 minutes long, he’s just figured out how he was nearly 15 minutes late to his meeting. Moving forward, Jackson might set an alarm to sound at the 19-minute mark when he hops in the shower, helping him keep track of his time on days when punctuality is crucial.

Planning and Prioritizing

We’ll give Jackson the benefit of the doubt that he’s a strong employee who knows these sorts of meetings are critical, but even if Jackson did prioritize the meeting, he did not plan well in order to indicate to others that it was a priority for him. Since the meeting was a scheduled event, he could have used a systematic approach called Steps, Time and Mapping (STM is our shorthand term) to get there on time. Let’s say he had to get ready, get breakfast, get gas, and get on the highway. Those are his steps for the morning, indicted in the column on the left:




Get Ready (shower and dressed)



Eat breakfast



Get gas






If he’s used his Budget versus Actual he should know how much time each event will take: 30 minutes getting ready, 15 minutes for breakfast, 10 minutes at the gas station and 38 minutes commuting are all entered into the Time column.  If the total morning routine takes roughly an hour and a half, then his alarm needs to be going off by 7:15 at the latest, giving him the 12-minute cushion once he maps each step out. Helping this employee plan backwards so that his wake-up time gets him to meetings on time will enable him to make a plan that respects his priorities (and his colleagues, too!).

Can you guess how coaches use this tool with students? Yup, any kind of long term project you can imagine typically gets the STM treatment. Replace the first column above with tasks like Do Research, Make Notecards, Create Outline, Write Rough Draft...you get the idea.

Making the Connection

While Jackson works on a few key Executive Function areas in order to improve his collegiality, those who are in the academic world can also improve relationships with others by developing these skills sets.

Time management is key to getting through both short term and long term assignments.  Using a Budget versus Actual chart can help students figure out how long they’ll need to accomplish different assignments.  When a new unit in Algebra begins, a student could time how long it takes to do a set of 20 problems so she can know when she can head out with friends (improving her friendships!). When The Sun Also Rises is assigned in Lit class, tracking a per-page reading pace can help her determine how much time is needed each night to complete the book by the due date (improving that student-teacher relationship!)

In addition, competing priorities in the academic world require careful planning. One night’s agenda might be to study for a quiz, complete Algebraic practice problems and catch up on The Walking Dead. It might seem easy for parents to prioritize the tasks (Quiz is #1!) but, to a student, the next events of the zombie apocalypse are hovering in the top spot. If they’ve got a sense for their pacing with math problems and have a plan for studying, they can use Steps, Time and Mapping to figure out how to get other tasks done well before they settle in for the new episode on at 9 pm.

Growing your child’s skill set in order to “Function like an Executive” (and not like Jackson) can dramatically improve the quality of his or her relationships (including the one with his or her parents).  

photo credit: in der Pause via photopin (license)


Brittany Wadbrook is a college instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior Executive Function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. While at Quinnipiac, she became a certified Master Level Writing Tutor by the College Reading and Learning Association and spent three years working for the University's Learning Center. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass where she currently teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany's experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success. 

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