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Executive Functioning: What Is It and Why Is It Important to Be Successful in College?


The transition to college is a difficult time for many young adults. However, those who struggle with executive functioning face even more difficulty. Good executive functioning skills are important for students to be successful in college. They help students to stay organized, complete their work on time, and make adjustments when necessary. Fortunately, students who struggle with these skills can learn and practice executive functions by getting support from educational coaches and therapists who are qualified to work with young adults.


What Is Executive Functioning?


Executive functions are a combination of mental processes that help a person to focus and concentrate. Using executive functions takes effort and mental energy as they help a person to inhibit the desire to go off task, lose focus, or go with what they feel like doing instead of what they need to do. Tasks that require executive functions include making and sticking with a schedule, completing tasks, and making adjustments to a set plan. Executive functions include:

  • Inhibition or self-control

  • Working memory

  • Selective attention

  • Mental flexibility

While every young adult's executive functioning abilities will vary, certain individuals will struggle with these skills more than others. Research shows that the following mental health disorders decrease executive functioning abilities:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Addiction

  • Depression

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

  • Schizophrenia

Importance of Executive Functioning in College


When young adults transition to college and move out of the house, they have significantly less structure in their lives. This includes structure and support from teachers and parents. As a result, their executive functions are often put to the test. They are now expected to be solely responsible for their schedule, completion of work, and self-care.

Executive functioning is incredibly important in a student's ability to be successful in college. Skills that are affected by a student's executive functioning abilities like memory, self-control, and flexibility all play an important role in their ability to complete their work, focus, and ultimately be successful.


Memory


For students to be successful in college, they need to have functional memory. Memory is important in several ways. First, it helps students to learn new information, which will be tested in classes and expected to be remembered in higher-level classes. Students who struggle with memory are more likely to perform poorly on tests and struggle when moving on to upper-level coursework.

Additionally, research shows that memory is important in completing tasks and making decisions. When a student struggles with memory, they are less likely to remember due dates for assignments, times of classes, and more. This means that they are less likely to study the necessary material, write papers, and potentially show up to classes or study groups as needed. In college, completing work and showing up are the primary ways to learn the material and get good grades.


Self-Control


As a young adult, college is often the first time when students do not have a parent or teacher helping them to stay on task. This requires a huge amount of self-control, which is commonly called inhibition. This means that when there is a stimulating idea or activity, they can inhibit their reaction to it and choose a different path.

For example, when faced with the decision to finish homework or go hang out with friends, students need executive functioning skills to stop themselves from blowing off their school work to enjoy themselves. Another example is focusing. In class, inhibition is needed to stay focused when passing thoughts or ideas appear.


Flexibility


When students struggle with executive functions, this can manifest in a lack of flexibility. Mental flexibility is the ability to adjust course when needed. For example, if a student may put a plan together to complete their week's homework and then an assignment is changed. It requires flexibility to make changes to their set schedule to make sure they can get everything done.

In college and life, things change. When a student has mental flexibility, they can complete their work by modifying their behavior when necessary. Without this flexibility, students can get stuck on set schedules or ways of doing things that are not effective for being successful in college.


Improving Executive Functioning


Executive functions help students to do well in college and, as newly independent young adults, these skills are often put to the test in college. Each young adult will respond differently in this environment. However, many young adults need extra support when learning how to use these skills in a new environment.

Getting help from mental health care professionals and educational coaches can help provide the necessary structure for young adults during this transition. This can help students transition into adulthood while learning to improve executive functioning. Support for improving executive functioning looks like practicing skills and having a person or team to who they are accountable. This provides the perfect balance of freedom and learning for young adults.


Transitioning into college is a challenging time for young adults, especially those who struggle with executive functioning. Executive functions help students to stay on task, get their work done, and be successful in college. At Northwest College Support, we understand that many students struggle with these skills. Our programs offer support through this transitional time and are particularly helpful for students with mental health disorders that inhibit their executive functioning abilities. While our main campus is located in Boise, ID, we also offer remote services that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. To learn more about our programs and how we can help, call (877) 485-2776 and speak with a staff member today.

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