MindSpark has been researching the benefits of using 1:1 executive function coaching in a secondary school environment.  We have provided executive function coach training to educational staff within our secondary school partners so that they can deliver 1:1 coaching interventions, supporting them to pilot our Meta-Skills Programme. The programme is formed of ten coaching sessions that help the development of metacognition among young people and supports them in becoming self-regulated learners. 

During an interview with an executive function coach who had piloted the Meta-Skills programme, they reflected on how incorporating young people’s interest in sport into the intervention successfully increased their engagement with it. The executive function coach was supporting students who were confrontational with authority figures within the school environment.

To achieve their success in sport, the students displayed a strong use of executive function skills that they found challenging to use in the classroom environment. For example, metacognition to understand where development was required and goal-directed persistence to act upon it. They had also shown good emotional control and response inhibition skills to abide by the laws of their sports, respond proactively to disappointment, and take upon the coach’s advice when suggesting how they could be even better if they made amendments to a skill.

During their sessions, the executive function coach gave the students space to talk about their interest in sport as a point of conversation, highlighting that the students are able to overcome their executive function challenges in the classroom and at home as they were already showing great examples of strong executive function skill development in their sporting success. 

This approach had positive results. With an improvement in the relationship between the coach and students, and a growing belief the intervention could support them in the same way their sport coaches might, improvements in classroom behaviour and educational attainment were achieved. 

For example, the executive function coach identified that one student was receiving “more positives from teachers who would have previously only been giving him negatives”, with developments in his response inhibition and emotional control leading to controlled interactions with staff and a greater willingness to complete the tasks they were set. 

CiMO’s Sport Intervention

MindSpark has also seen the powerful impact that sporting activity can have on the improvement of behavioural, educational, and social skills for those not necessarily engaged in a high level of competition. 

That’s why we have co-developed an eight-session sport programme with a youth centre charity, which embeds executive function literacy, concepts and scaffolding into the sessions. The sporting activities are flexible – based on the facilities available and the interests of both the facilitator and the young people – but there is a sharp focus on how to deliver exercises that develop executive function skills. Most importantly, direction on how those skills can be transferred to improve behavioural, academic, and social skills beyond the pitch, court, or gym is provided. 

Managing emotional reactions to refereeing decisions or missed opportunities in a game of football allows for the development of emotional control. They practise the improvement of response inhibition when opting whether the situation in a game of cricket requires an aggressive or defensive batting approach to the deliveries that are bowled. Having the motivation to begin the training of challenging sporting skill and ultimately master it displays good task initiation and goal-directed persistence. 

In addition, sport helps young people to understand the values that are important to them in an environment in which they can deploy them, such as hard work and respect. Teamwork and effective communication are required to achieve success in team sports, as it would be when working collaboratively in the classroom or when developing and maintaining relationships. Positive self-talk gives them the confidence to believe that they can succeed in developing a sporting skill and flourish in other areas of life. 

Ultimately, the aim of the intervention is to support the development of executive function skills that can be practised through sport and harnessed to support a smooth – and permanent – transition back into the classroom.  We believe that there is great potential for this executive function sport intervention to have a positive impact on young people with executive function challenges at school, at home, and in seeking and maintaining early employment.

The co-developed session plans will be piloted in the youth centre, and we hope that they can be used in other settings thereafter.