While school may be wrapping up, Summer is an ideal time to embark on transition assessment and services to ensure that your child’s IEP process is preparing them for learning, living, and working after their public education. The ultimate goal of transition assessment is to identify the necessary skills and services to ready a student age 13-21 for transitioning from high school to the next phase of life. To book an intake and consultation appointment, visit: www.nesca-newton.com/intake. Not sure if you need an assessment? You can schedule a one-hour parent/caregiver intake and consultation.

The Intersection of Mental Health and Executive Function

By: Carly Edelstein, MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Executive Function Coach

Mental Health challenges and executive function (EF) deficits are often intertwined, as one can easily impact the severity of the other. As a psychotherapist and executive function coach, I find myself regularly assessing my clients with comorbid EF and mental health challenges in order to identify which presented first.

Why does this matter?
Emotional regulation and executive control both live in the frontal lobe of the brain. They operate close together and impact one another. Because of this, mental health challenges, such as depression and anxiety, can be overlooked and mislabeled as an executive function deficit. Identifying the root cause of a student’s EF struggles is critical for properly planning appropriate next steps and necessary supports. For example, if a student’s depression is causing them not to initiate and/or complete work, the depression usually needs to be addressed before they receive EF coaching. If the student is already working with a mental health professional, such as a therapist, it is important for them to be cleared by the therapist to add in an EF coach. Working on too many new skills at once can be overwhelming, so it is important that enough foundational coping skills are learned first.

An example of anxiety causing an EF deficit:
Clara gets extremely anxious in social situations due to a lack of self-esteem. She had a negative experience in middle school where other students made fun of her lisp whenever she read out loud in class. Now, in high school, Clara is afraid to ask questions, even when she is confused. She is left not fully understanding the material, class assignment expectations, or how to approach studying for quizzes and tests. Rather than asking for help, Clara keeps to herself. Even when teachers offer to help her, she responds with, “Thank you, but I’m all set.”

Clara’s parents can see that she struggles to initiate homework assignments, rarely studies for upcoming tests, and that her grades are declining. They don’t fully understand why, because when they ask her, she is quick to deflect and change the subject.

By checking in with Clara’s teachers, her parents may receive feedback that she often shies away from their support. With a lack of understanding why, her teachers aren’t sure how else to approach the situation other than continuing to check in. Jumping into EF coaching to address her task initiation and study skills may help, but it doesn’t address the root of the problem. A more appropriate action plan would be for Clara to first receive psychotherapy, addressing the bullying that led to her social anxiety and self-esteem issues and then shifting to EF skill building.

An example of an EF deficit causing anxiety/depression:
Gabriel is a seventh grade student diagnosed with ADHD. He has a difficult time advocating for himself and asking for help due to some additional communication challenges. His ADHD also makes it challenging to stay on task and pay attention to details. This results in Gabriel constantly forgetting what his homework assignments are and when they are due, creating a lot of missing work. Gabriel’s teachers are often redirecting him and reminding him of incomplete work. They have tried to help him develop plans to make it up, but he struggles to follow through with these plans. At home, Gabriel’s parents often share their frustrations with him and try to help him get back on track. With adults constantly reminding him he’s behind, Gabriel has developed internalized anxiety, often wondering why he can’t be like everyone else. He tries so hard to remember what his homework is and when it is due, but can never seem to get it right. Over time, he begins to experience symptoms of depression as his self-esteem declines.

In this situation, Gabriel’s lack of EF skills is the root cause of his negative thinking patterns. By receiving EF coaching, he can learn ways to regularly track his assignments. He can be taught how to break them down into smaller, more manageable tasks in a way that helps him overcome procrastination. Additionally, he is able to become proactive and communicate with his teachers so that they are kept on the same page. As these skills get stronger, Gabriel becomes more responsible, and gets praise from his teachers and parents in return. Given the impact of this situation, he may also benefit from short-term counseling to better understand the connection between his EF and anxiety. Increased self-awareness helps students learn how to advocate for themselves the next time they encounter a similar situation.

Does this sound familiar?
These scenarios are common and can be difficult to navigate without proper assessment and guidance from professionals. If you or your child struggles with mental health and EF-related challenges and you are not sure where to start, book a free introductory call with me or one of our other wonderful and experienced EF coaches. NESCA also offers comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation services and neuropsychological consultation for families who are wondering about possible missed learning, attention, mental health, or other diagnoses. We look forward to working with you!


About the Author

Carly Edelstein is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker practicing in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Having worked both in private practice and schools, she has extensive experience supporting students, families and educational teams to make positive changes. Ms. Edelstein provides executive function coaching and psychotherapy to clients ranging from middle school through adulthood. She also offers consultation to schools and families in order to support her clients across home and community environments.

To schedule an appointment with one of NESCA’s counselors, coaches, or other experts, please complete our online intake form

NESCA is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Plainville, and Hingham, Massachusetts; Londonderry, New Hampshire; and staff in the greater Burlington, Vermont region and Brooklyn, New York, serving clients from infancy through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.