Energizing the Prefrontal Cortex to Support Executive Functioning

by Melissa Henry

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, problem-solving, and self-regulation. By engaging in specific exercises designed to activate and strengthen this brain region, coaches can support students in building essential skills.

Mindful breathing exercises are simple yet powerful tools to activate the prefrontal cortex. As executive functioning coaches, we are trained to guide students to focus their attention on their breath, emphasizing slow, deep inhales and exhales. This practice increases oxygen flow to the brain, promotes relaxation, and enhances the ability to regulate emotions and maintain focus. Introducing mindful breathing at the beginning or during coaching sessions helps students center themselves, fostering an optimal state for learning and executive functioning.

Integrating mindfulness meditation exercises into coaching sessions nurtures the prefrontal cortex by promoting self-awareness, emotional regulation, & attentional control. I lead students through guided mindfulness meditations, focusing on sensations, emotions, or thoughts. I vary the imagery and language I use to align with the energy of the students. A state of calmness can promote the activation of the prefrontal cortex & its executive functions, including emotional regulation, impulse control, and attentional focus. It can reduce stress, which has a positive impact on the prefrontal cortex.

Mindfulness practices enhance executive functioning by strengthening the ability to observe thoughts without judgment, redirect attention, and respond intentionally rather than impulsively. I teach my students that regular mindfulness practice cultivates a calmer, more focused mindset conducive to effective executive functioning. I also incorporate physical exercise to energize the prefrontal cortex with brief movement, yoga, stretching, or light aerobic exercises during coaching sessions. Physical movement increases blood flow, oxygenates the brain, and enhances cognitive functioning. These activities help students regulate their energy levels, improve focus, and prepare their minds for optimal executive functioning.

As a Sufi, I prostrate as part of my daily meditation and chanting, which I also have incorporated into my parenting techniques.  Prostration is a physical gesture that symbolizes humility, surrender, and the acknowledgment of Divine wisdom and compassion. It is an act of deep reverence and a way to express one’s commitment to a spiritual path. Its purpose is to cultivate mindfulness and a deep connection with the spiritual realm. By practicing mindfulness during prostration, we can strengthen our ability to sustain attention and regulate our thoughts and emotions, which are functions associated with the prefrontal cortex. Now that I am working as an executive functioning coach, I have been exploring other mindfulness techniques to access the benefits for the prefrontal cortex.

Cognitive flexibility is a key component of executive functioning. By incorporating exercises that promote cognitive flexibility, I help students develop adaptability and enhance their ability to shift between tasks and perspectives. I use activities like “alternative uses” exercises, where students brainstorm different uses for everyday objects, or “thinking outside the box” scenarios to encourage flexible thinking and expand problem-solving skills. These exercises challenge the prefrontal cortex to think creatively and consider multiple possibilities.

Goal-setting and action-planning exercises engage the prefrontal cortex in setting objectives, organizing tasks, and creating strategies for achieving desired outcomes. I guide my students in setting realistic and meaningful goals, breaking them down into manageable steps, and creating action plans. This process activates the prefrontal cortex’s executive functions, such as decision-making and working memory, while fostering self-motivation and a sense of accomplishment as students progress toward their goals.

If you want to help your students energize their prefrontal cortexes, consider utilizing some of these exercises.