November 2, 2012

Parents as Partners — Nine Key Strategies (Part 1 of 3)

At Engaging Minds, we focus on strengthening students’ executive function and study skills, setting us apart from the more traditional, content-based model for one-on-one tutoring. Many of the approaches and techniques we use during our sessions can be augmented and reinforced at home, as well. As noted by many authors on the subject of learning disabilities, this three-pronged “attack” by tutors/teachers, parents, and students is the best way to help children confront their academic challenges.

Dr. Peg Dawson, co-author of the book Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential, has a list of nine key strategies to help parents improve their children’s executive functioning skills and address their particular needs. She advocates actively teaching children these skills since they are often not able to simply develop them on their own, and emphasizes the need for letting children work towards gradually increasing independence. As Dr. Dawson states, “The long term goal is to be able to send your child out into the world armed with a set of skills he can use to tackle problems on his own.

Here is a list of the strategies Dr. Dawson endorses; more details can be found in her book and in the article “Principles for Improving Executive Skills” on the website Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities (which, by the way, is an excellent overall resource).

  1. Consider your child’s developmental level
  2. Move from the external to the internal
  3. Use your child’s innate drive for mastery and control
  4. Modify tasks to match capacity
  5. Teach deficient skills
  6. Provide the minimum support necessary for success
  7. Use incentives
  8. Provide support until success is achieved
  9. Gradually cut back support and incentives

In this week’s blog, we will focus on discussing the first three of these key strategies; next week will discuss the remaining six. Again, it is important to keep in mind that what we work on with our students at Engaging Minds can be reinforced at home.

Consider your child’s developmental level

Central to helping a child with any learning difficulties, but particularly those dealing with executive function issues, is recognizing what is “normal” developmental progress for that child’s age and where the individual child may deviate from that norm. At Engaging Minds, tutors address homework, class work and the work we create for our students with just that in mind: the level and abilities (the strengths and weaknesses) of the individual student. For example, a middle schooler might not yet be able to, on his/her own, identify where to start with researching a big paper for Social Studies, even though the teacher might be working under the assumption that s/he does know where to begin. In this case, we would help the student develop a list of possible topics, discuss ways of finding out where information might be found for each of them, and then help select the one that is best suited to the student’s own interests and ability level.

Move from the external to the internal

As discussed in an earlier blog, the mind of a student with executive function deficits does not function like that of a student who does not have these issues. Before the changes in thinking processes can occur, external stimuli have to be put in place, including changes to the student’s “physical or social environment, altering the tasks you expect her to perform, or changing the way you interact with her by providing cues, supervision, and encouragement.” Engaging Minds tutors apply these principles to every lesson through the creation of a non-distracting work environment, allowing of breaks in work as necessary, and giving students praise and encouragement that is based on their specific performance and effort. Tutors also help students break down a larger assignment into smaller, more manageable chunks of work. This also includes setting up interim due dates, which turns a large project into a few mini-projects. The process of modifying tasks allows a student to manage the stress of a larger project, and feel the success of taking ownership of his/her work.

Use your child’s innate drive for mastery and control

Nothing succeeds like success. As commonsense as it may sound, when students feel successful they are more likely to continue that behavior and build upon it. Routine and set schedules create a safe and predictable environment for all students, and this is of particular importance for students with executive function struggles. Gradual increase of responsibility and autonomy can help build greater confidence, and giving the student an active role in making decisions about his/her work also leads to more investment in the learning process. At Engaging Minds, we work with students on setting small, attainable goals during each session. In doing so, we give students more opportunity to feel success – and not failure – increasing self-confidence and allowing a student to trust him/herself. Over time, these goals can increase to coincide with the student’s growing set of abilities. As tutors, we see ourselves as partners with our students – and with parents. So while we may have a routine in place during a given session (follow up on the previous week’s lesson; do a backpack check; look at homework in the assignment book; discuss and prioritize the work for this week; get down to work; discuss expectations for the next session), this is always open to change prompted by thoughtful suggestions from the students with whom we work.

Next week we will discuss the next three items on Dr. Dawson’s list of Key Strategies for Improving Executive Skills.