November 14, 2012

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

For the last two weeks, the Engaging Minds blog has focused on Dr. Peg Dawson’s suggested strategies for improving executive function. Since Engaging Minds’ approach to tutoring is specifically geared towards helping students who may struggle with organization, attention and issues connected to executive function deficits, this list is an invaluable resource for parents, teachers and tutors. For a more in-depth look at Dr. Dawson’s research and suggestions for improving executive function, please see her book, Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary “Executive Skills” Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential or the article “Principles for Improving Executive Skills.”

Use Incentives to Augment Instruction

The key phrase in this strategy is “augment”- the reward or incentive is a way of encouraging the student to perform the task (whether it is the successful completion of a math worksheet or spending a set amount of time reading), but it can’t become the student’s entire reason for doing the work. It is very important to try to make the actual meeting of the goal a part of the incentive so that the student gains a sense of accomplishment that is independent of the external reward. So while we may encourage our students with the promise of a trip to the M&M jar or a few-minute break to share a funny YouTube video once a task is completed, this incentive will be accompanied by praise for the actual completion of the task and helping the student clearly identify what s/he has accomplished. This mix of tangible and intangible incentives is also very effective for helping your child gain greater independence in tasks such as organizing his/her desk area, packing books and materials for the next day at school and even helping around the house! At Engaging Minds, we limit extrinsic motivators to things like noshing on some M&M’s or taking a short break to toss a “stress ball” around. While we are not opposed to parents using extrinsic motivators, our goal during our sessions is to help students find intrinsic motivation. In the long run, intrinsic motivation is more personal and long-lasting and is more readily generalized to other tasks.

Provide Support and Supervision Until Success is Achieved

Dr. Dawson astutely observes, “Mastery does not come all at once; it’s a process that requires your feedback all along the way.” Consistent follow-through and guidance is crucial to helping a struggling student develop executive function skills; it isn’t enough to just tell him/her what to do and then step back after s/he has accomplished this one time. This is one of the reasons we spend time during each Engaging Minds session talking to our students about how things went with past work and why we continually build on previously employed strategies. So while a student may have deftly completed a dozen problems in reducing fractions the week before, we may still help him/her through the first few problems on the same topic the following week and only give the student autonomy when it is clear that s/he is ready to work on his/her own.

Gradually Cut Back Support, Supervision and Incentives

As we have stated, the ultimate goal of the items on this list is to help students improve their executive skills to the point where they can function independently as much as possible. And as we also mentioned, the decision of when and how to reduce support, supervision and incentives is one that requires input from the student and from one’s own observations of the student’s progress. Being overly involved past the point where the student needs it is likely to undermine the student’s self-confidence (“Well, if he is still helping me do problems I think I can solve, maybe I’m not as good at this as I thought I was”) can also lead to a sense of learned helplessness. With our “tutees,” we have found that regular and honest communication works very well for judging when it is time to give greater independence– and this in and of itself provides another wonderful opportunity for the intangible incentive of praise (“You just completed your entire spelling assignment, and after we went over the instructions you did it all on your own! I’m always here to help you, of course, but this time you didn’t need it!”)

While this list may seem fairly comprehensive, in the end every student’s executive function skill growth is going to be different; the only common factor is that it is a process that takes time. Progress may be slow or sporadic and is built upon previous success, so ongoing communication among tutor/teacher, parent and student is crucial. This is the reason we use EMChat and why we end each tutoring session with a discussion of what the student is expected to do for the following week. This strong parent/tutor/student partnership is the foundation on which the student’s executive function skill improvement will be built, and it is the overall raison d’etre for Engaging Minds.