September 25, 2023

Creating executive function skills that stick well beyond September

By Burke, Instructor

Many students are diligent about starting the school year strong. A clean binder. No missing assignments. An organized workspace.

But how can we help our students maintain these strong executive function habits throughout the school year? How can we help make sure that September’s clean binder doesn’t descend into a jumbled mess by October? 

Here are some ways to support students at home in following through with their executive function skills long beyond the beginning of the school year.

Set aside the time

It’s very easy for EF skills to become an afterthought, as students rush to complete work and juggle all their after school responsibilities. Instead, help your student prioritize executive function skills by creating a weekly routine around a specific task. For example, you might set aside 20 minutes every Sunday night as organization time. During this time, your student might benefit from cleaning their home workspace, decluttering their binders/bag and/or organizing their digital folders and documents. Baking this into the week can help your student maintain their organization systems and routines rather than petering out as the year progresses. 

Adopt reminder systems

Some students benefit from the use of physical reminders, like sticky notes or checklists, to remember certain tasks they need to complete.  Others may prefer to use digital reminders, such as phone reminders or online systems such as Google Keep. Whatever their preference, help your student find their best way for remembering to-do list items. 

Model using executive function strategies 

Oftentimes, children learn from adults simply by following their example. What executive function skills do you use throughout your day? Maybe you already use a calendar, regularly organize your workspace, or set timers on your phone as reminders. Modeling these for your student, whether implicitly or explicitly, can support student’s ability to maintain their skills over the long term. This can be especially helpful if students are feeling resistant to using their skills or following through on their tasks. For example, you can ask something like, “What if we do this together? I will organize my workspace while you organize yours.” This allows students to see you using the same skills they are using and can also reduce their resistance to completing the task. If a task feels daunting, you may also offer to do it together the first few times to model how to break it down and get it completed. 

Foster self-advocacy skills

We all make mistakes, have slip-ups, or get overwhelmed or behind, at times. When this happens, we need to make sure our students have the self-advocacy skills they need to ask for help. We can foster this by having the “What if…” conversation up front, in the beginning of the year (when we’re not in crisis mode!) Talk through how your student might handle it if they got behind on assignments or forgot to use organizing systems during a particularly busy stretch. How might they problem-solve? Who can they ask for help? What other resources are available? How can they get back in the saddle?

Normalize the language of executive function:

Naming terms like “self-advocacy” and “time-management” allows students to more easily recognize the skills they are using, making it more likely that they will be able to replicate these in the future. This will help them identify which skills may be relevant to support them in each respective task they need to complete. Normalizing this vocabulary as a part of your home’ vernacular also allows you to more specifically praise them for the skills they are using, which reinforces and clarifies what they are doing when they are using that skill. 

Create a rewards menu

While at Engaging Minds we aim to foster intrinsic motivation, sometimes extrinsic motivators can help create a habit. To reinforce new skills, consider creating a reward/incentive menu together with your student. You can ask your student, “what would you like to earn for completing x task?” Together, you can come up with a list of reasonable rewards students could earn when they have finished the task. This could be a small reward each day and/or a bigger incentive for completing the task over the long term. Together with your student, you can keep track of the completion of different tasks with a chart or simple tally sheet. This will serve as a visual reinforcement that can motivate students to keep working toward their goals. 

Provide positive reinforcement

Whenever possible, provide your student with positive reinforcement when you notice them using one of the skills they have learned. It is most effective to praise students’ effort, especially when they have tried to use a skill, but haven’t used it fully. Comments like, “I can see that you have put so much focus and effort into using this new skill,” can be very motivating for many students to repeat that behavior. Putting new skills into practice can be challenging, and any opportunity to notice and praise student effort can go a long way in motivating them to keep using that skill. 

Using the strategies above can help ensure that students can not only start the school year strong, but also maintain academic success throughout the year. With our help, student binders can still look neat and tidy come November, December and beyond.