January 22, 2024

Goal Setting Strategies Through an Executive Function Lens

By Emma Michiels, Instructor

As we usher in a new year, it’s an opportune time for students to reflect on their academic journey and set meaningful goals for the months ahead. For students grappling with executive function challenges, such as difficulties in planning, organizing, and initiating tasks, the process of goal-setting and keeping to those goals over time can be particularly challenging. However, with tailored strategies and support, students can develop a formula for success. In this blog post, we’ll explore the unique challenges students with executive function challenges face and provide practical tips for setting and achieving goals in the coming year.

Tips for Goal Setting:

1. Break down large goals into realistic and manageable steps:

Large, overarching goals like “get all A’s” can feel unattainable. Instead, encourage students to break larger goals into smaller, more manageable and specific tasks. For example, a student might set goals like “dedicate 30 minutes each day to studying” or “attend afterschool tutorials once a week.” These specific and concrete goals help provide a clear roadmap for achieving success.

2. Utilize visual tools:

Pairing visual aids such as charts, calendars, and to-do lists with goals can be helpful for students with executive function challenges. Creating a visual representation of goals and tasks helps students better understand the steps involved and stay organized as they move towards their goal. Of course, these visuals should be created collaboratively with the child, not for the child. And they should be displayed somewhere with high foot traffic, where students are likely to encounter and use the scaffold.

3. Establish routines that support goals:

Consistency is key for individuals with executive function challenges. Establishing daily routines can help create a sense of predictability and make it easier for your student to initiate tasks without feeling overwhelmed. Many students benefit from an afterschool homework routine, for example, that lays out the steps of initiating homework. In addition, weekly routines, such as a weekly afterschool schedule, a designated organization time or a weekly grade check, are also important routines to put in place to support long-term goals.

4. Celebrate achievements, both small and large:

Recognize and celebrate small victories along the way. Positive reinforcement can boost your student’s confidence and reinforce the idea that their efforts are making a difference. Simultaneously, prompt your child to recognize successes on his/her own. Ask prompting questions such as “What is one thing that helped you earn an A on that math test?” or “What helped you remember to bring home all your materials?” so that he/she can start to identify habits that lead to success.

5. Tap into problem-solving skills as needed

The road to success is often non-linear. For example, a student may be doing a great job realizing their goal of keeping up with coursework until they get sick for a week and misses an entire unit of work. At that point, the student needs to tap into his/her problem-solving skills to get back on track. Can he/she self-advocate with the teacher to ask for an extension? Or can they carve out some extra homework blocks over the weekend to get caught up? These self-help skills tap into students’ sense of flexibility, as well as their ability to self-monitor and course correct as needed.

As we embark on a new year, let’s embrace the opportunity to support students with executive function challenges in setting and achieving their goals. By working towards specific goals, providing visual tools, fostering supportive routines, recognizing interim wins and tapping into problem-solving skills, we can empower these students to overcome challenges and thrive academically.