Stress associated with the COVID-19 outbreak and the unusualness of the new routine of distance learning may have a negative impact on executive functioning. This may show up unexpectedly in your child who previously was doing well, getting everything done and handed in. Or maybe your child was having challenges with some aspects of executive functioning previously; the challenges they are experiencing now may well be different. Whether executive functioning was on your radar already or not, don’t panic. New struggles with executive functioning are a normal and reasonable response to what has happened to school in the last month. And there are strategies to help.
Rethink what executive functioning is
Most importantly of all, I am not going to talk about executive functioning. Instead, we need to talk about executive functioning skills. Think of it as a whole host of skills associated with identifying the important parameters of a task you have been given, figuring out what is salient to address it, coming up with a plan, executing this plan, monitoring progress and adjusting strategies as necessary, deciding when a good endpoint has been reached, and self-regulating your behavior and engagement throughout.
ALL of us are better at some of these component skills than others. And what skills we are good at and what we struggle with will vary from task to task, subject to subject, and day to day. Applying a simple, “I struggle with executive functioning” label does not help, it is more complex and nuanced than this. And layered onto all this inherent variability are the current effects of stress, different learning environments, and different routines, so what was “normal” before is not likely to be normal now.
Where to begin
Begin by getting granular: Which executive functioning skills are your children struggling with? For which types of assignments? Which skills and types of assignment are going well? How does this vary from subject to subject — do some seem worse or better than others? Try to get a picture of your child’s executive functioning at this granular level before looking for strategies.
Here are some strategies to help in some common areas where students struggle:
- Children of all ages have challenges organizing materials — even ones who may be currently getting good grades. Work with your child to create strategies and routines that minimize organizing stress.
- Help your child create a daily “to do” checklist or a work timeline. For many students, a physical sheet of paper works well. Your child’s teacher might be able to help at first, but the goal is to build independence over time. Make sure you schedule in time for breaks, play, eating and downtime.
- Schedule a time in the afternoon each day where your child spends 10 minutes going through the Schoology gradebook or Seesaw class page for each subject, looking out for gaps and zeros. Make a two column table: assignment and action step. One action might be, “email the teacher to find out what I need to do.”
- Go through the instructions for an assignment with your child and help them identify what is salient and what is not. Underlining or highlighting can help.
- Help break projects into smaller steps. It is best if each step ends with a recognizable endpoint so your child will know they have reached it and are ready to move on. Help create timelines for extended projects.
- Have a place in the house where phones go during work time (a common thing at school). Allow phone use at agreed-on times (lunch, breaks, downtime perhaps) because social connection is really important.
- Help your child find a place to work in the house where they both feel emotionally comfortable and where distractions are minimized. This will vary a lot. Some students will thrive in their bedroom but flail at the dining table, and vice versa. Similarly, some music can help some students with some tasks, but it can hurt others. The only way to move forward is to have an honest, ongoing, iterative conversation about what works for them.
- Set timers — phones can be good for this.
- Create a checklist or routine for making sure work is both done AND turned in. These are two different things! And your child needs to make sure both are done — don’t just assume the second step happens!
- Help your child evaluate when a satisfactory end-point has been reached for an assignment. Even better than telling them, help them figure out whether it has or hasn’t.
- Help your child evaluate whether the current strategy is working or a better one might be needed. This is hard! Begin by asking, what strategy are you using? What are some other strategies you have used in the past on similar assignments? What are some other strategies that people in your class use? What are some strategies from other classes that might work here? Transfer of strategies from subject to subject, and task to task is nowhere near as automatic as it is for us as parents. If necessary, suggest emailing their teacher to see if there are any strategies they might suggest. Focus conversations on strategies.
- Co-create a “When I get stuck I will do this…” routine with your child. Write it out, pin it somewhere, and follow it when necessary.
- Help your child recognize that struggle is a normal part of learning, and that everyone struggles at times. Everyone. And that they are not going through this struggle alone, that you and their teachers are there to listen to them, work with them, and help them find strategies to move forward.
- Practice mindfulness or meditation. Doing so can reduce stress and aid executive functioning. We like Headspace, which has good free options, but there are many other apps.
- Make sleep a priority. Children need 9-11 hours. Younger children aged 3-5 years need 11-13 hours.
- Exercise daily, and make the best choices you can with food and drink. Brain chemistry starts to change after 15-20 minutes of exercise, so try to find a safe and creative way to make it part of your daily routine.
This list is not exhaustive, and nor could it be in the space of a blog. In addition, no strategy is going to work for all students all the time. But we hope there are some things in here that will help. And we welcome you getting in touch with questions, suggestions, and stories. Please feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.