It is time to go back to school! The start of the school year can be both exciting and stressful. This may be particularly true for students who are transitioning into middle school or high school and have to juggle navigating a complex (and sometimes overwhelming) environment, figuring out the expectations of multiple teachers in their different classes, and adapting to a new routine. Parents and caregivers can build and nurture their child’s executive functioning skills at home to support their organization and study.
WHAT ARE EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING SKILLS?
Executive functioning skills help individuals plan and work toward their goals successfully. These skills include:
- Problem solving
- Organizing materials
- Getting started on tasks
- Remembering things
As children get older and academic demands increase, they need executive functioning skills to plan, prioritize, complete, and submit assignments and study for tests and quizzes to get good grades. Executive functioning skills also increase your child’s independence as they take charge of their own academic achievement!
HOW TO BUILD EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING SKILLS AT HOME?
In the Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology, we work with caregivers and children together to address their executive functioning needs. Executive functioning skills may not come naturally to many children but can be built over time. It is important to encourage consistent use of executive functioning skills at both home and school. Here are some effective strategies that can help build these skills.
1. SET UP A HOMEWORK AND STUDY SPACE
Your child will be more likely to study effectively if they have a consistent, dedicated homework and study space at home. They should have all learning supplies readily available such as their binder, planner, books, notebooks, folders, pens and pencils, and computer.
It is also important to minimize any distractions in your child’s homework and study space so that they can stay focused. They should choose a calm, quiet place and purposely turn off any electronics that are not being used for assignments. This will allow them to finish their homework more quickly so that they have time to do the things that they want to do in their free time.
2. PLAN AND PRIORITIZE USING A PLANNER
Your child likely has more than one task or assignment to do each day. Using a planner allows your child to write down assignments or tests right when they are assigned so they will not be forgotten or missed. Once your child has all their tasks written down in one place, they can plan and prioritize the tasks accordingly by numbering them in the order that they will be completed. The goal is to create a daily to-do list for assignments and tests/quizzes.
When planning and prioritizing, it is important to help your child understand their work style. Some children may prefer getting started on a short assignment to cross off this task as complete, while some may want to get longer assignments out of the way first. You can ask your child explicitly about their preferences so they will be more likely to follow through.
3. BREAK DOWN LONG-TERM ASSIGNMENTS AND TESTS
In middle school and high school, your child may get long-term assignments that require several days of work over a period of time. Some tests, especially ones at the end of a semester, may cover a lot of material and require more extensive studying. Without proper planning, your child may cram the day before a long-term assignment or test and will not have enough time to complete the assignment or study thoroughly for the test.
If your child is using a planner effectively, they should know the due dates of long-term assignments and tests ahead of time. You can check in with them to understand how much work or studying is necessary for the assignments or tests and then help them break down the assignments or tests. For example, if a test covers one chapter, you can guide your child to break down studying over 4-5 days by writing what they will do each day leading up to the day of the test in their planner (e.g., read/reread chapter, complete study guide, etc.). This will not only make studying part of the daily to-do list in their planner, but will also make studying more manageable.
4. USE A BINDER OR BACKPACK ORGANIZATION SYSTEM
It can be easy for kids to just shove any handouts or learning materials in their backpack. However, it will be difficult to find the materials they need later as the backpack is filled with disorganized materials. Using a binder or backpack organization system can help your child keep things organized and find what they want easily.
A binder organization system can be flexibly used based on your child’s needs. It can contain their class schedule, a homework folder, a pencil pouch, subject dividers, subject folders/notebooks, and loose leaf paper. The purpose of the binder organization system is for your child to keep all materials in one place organized. If they file the materials in the right places, they can find the materials easily when needed.
Similar to a binder organization system, a backpack organization system can help your child organize their materials in the right pockets. You can set up a regular time with your child (e.g., every weekend) to clear out their backpack and determine for each item if they need to 1) act on it, 2) file it or 3) trash it, so they get into the routine of organizing their backpack.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT TO PROMOTE CHANGE
While these four executive functioning strategies can help your child become more independent and successful in school, consistently using these strategies will take time. It is a good idea to provide positive reinforcement (e.g., verbal praise, rewards or privileges) when your child uses executive functioning strategies so that they are more likely to use these strategies in the future!
Editor’s Note: Tatshing “Jobi” Yeung, Ph.D. also contributed to this blog post. He was previously a clinical research coordinator in the Division of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology and assisted with the delivery of an academic executive functioning intervention for autistic adolescents (www.aims-ef.com).