Students with executive functioning deficits have difficulty planning, organizing and initiating projects and homework. A tutor or coach can help students fill in their planner and breakdown their assignments to make a weekly “TO DO” plan, but they can not make the student follow the plan once they leave. Creating the plan is one thing, following the plan is another.
Parents and coaches often tell me how frustrating it can be to create a fabulous plan for the student only to find that the student didn’t follow through. Building executive functioning skills and study strategies takes time and practice. Remember back to when your child was learning his multiplication tables? What did the teacher tell you? Learn the concept, then drill and practice, drill and practice, drill and practice! Learning executive functioning skills is no different! To develop an understanding of executive functioning skills, you must first set up goals and explain how the brain works. Once the student understands what is expected, it is time to start the drill and practice, drill and practice, drill and practice!
One of the challenges many parents face is that executive functioning skills become more of a challenge in middle school. Many children are developmentally ready to become more independent and separate from their parents in middle school. However, this is a transitional phase towards independence and many students still need their parents to help them scaffold new skills. The executive functioning skill set is new to many middle school students.
So, what is the best way to get students to follow plan, use checklists, turn in homework, and build their independence at the same time? Most parents and executive functioning coaches / tutors face this challenging question. To help children learn new skills, you have to go back to the theory of scaffolding. Scaffolding new ideas and skills is like building a high-rise. First, you build the scaffolding on the outside the building to support the framework on the inside. The scaffolding stays up until the building is stable. At that point, the foundation is strong and the scaffolding can be taken down. This is what we need to be thinking about with children. We need to create the external structure–the scaffolding–and keep it in place until they have learned the skill. Once the skill is in place the scaffolding comes down.
Checklists, charts, study plans, apps for time management and check-in’s are all very effective scaffolding tools for students. However, we are looking for the external tools that the students can rely on to help them know what to do next and when to do it. It is important to remember that they still need reminders to check their checklists, planners and homework online. I have found that it is best if these reminders are automatic and not given by parents; rather, we use the student’s iPhone, iPad or other electronic device to create reminders and email alerts. There are many tools available now to alert a child to check his or her checklists.
At our center, we create an alert that shows up on the child’s phone, iPad, computer, etc. reminding the students to check their planner and update their study plan. They then have another alert half an hour before bedtime to check if everything has been done and put in their backpack. These alerts can be set to automatically alert the student every day, so they don’t depend on the student remembering to make a note. Once the students setup these alerts with the tutor/coach, it is time to involve the parents.
To help parents monitor their student’s progress, the student explains the plan to the parents. The student can then share their homework plan with their parents. Once this is done, it is updated automatically, allowing parents to use their phones or computers to confirm that their child is updating the study plan. We then ask the parents to set up alerts as well. The parents’ alerts are simple: 10 minutes after the student receives the alert, the parents receive an alert reminding them to check in with the student. We let students know that they will get their alert 20 minutes before bedtime, or whatever amount of time students and parents think is reasonable, and the parents will get an alert 10 minutes after the child’s alert. This allows the students to get started before the parent is alerted to make sure all work has been done for the evening.
Designing a plan is very important, and implementing the plan is critical. It is important to work with both students and parents to create a plan that can be followed up on daily basis. Our center often uses another system—daily emails—to help students develop a daily habit of checking, updating, and completing their study plan. The academic coach can send out a checklist that the student completes each night. The student’s responses are saved and sent to the academic coach where they can be easily compiled. This provides an additional reminder and allows the academic coach to gauge the student’s progress.
In creating a system like this, it is important to remember that success will not be 100% immediately. The entire support team—the academic coach, the parents and the student–must create an achievable goal. Success breeds success. Find out what percentage of homework is being done and use that as your baseline to create a new goal. For example, if the student turns in 50% of the homework now, the new goal would be to turn in 70%. Recognition of success is important for the child to see that he or she is making progress and that this hard work is worth it.