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May 01, 2017
Summer is a great time for sitting on the beach, splashing in the pool, backyard barbecues, and you guessed it: developing Executive Function skills. This time of year, we hear a lot of parents worry that summer won’t be a productive time to learn (or continue to build) these important foundational skills. They assume that the only real work toward skills such as time management, planning, self-regulation, and organization can occur during the school year, while classes are in session. The truth is, buying into this myth ignores the learning potential that the summer months bring — and conveys to students the perception that Executive Function skills are only relevant when an essay is due or a test is looming. Spoiler alert: Self-management skills help us in all aspects of our lives. Imagine taking the family on vacation without looking at a calendar, researching costs and transportation schedules, or requesting time off at work!
As coaches, we’ve found that student-centered activities during school vacations are an effective way to learn and practice Executive Function skills without the demands of a full schedule and competing priorities. Summer break is an excellent opportunity to apply the concepts addressed during academic year coaching to nonacademic tasks that just might lend themselves to a little fun!
Here are four examples from my own work coaching students that you can try with your child.
Summer coaching is one of my favorite times to get to know my students better and work on generalizing Executive Function skills. Last summer, one of my students and I collaborated on Pinterest to find some DIY projects she could do over the summer. This student was working on planning, prioritizing, emotion regulation, and time management. We spent three weeks on each DIY project. The first week we planned out the steps, anticipated roadblocks, and made time estimates for each step. The second week, we worked the plan. This gave us opportunities to target emotion regulation, assess the accuracy of our time estimates, and prioritize between competing tasks in the moment. The final week, we reflected on the process by identifying successes and isolating things to work on next time. At the end, she felt proud of the work she did and more confident in her ability to handle a multi-step project. My student and I strengthened our working relationship during that summer and when school started, my student was able to make many connections between her new academic challenges and our very successful summer coaching projects. She had a new perspective of Executive Function skills and a new appreciation of her own abilities in this area.
After the end of a very productive school year, I went to a regularly-scheduled coaching session for one of my students. Aside from summer reading, he didn’t have any school work over summer break, so we discussed how he felt the school year had gone from an Executive Function standpoint. My student shared that during the school year, he often became very distracted when doing homework, which contributed to his challenges with time management. We identified drawbacks to his current workspace, which mostly centered around distractions by family, pets, and noise. We brainstormed with his parents to identify a potential new workspace and decided to use his bedroom. Since there was already a desk in there, we jumped right into setting it up. Considering his hard work with planning and prioritizing, we put a calendar in clear view. We set up a pad of paper for him to write his daily homework plan. In the drawers, we established an organization system for current and past school work. Every supply and material got its own home. When we finished, he took a photo of his workspace. In the following weeks, we spent a few minutes at the end of each session comparing that original photo with the current state of his desk. Once the next school year started, he was already in a great routine with an organized workspace. Even with an increased workload, this practice allowed him to consistently have a functional, organized, and clutter-free workspace to complete his homework in the following school year.
Summer reading is a task that often seems manageable at the beginning of July but can sneak up on your child if there isn’t a solid plan in place. When it is assigned, students may feel like they have all the time in the world but that feeling can sometimes lead to procrastination and then pretty stressful late-August days. And oftentimes, a child may just have no idea how to realistically plan it all out. As coaches, we like to use summer as an opportunity to help our students initiate, plan, and follow through with summer reading. Between summer camps and family trips, your child may be surprised at how little reading time there may be during those fun days filled with activities. If your child doesn't already use google calendar (or similar system), summer is a perfect time to set this up and plan out when (and how) to do reading and make goals about how many pages per week it will take to complete summer books or other assignments by Labor Day.
As I was vacationing in Maine two summers ago, my student and I arranged to have our regularly-scheduled session over Skype instead. Since we usually spent a lot of our school year coaching time developing and maintaining organization systems for my student’s backpack and binders, we decided to apply these same concepts to my student’s computer. Using the Skype screenshare function, he showed me his current file organization system and we discussed what was and was not working. We discussed his ideal computer organization system, which we recorded notes about in a shared google doc. We then made a plan together to organize his documents and rid his desktop screen of random files. We made a plan for him to stick to the new system by checking in and taking data on each folder’s organization weekly. Using this technology allowed us to collaborate on familiar concepts in a new format. I was able to connect with my student in a different way and we made great progress, even though I was four hours away!
These four examples just scratch the surface of the many opportunities that summer presents for building skills. Our students also use summer coaching to practice their Executive Function skills with making a study plan for the SAT or ACT, getting a jumpstart on college essays, writing goals for the following year, and much, much more! Summer skill-building sets students up with a framework to view their academics through a new lens, once classes begin again. “Remember that craft project you did in July? How did you plan that out? How can you use the same method for the poster project in Earth Science?”
We’ve discovered that the more consistent we are with helping our students build Executive Function skills year-round, the more successes we see. Consistency with new habits is a crucial element to transformations in behavior. When we are consistent in building these skills, we see weekly victories, a trusting relationship, and the ultimate goal: changed behavior.
Download our Project Planner Template to help your child gain skills while doing a fun summer project.
Maria (Montague) Harlow, M.S., CCC-SLP is a certified speech-language pathologist, reading specialist, and executive function coach with years of experience in public and private schools. Maria completed a master's program in both communication sciences and disorders and reading disabilities at MGH Institute of Health Professions and received an undergraduate degree from Northeastern University's School of Education. Maria's experience spans preschool to high school. Maria is a patient, understanding, and flexible coach with an arsenal of effective strategies and tools to help students better navigate their academic lives.
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