Is Executive Function the Missing Link to Your Kid's Success?
You’ve puzzled over plenty of life’s mysteries. Why does food taste better outdo...
Oct 14, 2021
The school year that seemed brand new just one month ago is now entering the “routine” phase that tends to make the weeks and months fly by. But before we’re transported to the June finish line, our kids have a lot of school to get through - and now that we’re past the cautious optimism of the first few weeks, you may have noticed that your student’s bright-eyed optimism about the year ahead has already broken down into eye-rolls and grunts about another tough day at school (and that’s assuming there was any optimism to begin with!)
And who could blame them? Unlike other school years past, this one has followed an unprecedented degree of disruption and turmoil. Many students had become used to reduced course loads, grade softening, hybrid learning, and everything else the pandemic upheaved inside its tornado. Now? We’re all left to pick up the pieces and pretend like everything is fine.
But for many of us, it’s not.
Although we may have been hopeful that our students would adapt seamlessly and hit the ground running in their classes, the reality has likely been much different. You may have gotten those first teacher emails about missing work, or the battles around homework might have already become a weekly routine. Whatever happened to that initial optimism? And why do students often start out with an enthusiasm that disappears as soon as the year gets going?
One reason? Because building good habits takes more than just good intentions. It’s almost always uncomfortable, messy, difficult work - especially when there are external factors at play (pandemic anyone?) Continued success takes persistence, patience, encouragement, and - most of all - time!
The other critical component to building good habits is the “how”. Oftentimes, we set unclear goals. For example, you may hear your student say "I'm going to get all my homework done on time." Wonderful, we love to hear it - but what exactly will they do in order to accomplish that objective?
If your child answers that question with “I’ll just make myself do it,” the red flags should be waving in your head like the 4th of July. Without addressing the how, that good intention is doomed - and before long, your child might be struggling in school. To really persevere in accomplishing those goals - especially in light of 2021's circumstances, you need to have a solid game plan - because where there’s a way, there’s a will! (See what we did there?) Let's elaborate on that “way.”
Goal setting is a great foundation for making change. And when I refer to goal setting, I don’t mean a fuzzy goal, I mean a very specific one. An example of this a fuzzy goal is something along the lines of:
Not convinced? Me neither! I mean, they might as well just say “I’m going to be the world's best student." In both cases, a few basic probing questions would quickly reveal that the goal is a paper tiger - like for the above example: Remember what? Remember how? What does remembering actually look like in practice?
Already with a few simple questions, you've poked canyon-sized holes in that goal. But that's okay - we can make it stronger! The key is to use SMART goals, i.e., ones that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. This approach to goal setting provides a roadmap right from the beginning that shows how you'll work toward an objective by taking that fuzzy, big picture goal and turning it into something sharp that invites real action. If we return to that first example a SMART goal might look something like this:
Beautiful! See the difference?
Getting specific with goals makes them so much more clear. And remember - these goals can be adapted depending on your student and the circumstance. This is especially true when it comes to that “attainable” piece of the equation. Setting achievable goals, even if they're small, is essential because overcommitting often leads to disappointment. If you start small, you'll earn small wins early on that snowball over time into bigger ones - a process that builds confidence and good habits. So how do you manage goal follow-through?
Having that clear goal is a wonderful start, but how will it actually get done? This requires a plan - even if it's just a simple one. If we continue with the previous example, the plan can be added into the initial commitment like this:
“I’m going to make sure I remember to pack my finished homework every night by setting a reminder on my phone right before bed. If that doesn’t work, I’ll set two reminders - one at two hours before bed, and another an hour before.”
After there’s a rough plan in place, it can be helpful to make room for some extra support, which leads us to #3….
For this one, it’s often a good tactic to draw on something other than parental oversight or else you may jeopardize the goal by coming off as “nagging" (their words, not mine!) Here’s where a sibling, friend, or coach can fit in by being a point of check-in with your child to see how things are going on their goal. As Executive Function coaches, we see the difference consistency makes in helping students achieve their goals. Students know their good intentions won’t slip through the cracks and be forgotten like old leftovers when they have regular follow-ups. Our coaches like to use these meetings to problem solve when it’s been tough to follow through on those carefully laid plans or to anticipate upcoming challenges. This is where a family member or friend may have limitations - coaches can take a more active approach by knowing how to adapt the plan accordingly. Even so, never underestimate the power of a simple accountability buddy, and remember…
This is the good stuff - recognizing and celebrating success is the best reinforcer of all. This kind of acknowledgment not only builds a student’s confidence but also their metacognition (i.e, the ability to gain insight into her own behavior and thinking.) These kinds of insights allow students to realize that they’re capable of making positive changes, and self-monitor along the way to keep themselves on track and know when they’re slipping into old habits. They can also set the stage for better overall self-management - something that will last them well past the school year.
So remember - even when the school year gets tough and the days become monotonous, making a change is only a clear goal and plan away. And when your student applies these approaches and proves that they know how to set and achieve goals, you may find that the payoff is as sweet as pumpkin pie.
Sean Potts is the Marketing Specialist at Beyond BookSmart and a recent graduate of Ithaca College’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. As a former coaching client and intern at BBS, Sean has spent the better part of the last ten years witnessing firsthand the positive impact Beyond BookSmart's mission has on transforming students’ lives. Jackie Hebert is the Director of Marketing for Beyond BookSmart. Whether it's managing our websites, overseeing our social media content, authoring and editing blog articles, or hosting webinars, Jackie oversees all Marketing activities at Beyond BookSmart. Before joining Beyond BookSmart in 2010, Jackie was a Speech-Language Pathologist at Needham High School. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Boston University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Executive function coaching for students online throughout the U.S. and internationally.
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