Despite the heroic efforts of teachers and parents, many are viewing 2020 as a year of lost learning.
But the loss wasn’t just academic. Experts indicate that the biggest hit may be in executive function, as the management of time, materials and attention that occurs incidentally in a classroom were limited with distance learning.
Many parents have noticed a drop in motivation, attention and completion of schoolwork.
Here are three keys to helping students of all ages build their executive function skills.
#1 “Continuum of Arousal” In the neuroscience world, stress and attention are viewed as a continuum of arousal: too high and you’re in “fight or flight”; too low and you’re “zonked.”
The ideal place for learning and rational thought is in the middle, or the “Zone,” where the person has calm, focused alertness. Being aware of where the child is on the Continuum of Arousal at any moment will help parents pick the right time to offer support or try to build new habits around homework.
Helping students to recognize their own level of stress or arousal and giving them tools for either increasing or decreasing it builds their ability to monitor and manage their own attention and behavior.
Quick tip: Too agitated? Have your child step outdoors. This will immediately down-regulate the nervous system.
Energy too low? Have them move their body for five minutes!
#2 Build, Don’t Be their Executive Function It’s easy to slip into the habit of micromanaging everything about your child’s day. When parents do that, it’s actually the parents' executive function that’s doing the work. Instead of telling students what to do, help them develop forethought by asking about their plan.
Rather than saying, “You have soccer practice today so come home and do your homework right after school and then pack your bag,” try saying, “You have soccer practice today. What’s your plan for getting your homework done and your bag packed?”
This triggers your child’s brain to visualize the future in time and space, a critical factor in planning and executive function.
#3 Problem Solve Together Together, identify the problem. Brainstorm every solution you can think of—even silly ones. Visualize and talk through each solution to determine the best option. Commit to trying it. At the end of the day or week, reconvene to evaluate and modify as needed.
This kind of joint problem solving takes time, but it’s time well-spent. It can be applied to almost anything and it allows the student to repeatedly practice the very essence of what executive function does.
Build the Critical Underlying Skills
The best guidance and strategies in the world will not work if the student doesn’t have the skills to do the job. Distance learning may have made it abundantly clear that your child is struggling with some aspects of learning. Regardless of how it may look, this is almost never the result of laziness, lack of motivation, poor parenting or poor teaching.
When students with average to above average intelligence struggle in school it is almost always because there are weak or inefficient underlying learning or processing skills that are not supporting them well enough and causing them to have to work harder or longer than expected.
Just as executive function skills can be developed with practice, struggles with dyslexia, auditory processing, attention and learning can be permanently eliminated through targeted brain training so students can become independent learners and thrive in school.
Jill Stowell, M.S., is the bestselling author of At Wit’s End A Parent’s Guide to Ending the Struggle Tears, and Turmoil of Learning Disabilities, and is the Founder and Executive Director of Stowell Learning Centers in Thousand Oaks. Learn more about Stowell Learning Center at StowellCenter.com.