We like to say that executive functioning is everything that it takes to succeed in school besides the actual content. Students in our executive functioning tutoring program learn how to be organized, take notes, manage time, study effectively, and advocate for themselves. These are skills that all parents want their children to master, but how can you help? Before we answer that (very good) question, we want to share some of the ins and outs of teaching and learning executive functioning skills.
We take a unique approach to executive functioning tutoring in that we incorporate the concept of choice within limits. This means that we involve students directly in the problem solving process. For example, we actually don’t have one set way for students to take their notes or organize their materials. We explore a variety of key strategies and help students choose and assess what works best for them.
Why do we do this?
If we simply give the students a solution and say, “Do it this way,” we’re not really teaching them anything:
- they don’t learn how to identify and solve problems
- they don’t feel—or take—ownership
- they’re less likely to follow through
- they’re not working toward independence
What if students make the wrong choice?
After brainstorming a list of strategies/solutions, we don’t let students choose options that we know won’t work. We believe that it’s the tutor’s role to set the boundaries and veto things that won’t work, but also to give the student enough room to think, make choices, and be truly involved. For example, the tutor will say no if a student suggests relying on their memory as an option for keeping track of homework assignments; but they may give them a choice between using a notebook, app, or individual assignment sheets to record homework.
What if the solutions don’t work?
This isn’t what you want to hear, but with executive functioning tutoring, chances are good that a new strategy isn’t going to work immediately. It takes time for students to buy in, overcome fear, and get used to new habits. In addition, sometimes the technique we expect to work ends up not being a good fit after all. We typically have to adjust a few times before the new method sticks. This is all part of the process of a student learning how they learn best!
Why are students afraid of adopting new strategies?
Students often make solid progress early on and then experience a backslide. They may even suddenly stop using the strategies that are bringing them success. Self-sabotage is common enough that we prepare families for it from the get-go. Here are a couple of reasons it happens:
- The strategies take work, especially when they’re unfamiliar, and sometimes students fear that they won’t be able to sustain the effort.
- If the student tries really hard, uses all the strategies we teach, and doesn’t achieve their goal, they might feel like they’ve failed. On the other hand, if they simply give up midway through, they can avoid any chance of failure. It’s often easier and more comfortable to choose quitting rather than to risk or experience falling short.
How can I help?
- Be patient: Developing these skills will take time. Expect leaps of progress followed by setbacks. Overall, though, the progress will continue uphill.
- Use probing questions: It’s easy to tell your child exactly what to do when they should be using a new strategy. But that takes away their ownership and opportunity to learn. Instead of saying, “Fill out your assignment notebook,” or “Do your math homework first,” ask questions: “How’s it going with the check boxes in your assignment notebook?” “Which strategies will you use to help you complete your homework today?” Try to get your child to verbalize what they have or haven’t done and come up with what they should do.
- Talk openly about your emotions: It’s okay for you to be frustrated with your child, and for them to know it. The goal is to share these emotions without blame, shame, or pain. One way to do this is to stay curious. “I’m frustrated that you’re not using the strategies you know work. Help me understand your perspective.” Or, “I’m nervous that you’re not prepared for the test. Let’s say it’s a couple days after the test and you don’t get the grade you wanted. What will you wish you would’ve done before the test to get a better score?”
- Allow mistakes: Let your child know that you understand they’re learning new strategies and habits, and that they’re not all going to work. You expect them to try them out and to put forth effort, but you know there will be ups and downs. You’ll be there to support them with finding new solutions when that happens. Mistakes are always okay when you learn from them!
- Try positive discipline: Positive discipline and family meetings provide for discussions with your child about problems, celebrations, and family business. This can be a non-confrontational time to talk about what’s happening and to continue the problem solving process as a family.
If you want to discuss your child’s challenges with this particular aspect of school, give us a call!