Without a doubt, strong executive functioning skills help students succeed in school. But they can also help students achieve their goals in life. As students grow up, executive functioning skills can help them write college essays, study for the LSAT, apply for jobs, run their own businesses, pay bills on time, and even manage the schedules of their future children. Strong executive functioning skills are an incredible foundation for long-term success and productivity. Making sure that your kids have these skills is an invaluable investment for their future.
So, when is the best time to build this foundation of skills? We find that too many parents wait until their child is falling apart in high school to seek help with organization and time management. The best time for students to learn executive functioning is in middle school when they are succeeding, before problems with studying for tests and completing homework on time arise.
This is somewhat counter-intuitive. Why would a student with good grades need tutoring?
For one thing, while a middle-schooler may be succeeding in school, he or she is not necessarily developing study skills. One of my former students, Joey, is a perfect example. School was easy for him. He consistently earned A’s without ever studying. The problem? Joey was not practicing studying. Studying is a skill that needs to be learned, practiced, honed, and mastered over time. When he transitioned to high school and encountered a tough American History course, he found that he had no idea how to approach studying for that class. He floundered.
By the time Joey came to us for help, he was doing very poorly in American History. But he was also starting to give up in other classes. He had lost a lot of confidence. It was a big struggle for him to dig himself out of that hole. If I’d had the opportunity to teach him executive functioning skills before high school, he would have had a set of practical tools to fall back on when classwork became challenging.
Another way poor executive functioning skills manifest is with inefficient study techniques. One of our students, Amelia, is a good example. Amelia is very dedicated to getting good grades. She works very hard, and has never hesitated to do her homework. With each passing year, her homework load has grown. Now that she’s in high school, Amelia regularly spends three to four hours a night on schoolwork. Amelia can’t understand how some of her friends get by doing less, and she’s starting to think she’s just not as smart as they are. Even worse: Amelia is missing out on fun, enriching after-school activities. She can’t try something new or explore her passions; she has too much work.
The real problem is that Amelia has not learned how to study efficiently. She needs to learn how to study smarter, not harder.
Over the years, we’ve had many opportunities to help students develop study skills during periods of success, and the results have been incredible. James’s mom sought out tutoring toward the end of eighth grade, since her son would be attending boarding school in the fall. James was getting A’s and B’s in school – he was definitely not in a state of academic distress – but his mom knew the transition to high school would be tough, and she wanted him to be ready. James’ tutor introduced him to strategies for tracking assignments, managing time so he could balance school and two sports, and taking notes to tackle the content of tough courses. James practiced these skills using his 8th grade workload so he could master them before the material got tougher the following year.
We know that anyone can be taught study skills at any point. But we’ve learned over the years that the very best time to learn them is during a period of success. It’s best to develop study skills before a crisis arises – in most cases, before the transition to high school – so that current schoolwork can be taken to a new level, less time can be spent on studying and homework each night, and students can be well-prepared for the greater workloads ahead in high school and beyond.