September 1, 2016
Topics: Learning + Attention Issues
When children struggle in school, parents and teachers alike want to know why. The first two places people look are, typically, the subject matter and the student’s motivation. While everybody has areas of strength and weakness—perhaps you love to write but hate math—and students can certainly reach a point of giving up, the issue is often more complex. If your child is struggling with challenges that extend across several subjects in school, and into other areas of his or her life, then a tutor will not be sufficient—and exhortations to try harder will be counterproductive.
What is likely going on is that your child is struggling with executive function difficulties. Executive functions are the basic skills of self-management that allow us to set goals and achieve them. They include such areas as managing our emotions, taking initiative, staying focused, being organized, planning and prioritizing and recognizing when we’re off track and figuring out how to recover. While a professional neuropsychological assessment is the surest way to determine whether your child has executive function weaknesses, your starting point is information from teachers and from your own observations.
Bright children with profiles like this are often dealing with executive function challenges that make tutoring fairly ineffective. While they may survive another paper on Dickens or an upcoming chemistry test, they are not generalizing, not taking lessons about how to do the work independently. What these students need is someone to teach them the right tools and habits to become more effective. And, invariably, because they’ve have suffered for some time, they need someone who also understands the emotional component of being asked to make a change. Coaches, unlike subject matter tutors, have a mission to do just that. Executive function coaches and their cousins, educational therapists, teach students how to succeed not only in the short-term, but in the long-term as well.
Case Study: “My Way Mark”
I met Mark as a sophomore in high school. Mark let me know that coaching was not his idea, and that he would not use the “stupid” school assignment notebook that his parents were on his case about. When I asked how he could keep track of his work without it, he said that teachers posted online. “On time? Every teacher? Every night?” I asked. “Well,” he confessed, happy to put some blame on someone other than himself, “everyone except my English teacher, and that’s where I’m struggling the most.” We brainstormed various ways he was willing to capture English assignments without relying on friends, and his preference, to his own surprise, was to use the assignment book after all—but just for that one subject.
Over the next 15 months, our work focused on his writing and reading, not the basic skills of editing and phonics, but the higher-level parts requiring organization, planning and establishing a purpose. We used a tool I developed for him that we came to call the “second outline,” an outline made after the initial draft to determine if the paper is both substantive and organized, which helped him question his belief that good writing just “happened,” like a first kiss or some other romantic notion. He also came to enjoy books like The Scarlet Letter and A Separate Peace, which had initially filled him with dread because they were both inaccessible and “boring!!!” For A Separate Peace we focused on “Speed Limits,” learning how to adjust the pace of reading to the context of the book, just as we adjust the speed of driving to the conditions of the road (teenagers love this comparison, of course). Moreover, the practical skills of finding key information, the “hot” sections of a book, turned Mark into an active reader—a detective of sorts. He soon became a very successful student, improving his grades from the C+/B- range to the B+/A- range.
Tips For Finding An Executive Function Coach
It can be tough to sort through the abundance of choices the Internet provides, but if you do your homework, you can find the right person to help your child. Here are a few tips:
While it’s perfectly normal for kids to struggle as they learn to manage themselves effectively, sometimes it’s helpful to have someone other than mom or dad be the one to show them the ropes. (Thinking back to our own childhoods, we might remember our resistance to our own parents.) Particularly when the challenges are long-standing, severe, or consistent across domain, a coach who understands the interplay of knowledge, habits and self-concept can be a tremendous ally for parent and child alike.