Waiting To Hear What September Brings: Helping Our Pre-Teens and Teens Improve Executive Function During A Pandemic
One of my favourite things to do during my time as a teacher was to set up schedules for my classroom, plan out lessons and units, and help students stay on track with their learning and with their assignments. As a young mom back then, I thought it would be a good idea to use the same kind of set up at home with my own kids around scheduled feeding, sleep time, and play time. As my own kids grew and my role as a teacher of teens continued, I realized more and more that kids of all kinds thrive from structure, routine and predictability. All of these things help our kids with their executive function.
In school, teachers provide schedules, structures and routines to kids that, over time, become a way of life. The benefits of this kind of structured functioning became clear to me as my students and my own children entered the teenage years. In my roles as a mom and a teacher I was able to witness the advantages of good planning skills in teens firsthand, and the troubles that can arise for kids when organizational skills fall apart.
These kinds of planning skills are known as executive function skills (meaning the skills you need to execute tasks). What most parents and teachers don’t realize is that the full scope of executive function doesn’t just include planning and organizing, but also includes:
- Getting started
- Following through on tasks
- Goal-directed persistence
- Performance monitoring
- Emotional regulation
With the latest research in neuropsychology, we’re discovering that it can take up to 25 years for executive skills to fully develop! In other words, executive skills are dependent on brain development over time. This development happens in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain just behind the forehead.
Once I started to learn more about executive skill development in kids and teens, I became particularly concerned about kids who had challenges with executive skills. These are the kids who underachieve because of weak skills in organization and time management, which in turn prevents them from working to their potential or achieving their goals. In many cases these kids have had chronic problems throughout school and may have developed a negative history there. Sometimes these kids have been labelled as lazy, irresponsible and not caring about their own success and achievement. These children are largely misunderstood. For kids with attentional disorders and learning challenges, these skills develop even more slowly and are more sensitive to disruption.
Stress and Executive Function Skills: Getting Through School Closure And Online Learning In The Time of A Pandemic
At the time of our school closures when typical schedules and routines disappeared, and teacher support for project completion, time management and organizational skills was unavailable, many students with weak or immature executive skills floundered. In fact, many students of all abilities, including high achieving students, struggled without the day-in, day-out support that teachers typically provide through face to face connections and organizational supports in classrooms.
Even more importantly, in times of stress (such as during the current pandemic), everyone’s executive skills are taxed. From a survival point of view, right now is the time when our brains are hard-wired to focus on the immediate needs in our environment and whatever is causing our stress. This in turn decreases the resources that usually get directed to executive skills, leading to reductions in working memory, emotional regulation, sustained attention and goal-related persistence – just to name a few!
When Kids Are Stretched And Stressed
During the pandemic, many parents are struggling to contain their own worries about jobs, lost income and health conditions related to the COVID-19 virus. When kids begin to understand what their parents are worrying about, they start to worry too. To add to the strain, the familiarity and routine of school as well as the many supports at school that provide security to students have disappeared. This support often includes nutrition breaks, feelings of love and belonging, and connections with teachers and peers who care for them.
Finally, increased expectations that kids manage their school work on their own when daily routines disappeared tended to overload many students and contributed to a significant amount stress and difficulty completing work. This stress can result in reduced mental resources that are normally devoted to executive function, causing significant difficulties for kids in coping emotionally and keeping up with learning at home.
How Can I Help As An Executive Skills Coach?
Moving forward, as we all wait to hear from our Education Minister regarding school opening plans, we can be thinking about how to best support kids in this upcoming school year, no matter what it brings. The best approach (at any time, but especially at a time like this) is to view executive functioning difficulties as obstacles, rather than character flaws or poor choices. If we approach kids using problem-solving strategies that include a sympathetic ear, trauma-informed practice (relationships matter!) and some open-ended questions and discussions, kids are more likely to work with us, do better and feel better.
Many parents regularly use coaching as an option when teens push back against attempts to teach new skills to help them manage the details of life. Coaching is a process that keeps the pressure and the meltdowns away from parents, preserves family relationships at a time when they matter most, and helps kids develop the skills they need to adapt to new realities with resilience.
Through coaching, kids can become the independent, self-sufficient individuals they want to be (and that their parents want to see), even during a pandemic.
As a coach, I work with kids to support their emotional health and well-being, help them identify their goals, and make daily plans to achieve them. This might include keeping up with assignments, advocating for accommodations at school, improving grades or even getting a job. I work hard to help kids feel autonomous and make important decisions about the goals that they want to work towards. At a time like this, our kids need a helping hand to navigate their way through very unsettling times, all the while keeping their eye on the prize – there is a way through this!
As a consultant, I offer advice and strategies to kids, leaving the final decisions in their hands! In this way, a pre-teen or teen’s success building small goals will build a base for achieving bigger goals over time. I firmly believe that with help, kids can overcome the hardships that have suddenly landed on them and feel proud of themselves for prevailing.
My role in the life of your child and your family in my practice at Alongside You is to offer support to help kids build executive function skills and feel successful, help your kids survive the pandemic and the continued upcoming changes in school life, and to help all of you stay connected and learn to rise above the current schooling challenges due to the pandemic.
If you would like to meet with me for a consultation regarding your child’s progress, please contact us and we will be in touch with you soon. Secure video appointments are a safe, kid-friendly space to meet virtually and shake-off the anxiety, despair and overwhelm and gain some ground as we approach our new normal at school.
Reach out for help, relieve worry and remember that a helping hand is what is most needed for kids at this time in order to feeling better, learn better and do better. I look forward to working with you and your kids!