Middle school is a new chapter in students’ lives. It can be a time of excitement and new friendships, but it can also be a time of anxiety about the unknown. Students are expected to navigate unfamiliar school environments while also going through changes related to puberty and becoming teenagers. As students go through these difficult changes, they are also expected to show more independence in their academic growth. In short, students are expected to have “executive functioning skills.”
But exactly what is executive functioning and why is it so important?
Executive functioning (EF) refers to the tools that we use to be successful in our daily lives. Perhaps the best way to describe EF is to consider the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a large business. Under the CEO, there are Vice Presidents who run each department. In each department, there are specialists who have specific jobs. A successful business usually has a great CEO who is able to manage and direct everything going on in the business. In the same way, EF can be seen as the CEO of our brains.
EF is a broad term that includes six main categories:
- Organization– refers to having a system to keep track of important things like schedules, important dates, homework, and extra-curricular activities. This can also include organizing ideas and information for homework assignments and projects.
- Attention– staying focused and concentrating, especially for challenging tasks.
- Planning – deciding which tasks are most important and managing time effectively. This usually involves planning for multi-step tasks such as long-term class projects and deciding what needs to be completed first.
- Initiation – having motivation to start projects/tasks especially if the tasks are considered to be challenging or unappealing.
- Flexible Thinking – changing the way we approach a problem – which includes adapting to new possibilities and ideas especially when working with others.
- Emotional Regulation – having the ability to manage strong emotions and control impulsive behaviors.
Children who struggle with executive functioning may struggle with focusing on tasks that are most important, starting assignments, managing time to meet deadlines, or changing the way they approach a problem. Unfortunately, EF skills do not come naturally to many students, but they can learn these skills with guidance and practice. Think about the CEO example again, CEOs usually have to climb a few steps in the ladder to have the skills and expertise to manage big businesses. The good news is that we can learn new skills and adapt strategies. However, as important as executive functioning may seem, it is not taught in many schools. In most cases, parents have to become EF coaches to teach skills to their children.
Here are a few tips that can help:
- Start by helping your child use an organizer/planner to keep track of important dates, daily assignments, upcoming tests and get them into the habit of looking at it daily to check what is due or what needs to be updated.
- Use different colored folders for different subjects. This is a helpful way to organize classwork and not lose assignments or homework. It also cuts down on the frustration of losing important paperwork and the time spent finding misplaced documents.
- Creating to-do-lists/checklists. Sometimes students have so much to do that they can get overwhelmed and do not know how to start their work. Creating a to-do-list or checklist is a helpful way to see what needs to be done and how to organize your steps. Sometimes, checking something off the list can get rid of a lot of stress.
- Organize their physical space at home. Create a space to store their school materials (e.g., books, folders) to prevent misplacing items. A board is a nice place to pin up reminders and maybe a picture of the family pet!
- Break down larger assignments (writing a paper, studying for a test) into steps and schedule enough time to complete each step.
- Set short-term and long-term goals.
- Sleep directly impacts attention. Make sure children are getting enough sleep. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/infographic/children-sleep.htm
- Prepare for school by choosing outfits the night before and packing backpacks with laptop, charger, and water bottles ready to go.
If you don’t know where to start, turn to your child’s school for assistance and recommendations for resources. And remember, if you are teaching a child a new skill, it is often best to break down steps, check for understanding, and reward your child (and yourself) for small successes!Proper Citation for this blog post:
van Scoyoc, S.S., Stolz, E. (February 1, 2023). Helping your Children to Succeed in Middle School Retrieved from https://infoaboutkids.org/blog/helping-your-children-succeed-in-middle-school