Executive functioning is our brain’s management system, consisting of a group of skills that allow us to set goals, plan ahead, and get things done. These skills are crucial, not only in the context of academics but also in our everyday lives. These skills are learnable and can be improved with consistent practice, much like a runner training for a race, and summer can be a great time to build those skills and set up a successful school year in the fall.
Improving Executive Functioning Skills
Everybody can benefit from practicing and strengthening their executive functioning skills, but for adolescents, there are certain patterns to look out for that might indicate their executive functioning skills could be stronger. All students have the capacity to pivot in a new direction, for the better, and learn the skills they need to be successful in high school and beyond. The sooner that students begin working on these skills, ideally in middle school, the stronger they will be when the stakes get higher.
An important signal that a student’s executive functioning skills could be improved is a general feeling of being overwhelmed or stressed, even when getting good grades. Sometimes, students who are very smart do not have the grades to reflect this and are underperforming compared to their potential. Others may wait to begin assignments or wait to begin studying until the very last minute, often staying up late at night and missing out on sleep as a result. Many students will consistently show up late or miss appointments and may also miss deadlines for projects or papers despite having a good understanding of the material.
These scenarios are stressful for both students and parents. Oftentimes, low grades are not caused by a lack of understanding, but rather by a lack of strong executive functioning skills. When a student is able to master these skills, their academic confidence improves, and school becomes a lot less stressful.
Work on Time Management with Calendaring
So much of being a successful student requires thinking about time: where you need to be, for how long, what you need to do, and how much time it will take. Poor time management skills can make students feel like they are not in control of their own lives. Improving time management skills can help students take back a feeling of control and in turn, reduce stress. Planning ahead, however, takes discipline, both to create and to execute a plan.
This summer, practice keeping a calendar to manage your time. Where do you need to be today? What time does that activity start? How long will it take you to get ready? How long will it take you to get there? How long will it take you to get home? Can you schedule some downtime today? While taking the time to plan for each step of the way might feel tedious, setting aside an hour at the beginning of each week to plan for the week ahead with a calendar will take much of the work out of managing your days on the fly. This approach will also help you to ensure that you have time for not only the things that you need to do, but also the things that you enjoy!
Hone Study Skills Through Outside Reading
Just because you are not in school does not mean that you can’t strengthen your study skills during the summer. Study skills are those fundamental skills that help students to absorb information and produce the corresponding work. These include chunking and pacing, listening with attention and intention, active and close reading, and note-taking.
This summer, practice these skills by reading a new book that is challenging – or getting a head start on summer reading assignments. As you read, take notes about the storyline and your own interpretations, reactions, connections, or predictions about the story. Then, formulate guiding questions at the end of each chapter and attempt to answer them. These notes can be kept in a Google Doc, and they can be easily turned into an essay or other writing assignment if needed.
Practice Long-Term Planning with a Personal Project
The summer is a great time for students to set large goals for themselves and practice visualizing each step along the way. It could also be something like running a half marathon, starting and maintaining a blog, or re-decorating a room. By setting a long-term goal that requires several steps, students can work backward to figure out what actions need to be taken at each step of the way.
This goal does not have to be academic! For example, planning a party for a parent or friend is a great way to practice long-term planning skills that require you to work backward to figure out what needs to be done. For example, you need to decide what kind of food you are going to serve and how much. To figure out how much food you need, you need to know how many people are coming. To figure out how many people are coming, you need to send out invitations and gather RSVPs. By visualizing and logging every step, what is required to execute it, and long is required to complete it, you can strengthen your long-term planning skills and apply them to large-scale projects and assignments during the school year.
Students can set themselves for a more successful, less stressful academic year by ensuring that their executive functioning skills are strong. Like training for a sport, strengthening these skills can be fun, and they can be applied in a wide variety of situations. These key executive functioning skills set students up for long-term success, and summer is an ideal time to focus on practicing them.
Executive functioning skills are critical to academic and admissions success. At IvyWise, we have dedicated Executive Functioning Coaches to help students hone their time management, organizational, and study skills in order to succeed inside and outside of the classroom. For more information on how we can help you with skills coaching through tutoring, contact us today.