As an Executive Function coach, my goal is to help students develop skills they can use throughout their lives to reach their goals. Some examples of these skills include the ability to plan their time, regulate and control emotions, prioritize/organize, set short and long-term goals, start tasks, and develop their working memory. Strong EF skills have been shown to predict future success in children’s academic, social, and career lives.
Each student I coach has strengths in some of these areas and weaknesses in others. The weak areas become quickly evident when students begin to feel stressed and anxious as their work load increases. Beginning in late elementary school through college, multiple assignments may be due on the same day, tests in different subjects fall on the same week, multi-step projects are all thrown in the mix.
There is not a lot of slack in students’ schedules. They are in class from 8-3, may have extracurricular activities, family and friend social meetings. There is no buffer within these tight schedules for any unforeseen events such as extra assignments or illnesses .
All of us need some downtime—time for rest, reflection, reading, just doing things we like to do. The tighter a student’s schedule, the higher are stress and anxiety levels. Sometimes demands can feel so overwhelming to students that they may stop doing any homework and begin falling behind.
A 2014 study by the University of Colorado’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience found a correlation in 6 year olds and how the number of structured activities affects their EF development. The more time the children spent in structured activities (lessons, organized sports) the lower their EF scores were. An increase in self-directed activities correlated to higher executive function development.
Cal Newport, PhD, author of “How to Be a High School Superstar” promotes the theory of The Law of Underscheduling for students. He believes the ideal student workweek homework should be done by dinner and use one 1/2 day (either Saturday or Sunday). This is assuming a normal school week; there will be weeks with more projects and/or tests. For students with heavy extracurricular activities and too many demanding courses, more efficient work habits won’t be enough. Dr. Newport advocates the art of strategic quitting — often just dropping one AP course or extracurricular can make a huge difference in reducing overwhelm.
In one of his more recent books, “Deep Work,” Newport flips the common idea of taking a hiatus from social media/texting/emails. Rather than scheduling concentrated work time with constant access to social media, his default mode using most of a day for important work/tasks, then scheduling controlled, shorter times to use media. And be choosey about what social media you on which you spend that time!
The process of developing self-directed EF strengths, like any habit or skill, takes practice and time. Younger children need reminders and guidance from parents and educators as their frontal lobes develop. Older students, although still developing, can then begin to internalize their EF skills and design strategies that work for them. Strong executive function skills and a manageable schedule can decrease stress and anxiety, and increase confidence and competency for students of all levels. Choose classes and activities with thought—as Robert Browning said, “Less is More.”