Executive Functioning is a buzzword that seems to get thrown around a lot in academic circles. A lot of people are unfamiliar with the term, or perhaps even turned off by its perceived elitist connotation. I’m here to dispel any confusion! Executive Functioning (EF) can best be defined as the set of skills needed to succeed in all areas of life. These areas include things like time management, organizational habits, and interpersonal skills that not only are required for getting through the rigors of high school and college, but are also necessary in work, family, and hobbies.

The demand for EF support has grown massively in the last 20 years, and even more so now during the pandemic. In education, students are contending with new technologies that change each year. So while they may be far more equipped to fix our iPhones or Laptops when they break, the 21st century student has a lot more to manage than a simple backpack of homework. Today’s world of remote and hybrid learning has really poked holes in this phenomenon, as parents are seeing first hand that their kids are having a tough time managing all that is expected from them.

Many parents ask why only one of their children experiences these issues. The answer is simple: some students have trouble adapting to the changing expectations that are placed upon them. Executive Functioning, in its best form, aims to ease the adaptation process. While not all kids intrinsically understand how to make their studying more efficient, every student that I have worked with can adapt; they just need to be shown how. Below you’ll find a few crucial strategies to help students succeed, both in school and beyond. 

1. Google Calendar is your best friend

Google’s move into the education sphere has been crucial to schools all over the world, and for good reason: it’s one of the most seamless and integrated platforms in the web’s existence. Gone, for the most part, are the days of paper planners and calendars — students in 2021 get their homework info from their school’s portal. There’s a myriad of reasons why certain assignments fall through the cracks; I am sure many of you have heard excuses like, “the teacher forgot to post it,” or “it didn’t show up on the assignments page,” and even “I didn’t read it all the way through.” If our kids are going to be mostly digital, we need a modern update of the physical planner, which I believe is Google Calendar.

The first step is to make sure your student has access to Google Calendar — many school systems have it as part of their school’s domain and portal. If not, it’s easy to set them up with a Gmail account, which will automatically give them access to the Google Suite of Products. Next, we want to create a New Event on this week’s Monday:

Label it “Homework” — select “More Options” at the bottom left hand corner of the screen. Next, select “All day” at the top left hand corner, then select the drop down menu that says  “Does not repeat” and select “Weekly on Monday.” After that, go to the right hand corner of the page, and under Guests, add any email addresses you would like to be included– if you don’t have a Google account, quickly sign up for one! This will allow parents and guardians the ability to oversee and ensure this new habit for the first few weeks. You can change colors too if you like (I picked a light orange here):

You can also add a notification, which can be set to certain times and days. Take a look at your child’s weekly schedule, then, based off of any extracurriculars, decide when they usually should start homework on each day of the week. Then you can set the notification to sound at that time or a little before then. Lastly, in the description, add each course that your child is currently taking as shown in the example. This will become their template for each day’s work, much like a planner. Lastly, save. Then do the same thing for all of the other days of the week, including the weekends. You should now have a nice clean calendar with repeating “Homework” events. Make sure that when your child updates their Homework event, they select the option “This Time only,” so as not to repeat that day’s specific homework forever and ever (you’ll get the hang quickly).

If your child is having trouble planning out their homework, set this template up with them and have a weekly Sunday or Monday Planning Hour. This is where you scan through their school portal, and schedule when and what days they are going to do their homework and study. Try inputting test and quiz dates as separate events too with reminders and notifications a few days before. Secondly, if your child has a smartphone, you can download the Google Calendar app which will send these notifications to their phone. Make sure notifications are enabled, as every reminder you set on Google Calendar will now also sound on their phone as well. This is a bit of a failsafe for the parents: since kids are always on their phone, it follows that they would naturally see any reminders set. Make a deal with your child– if they miss an important reminder, take away video games/tv for a few days. If they follow through, make sure to reward and praise them — this is all about building up their muscle memory!

As a rule, your child should have the Google Calendar page open in a web tab on their laptop throughout the school day (class permitting), in the same way that I would have had my planner laid out on my desk when I was in school. It’s also important to note that some schools  seem to already have teachers set up these assignments automatically in their students’ Google Calendars, in which case most of the work is done for the students — they just need to actively use it and update it. You should monitor your kid’s progress for the first month or so, which is why you must make sure to invite yourself to each homework event. It takes about 4 weeks to build a habit, and about 12 to create a lifestyle in my experience, so aim for consistency!

2. Google Tasks is your second best friend

As I’m sure many parents can attest to, kids can find clever excuses to get out of simple tasks and chores. The above calendar system might start turning things around, but the ‘to dos’ of everyday life can somehow slip outside this New Calendar paradigm — Google tasks will help cover the gray area. Everything from “take out the garbage,” to “ask Ms. D for a paper extension,” and even “bring shoes for soccer” is fair game. Look for the blue circle with the white line through it on any Google. The key to this platform is setting reminders and notifications. First, make sure the app is installed on your child’s cell phone (preferably), with notifications set to “On.” As you work through planning your kid’s week, setting up certain reminders to sound at specific times will really help your student take responsibility for the “little things,” which as we know, are really the big and important things in life. Since your child probably lives inside their phone, this is another way of giving them no excuses; they will see these reminders, and you can hold them responsible if they don’t follow through. My father is a big advocate for simple all encompassing to-do lists; when telling him about this article, he liked my approach, but wanted me to add that, for the more ‘analog’ students, there’s nothing like the satisfaction of crossing items off with a pen on a piece of paper. To each their own. 

3. Keeping students responsible for missing assignments 

Amongst all of my EF students, there’s one common trend: missing work. Due to the accessibility of  all student grades on school portals, parents can get an immediate view by checking the list of graded assignments for each class about once a week. For students who are in need of EF support, there are often many missing homeworks, failed quizzes, or pushed off papers, causing students to sometimes feel afraid to tell their parents, or even admit it to themselves. If your child is coming to you with poor grades and a bunch of mysterious explanations, you will know where to look.

Navigate to their school portal and look for a “Grades” or “Graded Assignments” section. You should then be able to find a breakdown for each class. If you can’t find it, ask your child to show you; they know where it is, but may play dumb. Go through each class with a discerning eye: homework, quizzes, tests, and papers with a mark below a 70 can often be retaken/rewritten for partial credit upon special request to a teacher. Use Google Tasks to make a comprehensive list of all the missing work and emails that need to be sent out; if the student needs to talk about a retake with the teacher in person, fine, but make sure to make a Google Task with an alarm to keep them on it, otherwise it will mysteriously never materialize. Some students are so deep in the hole that they will despair at the prospect of everything they have to accomplish; a very simple solution is to take away all phones, video games, etc. until these missing assignments are made up. Make sure that the student stays on the teacher, respectfully of course, to update the grade on the portal once resubmitted; this seems to be the last step that is often forgotten about, but is very important to triple check. 

4. Teach your kid how to write a “letter” format in an email

The average student in 2021 does not know how to send a proper email. When I have my EF students make their list of missing assignments to accomplish and a list of teachers to email, I usually monitor their drafts and help them phrase the wording. The results are terrifying: emails that don’t have a subject, a greeting of “hello” or “dear,” a nice first sentence like “I hope you are well with everything going on,” a proper signature, and most of all, a sincere thank you! If your child desperately needs some grace from a teacher on a few missing assignments, you’d think they’d know how to properly ask for it. They don’t. Their emails are curt, insincere, and, quite frankly, impolite. It’s not their fault — since they weren’t taught how to write a letter, they didn’t really learn email etiquette either. Students think messages can be written like a text, and they don’t understand that two sets of eyes from different generations can perceive the same line of text very differently.  Your child needs to realize that their teacher is a hero right now, so it’s helpful to remind them of that from time to time. Everyone appreciates being appreciated, so have your kids start with their teachers and make sure they write complete, courteous, and grateful emails!

5. When it all becomes too much, ask for help! 

These tips can definitely develop and improve your child’s EF skills, but let’s face it, sometimes you just don’t have the time. Many of my students’ parents have multiple children, jobs, and challenging home lives to manage all while dealing with a pandemic. This is where I, or any of the EF tutors at Carnegie Prep, can really be of service. Whether you want a weekly session or an occasional check in, Carnegie Prep has all of your EF tutoring covered. Feel free to call us at 203.352.3500 or email us [email protected] to find out more about our success stories and how we can help your child learn the tools to succeed.