“Mom! Where’s my book?” “I can’t find my homework!” “Help me, Mom! My project is due tomorrow and I haven’t started it yet.” – Sound familiar? What about this scenario: You’re once again running late for an appointment. You have no idea where the time went, let alone your keys, your purse, and that paperwork that must be turned in today. You blame it on pregnancy brain, but then you remember your youngest is five, and that excuse no loner flies.
This is all related to something called Executive Function. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child says, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”
We are not born with these skills already in place. However, they can be developed through example and training. You may notice that your child has a natural gift for organization, and that is great! However, most of these skills will need to be cultivated and taught over time. Whether you homeschool or not, your student can benefit from training in this area.
Having structure and routine allows kids to develop a rhythm in their day; and they learn what to expect and how to plan for it. It helps to also develop independence as the student learns to complete daily chores and tasks on his own. You don’t have to structure every second of the day, there should still be free time and choices. Having some form of schedule helps kids learn time-management and how to complete a task on time. The schedule should be written down, or in pictorial form for younger students.
Older students, particularly those in middle and high school, benefit greatly from learning how to manage their time, keep a schedule, and set goals. Complex assignments, or long-term projects require the student to break down the process into small, achievable steps to complete it by its due date. This prevents students from resorting to “cramming” sessions one or two days before the assignment is due. This requires a lot of training through practicing together until they have demonstrated proficiency. Do not expect even a high school age student to be able to stay on task all day, manage their time well every day, or complete every task without prompting. This is where routines and structure help build habits; and encouragement is key to prevent frustration. No matter the age, goal setting, both short and long-term, should be practiced regularly. It could be related to a test score, a grade, and number of books to read, a physical ability, anything! Guide your student through the goal setting process and the steps they will need to take to accomplish it. And don’t forget to celebrate when they reach their goal!
Another way we can help our students in their development of these skills is to model and provide organization of schoolwork and materials. Orderliness in the work environment helps students be able to better focus. If students know where to find the things they need, it cuts down on wasted time and distractions throughout the day. By requiring students to maintain this organization, they are developing their own skills in this area. Some students come by it easily, while others struggle with getting a single sheet of paper anywhere near the section it belongs. Create notebooks with clearly labeled sections; provide storage for books, pencils, paper and other required supplies. Color-coding can help students distinguish between subjects, or time periods, or whatever you are wanting organize.
Investing time and training into the development of executive function skills will always be worth your time. Use these basic concepts to build a homeschool program that educates and equips!
The Harvard Center for Child Development is an excellent resource for more information on this topic. http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/executive-function/