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From Remote to In-Person…Executive Functioning Reboot

A favourite part of my day occurs when students knock on my door and want to give me an update of how they are feeling and what they are up to. The latest chatter was amusing: “I have to wake up so early, just to eat breakfast, get dressed and get here on time.” A peer responded with, “I know. It was so much easier when we could roll out of bed and stay in pajamas.” I chuckled, but could relate to how they were feeling. The morning routine of getting my own children dressed, fed, and out the door takes time and requires planning. 

Another student talked about all of the materials he must carry to Tanach and how it was so much easier when he sat at home in front of his computer. I shared how, when I was in Grade 6, I had a red backpack on wheels, because my books were so heavy! The students laughed.

A funny question raised was, “Why do we get homework on weekends? Weekends are mine. Teachers should only give work during the week.” It is quite common at this point in the year for students to become more aware of school demands and vocalize how they are feeling as they manage their various priorities.

Though these students’ remarks may at first seem disconnected, a commonality exists. 

Being an organized student requires executive functions. Due to the pandemic and remote learning, some of these skills are a little rusty. Executive functions (EF) are the cognitive processes that enable us to plan, focus attention and efficiently tackle multiple tasks with success. 

Just as a maestro conducts various musicians in an orchestra, simultaneously leading the pacing, speed, sound, and movements of various components of a production, the brain requires EF propensity to prioritize tasks, exercise self control and persevere. 

The pandemic caused us all to readjust our expectations and behaviours. The executive skills needed for future thinking and planning took a backseat. We got used to living in the here and now. Given the unpredictability and ever-changing world around us, planning into the future was difficult and sometimes impossible to do. We took a more laissez faire approach and accepted the fact that many plans would not take form. 

It isn’t surprising then, that many students currently feel out of practice when it comes to organization and the swift follow-through of plans. Children aren’t born with this inherent knowhow. Rather, they are born with the potential to develop mastery of executive functions. Like any skill, executive functions require practise, practise, and more practise. When placed in nurturing and growth-promoting environments, teachers and parents can help children acquire these skills to ensure that they feel more confident and in control of their learning. 

Depending on the task at hand, various approaches can be used to help children manage their responsibilities that require steps and follow through. Some strategies that parents can help their children with include: 

1. Making the school planner (or technological equivalent) part of the daily routine

Students should fill in homework at the end of a period and enter deadlines as soon as they hear of them. Students are encouraged to check their planner at the end of every day. 

2. Creating consolidated personalized calendars for school events, extra-curricular activities and school deadlines

A personal calendar should block off anything that routinely takes up time. This can include blocks of homework time, assignments deadlines, tests, family celebrations and simchas, theme days at school, extra-curricular activities and even TV routines. This allows students to have a more realistic view of when homework can be completed. When including a deadline, students can use backward-planning to add in a reminder a few days prior to ensure that nothing is forgotten.

3. Developing checklists to complete multiple-step tasks

We know that students experience great satisfaction when crossing off a step on a checklist and teachers assist students by breaking down tasks into smaller steps that can be checked off. Students can also create short checklists on Post-it notes to help keep organized.

4. Estimating the length of time to complete tasks

Students can get in the habit of estimating how long it will take to complete a task, so they have a more realistic view of what is involved. We can help students estimate how much time to set aside and when to move on to the next task.

Of course, each student is unique and a more personalized approach can be very helpful. In the younger grades, once we identify what is making a task stressful or difficult to complete, a child’s classroom teacher provides this type of support. In the Senior Division, the Mechanech/et provides tailored intervention. While initially, adults provide support to the students, this can gradually be relinquished as the child develops the skill and then, finally, can carry out the EF skill on their own.

As Parent Teacher Conferences approach, we would encourage you to share what you are seeing at home in addition to hearing how your child is doing in school. Together, we can assist your child/ren to become maestros, efficiently knowing what to do and how to do it.

Lauren Korzinstone

Senior Division Vice Principal

Viewmount Branch