This post discusses the importance of focusing on developing executive function in middle school students.
As a high school learning skills teacher and mom of a middle schooler, I essentially work 24/7 on helping students with their executive functioning. Daily, I try to empower students to be independent learners and owners of their daily lives.
This, of course, comes with weekly mistakes, but it’s important to remember that mistakes are both normal and vital to growth.
Note: you may also like to read our three-part series on executive functioning in teens. Go here to see the first article: What Are Executive Function Skills and Why Do Teens Struggle With Them?
What is executive functioning and why is it important to middle school students?
What exactly is executive functioning, though? As Rachel Ehmke from The Child Mind Institute says, “Executive functions are the essential self-regulating skills that we all use every day to plan, organize, make decisions, and learn from past mistakes. Kids rely on their executive functions for everything from taking a shower to packing a backpack or doing a book report.”
So, if you’re a parent of a middle schooler, you know there is so much growth that occurs during this time.
But staying patient with your middle schooler during these enormous developmental years isn’t easy. Just last month, my son came home after school stating that he left his lunch box at school. Then, about twenty minutes later, we were midway to his soccer practice when he announced that he forgot his cleats.
Let’s just say I took many deep breaths (so many deep breaths). At the end of the day, he wasn’t late for practice, and he was able to get his lunch box the next day (which he remembered). Growth, right?
Kids aren’t born with executive functioning skills, but neuroscience research has shown us that the human brain is moldable 一 especially for children and teens. Our brains can be rewired and transformed to develop certain skills with practice and repetition–a concept that’s referred to as neuroplasticity.
Students will have a lot of opportunities to develop executive function in middle school. In a perfect world, your adolescent will have these skilled modeled at home and the classroom, but where should parents start?
You may also want to read: Signs Your Teen May Be Suffering from a Lack of Executive Functioning Skills
9 ways parents of middle schoolers can help develop executive function skills.
There’s a lot going on in that developing adolescent brain during middle school. It can all be very distracting and overwhelming. Plus, all of a sudden, their independence and responsibilities quadruple.
Their executive functioning skills will inevitably lapse at times. Luckily, there’s a lot we can do as parents to guide them through this transitional period in addition to the activities many teachers do in the classroom.
1. Applaud Growth
Try to praise when you see growth. Just like when we were in middle school, it’s easy for adults to pinpoint all of the negative behaviors we’re doing, so it’s vital to applaud our tweens when we see them do even the little things right—like simply remembering their lunch box. Look for other opportunities to acknowledge what your child is doing right to affirm executive function in middle school development, such as getting up on their own, getting their backpack organized, or remembering to do their chores without being asked.
Teaching our middle schoolers how to advocate and communicate is crucial for success. So, if let’s say, Grandma is in the hospital and your child needs more time to finish their essay for English, encourage them to communicate that information with their teacher. Trust me, their teacher will appreciate it, and it will be a skill they’ll need in college and beyond. (You may also like to read: Five Simple Ways to Teach Your Teen How to Self-Advocate)
Slowing down is imperative when learning to have strong executive functioning. Since our soccer practice blunder, I now ask my son to simply pause and go over his mental checklist of everything he needs before we head out the door. The brain of an early adolescent is going at roller coaster speed, so pausing is a must so they have time to compose themselves and focus.
4. Write it Down
Okay, I will give you some words of wisdom here—never say the word “planner” to your tween or teen. I mean it. They will scoff, eye roll, and give you a giant mouthful of “That’s so dumb.”
Instead, model your own use of checklists for organization. From here, you can ask them just to get out some paper to write down what they need to do and remember for the week. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll actually use an actual planner or other organizational tool on their own.
Big picture: they need to be the ones coming up with how they will write tasks down. (Also read: 5 Amazing Organizational Apps for Teens)
Sometimes homework and other activities start piling up in middle school, so students need to start prioritizing what do first—including their social life. This is where firm boundaries come in on your part.
In our home, for example, it’s a hard no to Fortnite before homework rule. We don’t just throw down the rules, though; we have a discussion with our middle schooler about what they think they should prioritize. Developing executive function in middle school can often be about guiding them instead of mandating. (Also read: The One Phrase You Need to Help Your Child Succeed in Middle School)
Once you help your middle schooler prioritize, time management gets much easier. But one way you can help them even more is by teaching them to set alarms and reminders for simple things like waking up or reminders to start practicing their violin. Another easy tool is to put everyone’s schedule on a large family calendar where everyone can see. Visuals help those of all ages, especially middle schoolers.
7. Habits and Routines
Let’s get back to the much-hated planner (their words, not mine). One reason students despise the planner is because they claim they don’t need it due to their online gradebook. Almost all schools and teachers update their assignments daily, so to students, this serves as their reminder to complete tasks. Therefore, getting middle schoolers to get into the habit of checking their online gradebook is just one way to build a healthy habit. They can also get into the routine of when and where they’re going to do their homework, practice their instrument, or anything else they need to fit in.
In middle school, students start getting longer assignments and projects. For example, they may have an extensive research paper to do. Typically, the teacher will help with chunking these types of longer projects, but it’s also helpful to check in with your middle schooler as well. You can casually ask them what their topic is or if you could read their rough draft. It helps you stay connected with your child’s education while also getting them to see how getting many small tasks done gets them to complete the whole task in the long run.
9. Let Them Try It Their Way
This one can feel tricky as parents, but it’s super important that we give middle schoolers agency.
Right now, my son is experimenting with his executive functioning. He’s practicing how to remember what he needs for the day, where to do his homework, how to set reminders, and much more. So, as his parent, I’m learning when to shut my mouth (like when he listens to music during homework) and when to suggest a new way to tackle that skill (like using checklists instead of winging it). It’s a tough tango, but practice helps.