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Quick Guide: Teaching Executive Functioning to High School Students

Many students’ transition to high school can be difficult, especially if they don’t have the necessary executive functioning skills. According to a 2010 study on academic vulnerability and resilience during the transition to high school, 

“The transition to high school is a critical stage in students’ academic trajectories and can be especially difficult for middle school students who struggle academically. Starting high school on a low academic track and with low academic performance often leads to dropping out of high school.”

The pressures of high school academics can be overwhelming for students that already struggle with handling school assignments, projects, and preparing for assessments. In addition, as students prepare for college, it’s crucial to have a system in place to thrive academically. That’s why executive functioning coaching is crucial for high school students. 

At Effective Students, we’ve seen the importance of this coaching first-hand by working with high school students to give them the framework they need to be prepared for college. We do this by teaching students a process and giving them the space and time to practice, leading to skills and independence. 

Want to learn more? Because we’ve done so much work with executive functioning coaching, we wanted to make a guide breaking down the benefits and how it works for students. Read this guide to learn more about what your high school student can get from coaching! 

Defining Executive Functioning 

While executive functioning sounds complicated if you’re unfamiliar, it is a fundamental skill. As Harvard University defines it, executive functioning allows you to “plan ahead and meet goals, display self-control, follow multiple-step directions even when interrupted, and stay focused despite distractions.” It is also often paired with self-regulation, which describes your ability to control how you respond to emotions and situations. Students with ADHD often struggle with both things, but ultimately, executive functioning is a learned skill— so all students can benefit from it. 

Two black students diligently collaborating on their homework, demonstrating teamwork and commitment to their academic growth.

At Effective Students, we go deeper into the definition of executive functioning. For us, executive functioning skills fall into two categories: 

  • Academic Management Skills– This involves planning ahead, meeting goals, and following directions in a sequence to complete class assignments. Students with these skills can also apply what they’ve learned.  
  • Social-Emotional Skills– This skill set is more related to how students respond to outside stimuli. This is about staying focused, managing your emotional response to stressors, and self-regulation. 

Both of these groups of skills make up the umbrella of executive functioning and set students up for success. For high school students, having executive functioning skills can be the difference between success and frustration, between getting paralyzed by tasks or being able to get things done one step at a time. If a student has executive dysfunction, no matter how exceptional or passionate they are about the subject, they can struggle to evaluate resources, complete tasks, maintain focus, and complete work efficiently.

That’s why it is important to prioritize ensuring students acquire these skills. While students can learn the frameworks associated with academic management and social-emotional skills, they’re typically not taught in the classroom. In addition, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students may have lost the opportunity to develop the executive functioning skills they need,  especially in the absence of a consistent structure of a classroom. 

With the proper lessons and supportive coaching, students can develop executive functioning skills to successfully respond to the pressures of high school and skill sets like prioritizing, starting, and completing tasks. This will ultimately set them up for success and allow them to thrive in high school and beyond.

Executive Functioning Skills in High School

High school has unique stressors for students, as many are also starting to think about their college decision down the line. In addition to being in a new environment, students also may be taking more rigorous classes and balancing extracurriculars. While more challenging courses and engaging after school activities look great on a college application, it can be a recipe for an overwhelmed student. This is especially true if they haven’t already developed the executive functioning skills they need to thrive in high school. 

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To help high school students meet the unique challenges they’re facing, our coaches teach three critical skills: 

  • Working Memory– This is holding information in your brain while adding more information. Essentially, this is what allows you to combine two parts to solve a problem. With this skill, you can manage tasks and understand expectations.  Students who struggle with Working Memory can overcome this challenge with specialized instruction. 
  • Flexibility– This skill is related to flexible thinking, which allows you to make changes comfortably, even in your thoughts. This will enable students to adjust their approach to learning or solving a problem without feeling overwhelmed. 
  • Self Control– This skill helps students learn to think before acting and build focus skills. By building self-control, you can set aside time to work on your academics without getting distracted. This skill also pairs with self-monitoring, in which you can be aware of yourself, your emotions, and your performance. By understanding yourself and your current position or state, you can better understand your needs and are aware enough to balance them with your responsibilities. 

Beyond these core skills, our executive functioning coaches also teach vital skills like time management, sustained attention, task initiation, and stress tolerance.  By building emotional-social and academic management skills, students learn to manage all of their classes, extracurriculars, and after-school jobs without feeling overwhelmed. By focusing on emotional and challenging academic skills, students can have the toolbox that they need to succeed. These core skills, such as building organization, time management, study skills, and test analysis, create the framework for success. 

Together,  these skills equip high school students to balance their workload and thrive in their environment. In addition, if your student struggles to recover from distance learning, an academic coach can help with structure, accountability, encouragement, and learning guidelines. Providing these frameworks will help your student re-learn the skills they lost or missed. 

What Executive Functioning Coaching For High School Looks Like

While knowing what skills your high school student needs is important, they also need the right process to learn executive function effectively. 

An African American high school student confidently reading her essay aloud to the class, showcasing her communication skills and academic prowess.

At Effective Students, our team of successful professionals, educators, counselors, and graduate students imparts skills to a younger generation of students focusing on building academic grit. Using the Effective Student™ method, students work with coaches in one-on-one coaching sessions to learn core executive functioning skills. 

When students and parents join the initial consultation, we discuss what to expect from an Effective Student Certified Coach, how to partner with a coach for student success, and answer questions. Students complete an initial self-evaluation to determine their level of self-awareness and current functioning. Parents share observations, concerns, and goals for coaching sessions and student outcomes. This initial session allows us to set goals and determine the process a student will likely follow. 

Coaching begins with an introduction that explains executive functioning and learning and to understand what the student wants to get out of the coaching process. Students are invited into the methodology rather than kept in the dark, becoming partners in their success. By understanding the learning approaches and the reasoning behind why our frameworks are effective, they understand expectations of themselves, their coach, and how to self-monitor and progress. Focusing on the pillars of organization, time management, and study skills, students can put the lessons into practice as they navigate high school. The coaching includes interactive lessons, instructional videos, exercises, quizzes, online materials, and a pacing guide for parents and students. 

At Effective Students, we break down coaching into four stages: 

  1. Coaching Begins– The student meets with the coach weekly, or more often if needed, to implement steps to build executive functioning skills and learn processes to follow. 
  2. Parent Feedback– The parent provides feedback about independence at come. The coach incorporates this feedback into lessons. They also assign the student one or two goals to try. 
  3. Refined Problem Solving– Students refine specific study activities to improve test performance. They also continue metacognitive activities and process independence. At this stage, the student leads more sessions. 
  4. Move to Independence– Students start moving towards increased independence and the use of executive functioning skills. Support is faded by frequency, or the student transfers to a small group and returns to coaching during transitions. 

With the skills learned across all of these stages, students can stay more on top of their classes and experience less stress, and support for independence prepares them for college and how to self-advocate in that environment. 

Ready to Try Executive Functioning Coaching with Effective Students?

Of course, this is a broad overview of the importance of executive functioning coaching for high school students and a snapshot of our process. While it can be daunting to go through the process, choosing a partner like Effective Students makes the path toward well-developed executive functioning skills more straightforward. If you’re ready to start considering coaching for your student, we’d be happy to discuss this further. 

At Effective Students, we’ve created engaging courses and insightful programs that help students develop a robust skill set of executive functions, leading to long-term success. 

While our one-on-one coaching sessions are recommended for building executive functioning skills for high school students, we also have the Effective Student™ course. This course teaches some of the essential skills our coaches teach. If you’re ready to find the right option for you, contact our team to learn more.

© 2023 Effective Students by W3 Connections Inc.