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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. 

A bearded white male teacher actively instructing students using a computer monitor, facilitating a technology-enhanced learning experience.

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.

how to develop study skills with effective students

Study Skills Curriculum: Improving Learning Skills & Executive Functioning

Education is only as good as a student’s capacity to learn—with this principle in mind, there is simply no understating the importance of learning how to improve learning skills from a young age.

As you’ll discover, developing curiosity that can lead to research skills for students of all ages starts with building the right foundation. Whether you’re a parent or an educator, here’s how to get started and where Effective Students can help.

Study Skills for Elementary Students

The most important elementary study skills are those that build the foundation for future progress in education.  As with all students, science has taught us that content retention improves when students use multi-sensory practice coupled with retrieval practice.  In simpler terms, that means students are actively engaged in writing material and typing if they struggle with dysgraphia (a learning disability that affects the ability of a learner to write).  Engaging students in this process of thinking about their thinking is called ‘metacognition’.  We like to position it as ‘how quickly can you get the information to stick?’.  From the student’s point of view, this is how to make learning a game. 

Essential Study Skill: Retrieval Practice

Let’s break down a bit further with our first essential learning skill, retrieval practice.  According to an official source from the Institute of Education Sciences, “Retrieval practice is a strategy in which bringing information to mind enhances and boosts learning. Deliberately recalling information forces us to pull our knowledge “out” and examine what we know.”  As an example, a student is likely to absorb the material better when they recall the information as opposed to skimming over the material in a textbook or even their notes—this is what makes study strategies like flashcards particularly effective. When spaced out over time, retrieval practice makes content stick faster than re-exposure to the same material because typical re-exposure is the same thing as ‘reviewing’.  

So, why don’t students utilize retrieval practice more often?  Usually for two reasons: 1) they are not taught how or why and 2) it takes cognitive effort!!  When younger students learn that self-testing is a core to ‘studying’, they are less apt to regress to ‘reviewing’ and calling it studying.

Fun study skills activities to develop retrieval practice

  • Spelling list practice where students challenge themselves to correct their own spelling mistakes
  • Math facts practice with apps on an iPad – the goal of each fact family under one minute
  • Building practice tests out of a study guide with peers 
  • Making an answer key to the study guide test
  • Making games or puzzles (like matching games) out of study guides
  • Quizlet games

Study Skills for Middle School 

As students get older and increasingly gain confidence with executive functions, essential study skills become more important and advanced.  With a proper foundation of strategies for executive functioning in place, students are more prepared to take on the challenges that come with more independent learning.  Here’s a quick overview on how to approach middle school study skills for later success.

Essential Study Skill: Self-Testing

Without a doubt, early study skills for teens and students around the time of middle school are predicated on their ability to optimize their time learning material with multi-sensory activities and perform self-testing and utilize study guides effectively.  Research has shown that self-testing is an essential tool for content retention as are multi-sensory learning activities, particularly for those kinesthetic learners.  Using study guides to generate a self-testing tool or practice test, helps the student identify what is important to learn and a tool for identifying what they don’t know so they understand where to focus their efforts.  

When using a tool like Quizlet, it helps to tailor the study guide to the material and personalize it to ensure it is compatible with your student’s preferred style of learning.  Additionally, creating an answer key within the study guide can really help the student understand the material and can improve retention during self-testing.  This is why when a student uses a tool like Quizlet, creating their own set, rather than just using another one they find, is important.  Ultimately, the effectiveness of a study guide is dependent upon the amount of effort involved to produce this important learning device, so your mileage may vary!  

Study Skills Needed for College

Students preparing to go to college are ready to handle more responsibilities when it comes to executive functioning.  More than ever, this is a time when students should prioritize improving their attention span and taking more control of their education—knowing the difference between studying and really “studying” is imperative.  The good news is that it’s not too late to create good habits—here’s how to get started. 

How to Improve Study Skills: Time Management, Structure, Self-Awareness & Self Advocacy 

In a year with so many learning challenges, students of all ages have really struggled—particularly those with ADHD.  

Why were ADHD students disproportionately affected by the migration to virtual learning?  Ultimately, many of these students are dynamic and kinesthetic learners—they improve their ability to attend and digest information by engaging in person and having a dialogue with teachers and peers.  

In the absence of in-person instruction and structure of attending class (synchronous vs asynchronous) and a schedule, students received a crash course in self and time management.  Some did well and others simply didn’t have the tools to be successful.  

Creating a visual support/calendar helps students see their time and tasks in one palace so they have a way to make decisions about where to spend their time without over-taxing their working memory.

Simply put, the best way to improve learning skills is for students to learn to test what works best for them in each class because each class may require a different strategy. This requires us (the adults) to be comfortable with experimentation.  By its nature, this process will have some successes and some failures but that is part of refining the process.  

In the book Think Again, by Adam Grant, one of the main points he makes is the importance of having the ability to think and then rethink how we do things—to understand the value of learning to see things more clearly and make changes to our approach.  There are those who learn by experimentation and those who learn by reading a manual.  Giving kids the freedom to learn which kind of learner they are can lead to greater autonomy.  

Improve Learning Skills and Executive Functioning With Effective Students

Educators must be intentional about how study skills are taught.  We once surveyed a group of 4th – 6th-grade teachers about who should teach study skills—each grade level said the previous grade level should be responsible for doing so!  To better equip teachers with a proven study skills curriculum, Effective Students provides a robust educational course and complete study skills and executive function curriculum with a systematic approach, so educators can better assist their students to experience success and instill the confidence to keep going!  

Effective Students provides study skills lesson plans, training workshops, instructional videos, student workbooks, decks for teacher-led instruction, handouts for parents, and quizzes to check for understanding. 


Executive Functioning Curriculum

Our team of executive function experts helps teachers make learning study skills fun for Middle, Elementary, and High School students. Through our courses, teachers will receive assistance from expertly trained skills learning and executive functioning coach, receive ongoing support from Effective Students teaching teams, and learn how to collaborate to provide better executive functioning instruction in as little as 15 minutes each week!  

Want to learn more?  Check out our summer workshops for educators.

© 2023 Effective Students by W3 Connections Inc.