Executive Function Strategies Are Hard Work

I have been teaching executive function strategies to students with ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning differences for what feels like a long time. In fact, it was my work with these students, who often struggle despite obvious strengths, that initially drew me to executive function. Working as the director of SMARTS has given me insight and access to a wide range of strategies and approaches I can use to empower my students to be strategic and engaged learners. SMARTS is an excellent program, and I have used it very successfully in my work. But today was not a victory.

When I got to work today, I had an email from a parent. “[My daughter] has an F in Biology.”

Perhaps this should not have been a surprise. Science is not her strongest subject, and ninth grade can be a very challenging year. We knew that, and we developed a number of strategies to address this. My student created a visual reminder to get her homework done each night, and we worked on a step-by-step approach to studying for tests (prioritizing what she doesn’t know, taking notes on the hard stuff, using active strategies). As she left my office a week ago, I was sure she would do well on her test. Clearly, she didn’t.

Where do we go from here? Are the strategies not working?

Executive function strategy instruction is hard work. We are asking students to do something that is often at the very edge of their developmental abilities. We ask them to track their time, to break down difficult tasks, to make plans — all things that do not come naturally to them at first. What’s more, we ask them to reflect on their experience and to learn from their mistakes instead of sweeping them into a corner and forgetting about them.

Sometimes the benefit of executive function strategies is not immediate. My student’s report card, though improving, may not reflect her goals. But I believe that the work we are doing to develop these strategies will stay with her for her entire academic and professional career. If she learns that, when the going gets rough, she needs to stop and make a plan, or, if she does not do well on a given task, she needs to evaluate what went wrong and change her approach, she will undoubtedly be a success in whatever she chooses to take on.

When my student comes to my office today, the first thing I will do is commiserate with her. Spending time studying for a test and then still getting an F does not feel good. But after we acknowledge how hard it is, and maybe eat some chocolate, we will get down to business.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director