2 Best Ways to Help Mid-Pandemic Students

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The back-to-school section at Target is nearly gone. The notebooks are on clearance, making room for Halloween decorations. School is back in session. The news right now, in September 2021, is filled with stories of teacher burn out and students acting out. While some may blame kids, the pandemic, or teachers (please, don’t do this!), I have a different perspective to offer you.

Our kids aren’t being terrible humans; they’re struggling with the executive functions that school—and the transition from home to the school building—has demanded.

I imagine it’s been a bit of a transition for you and your family. The morning routine, the “hey mom, can you bring me my folder that I left on the table” texts, the after school pick-up traffic where you’re exhausting your self-control to inhibit yelling at other dumbdumb drivers. You might even be wondering why you longed for these moments, back when your kids were studenting from home?

Transitions are rough. They require brain and task switching that takes lots of energy. Transitions expose areas of weakness and add to stress. They are tough for everyone. But, for someone with EF needs, transitions can be especially challenging.

When we think of the 3 branches of the “Executive Function Tree,” we remember that they are “future skills,” “self-management,” and “learning and memory.” All three main branches and their related leaves (those smaller skills connected to them) are impacted when life has a major change.

Executive Functions fall into 3 main branches: Future Skills, Self-Management, and Learning & Memory

For our kids returning to school, their EF skills are in high demand. Their “future skills,” like planning, prioritizing, and organizing are necessary to get their required materials to and from school (a requisite skill behind those is even knowing what you might need or that there are patterns to your schedule!). Your kid is going to need to prioritize time and tasks, now that there is more demand for their time, in longer school days and some social opportunities. Organizing will also float them through the transition back to school. Do your things, digital space, thoughts, and time have patterns to follow? Do you have a system so you don’t spend time each day finding the exact same things?

Team, I only just dove into one branch of our 3-branched EF tree. And, this just scratched the surface. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a minute to reflect. You’re only considering needing these skills; imagine being a kid returning to school, whose teachers expect these skills to be in place (and possibly get frustrated with your kid if the skills are missing).

Let’s stretch your perspective once more, so your brain is less anxious and you’re better able to access the “thinking” part of your mind: you don’t have to “fix” all of this at once. Listening and thinking here is a great first step. It’s the only step you need to take right now. Soak up and appreciate the full menu of skills that are asked of your child. The pressing issues may jump out at you, and when they do, jot them down. You’ll always have time to address the others later. Your job is to listen and reflect. I’ve got some strategies for you after that!

Let’s move to the “self-management” branch of the EF Tree. Our kids became in charge of their school experience, in large part, when schools went online. That meant quite a bit of freedom in how they used their time and attention. As a teacher, I know for certain that most of my students, at one point or another, were drawn away from their screen by something more fun than my talking head. I get it. Their brains reward distraction with those “good feeling” brain juices, like Dopamine, and I often just couldn’t compete.

Kids also simply didn’t have as many hours during which they were made to sit in a desk—let alone do so without talking for 90 minutes. The transition back to “studenting” quietly will be especially hard for our team of kids. If you had an idea during distance learning, you could often type it in the chat or say it to someone in your household, while you “muted” your mic. Now, students have to be their own mute buttons, manage to “look” like they’re paying attention, self-regulate to be awake enough but not too hyper, and use strategies to monitor the emotions they experience.

They’re struggling with this, and that can look lots of different ways. Some kids are running on too-low energy, struggling to increase their stamina levels and boredom tolerance. (Sorry, even the very best teachers can’t pace perfectly to keep boredom from happening). Other kids are running on too-high energy. They’re not doing well with the sit-still and be quiet demands of school and are pretending to need to use the bathroom every class, just to get a chance to stand…or, they’re getting kicked out of class (often a little bit on purpose) so they can make space to get their energy out with a conflict with the teacher, the long walk to the office, or the time spent in “naughty kid club” in detention.

That last branch of the Executive Function Tree is also bending under the weight of classroom demands. Learning and memory reflect a set of skills, and those skills are often not taught directly, even in the best of times.

 Side note: teachers often share privately their frustration that the school “system” isn’t set up to allow us to use research on learning and memory. For example, if we know that memory is best solidified with lots of practice and thought, then it would follow that we’d go for depth in our curriculum, providing multiple opportunities to practice and grow before moving on to something new. But, you’ve seen the homework come home. Math units are over in a week or two, scooting students into new topics regardless of mastery of the previous ones.

In mid-pandemic classrooms like ours in September 2021, we’re observing learning and memory skill deficits with heightened alarm.

In short, students are showing up with the “studenting” skills of about 2 years behind their actual grades. They show up in 7th grade bodies, for example, but have the learning, memory, (and other executive functions) of a 5th grader at best. For our kids with EF deficits, this has always been; it’s common for kids with ADHD, for example, to have a 2-3 year gap in their skill sets vs their academic skills and grade level. In some ways, this could be a great equalizer IF schools take the time to reflect and mindfully embed executive function-building strategies into their school cultures.

But, it’s currently a great stressor for teachers, confused when they look at 9th graders who respond as 7th graders; the visuals don’t match the behaviors, and the teachers’ skill sets are often not matching student needs.

Doom and gloom, team? No, not really. It can feel overwhelming to think about where we are. But, that’s just it. It is indeed where we are. And, like always, we can strategize the struggle.

The list of necessary skills is long, but the list of coordinating strategies is even longer. I can’t cover all of the strategies for current student needs in one show. But, I can do better than that. I can help YOU with the best strategies we can use to support our mid-pandemic students.

We Can Massage Our Perspectives

First, we need to get in and massage our perspectives a bit, as parents, teachers, and students. We’re rusty, and this journey is clunky. Some days are going to suck. They sucked before the pandemic at times, and they will suck after at times, too. We can expect life to dish out about 50-50 between pretty ok and pretty awful. That’s ok. We’ve just got to take on a baseline perspective that this sucks and it sucks differently than before covid.

If you need time to feel mad or sad about it, take the time. You can even keep those feelings playing softly in the background for a while…but you keep moving. You’ve got to sit with the awful, stick it in your pocket, and do the things you need to do anyway.

Here’s the way you keep moving: You ask questions of your challenge!

Challenges and problems have invisible questions attached to them. Questions that, when we reflect on them, can entice us into action, and action feels so much better than the mental paralysis of wallowing.

Let’s say your kid (or you) is struggling to remember items needed for the school (or work) day. For over a year, you didn’t leave the house much and you certainly didn’t need to bring tools like binders or ipads with you if you did leave. Now, you’re feeling stressed that you can’t seem to get it together; your kid’s teachers are reaching out to complain that your child forgot his ipad again and will have to do makeup work (double duty for a kid who’s already not a big fan of school). This is a problem. But, as with all problems, there are those invisible questions that can move your brain into an empowered state of wondering:

1. What could be causing or keeping this problem pattern?

2. What strategies could I try to improve this problem?

3. How will I remember to use the strategies and celebrate my success?

In terms of our example, what could be causing us to forget our needed items? This is important to consider because our next step, brainstorming strategies, relies on insights into what’s causing or keeping the problem.

I have a perfect illustration: two of my coaching clients are in a pickle. The mom is feeling upset that her son isn’t hauling the necessary items to and from school. This means missed opportunities to work at school and home, which is causing the schoolwork pile up, which is causing overwhelm and avoidance. I’ll stop there. You get it.

Now, when we explored why he was not bringing the needed items to school, it turns out his environment and use of time supporting this pattern; he would play on his phone from wake-up time until 10 minutes before he needed to leave. Pressed for time, he’d rush to dress, eat, and wildly shove things into his backpack before whirling out of the door to the soundtrack of his mom’s yelling. One time, no joke, he accidentally packed an accounting professional magazine and the dog’s brush in his rush to gather his school stuff. His use of time was the main thing causing the issue. He actually had a list of things to pack, and at one time (pre cell phone) would use it successfully to pack his bag.

So, the issue wasn’t knowing what to pack; instead, it was giving himself enough time to use the list. If my strategy was to give him another packing list, maybe digital this time, it wouldn’t have had much effect because it didn’t address the real cause.

When we brainstormed strategies, he volunteered that he’d like his mom to hold his phone until his bag was packed and he was ready for the day. To his surprise, he still had some time to play on his phone before school…and as a bonus, he now has time in the evenings to enjoy a life because he’s finally able to do school and homework on time, his materials at hand! We had to explore the first question, what was supporting and causing the problem, before we could match a great strategy!

These three questions are hopeful and assume, rightly, that there IS a strategy that will work for you. You may not guess at the right one the first time. The first few you try may need adapting. That’s certainly no reason to give up or assume you’ll never get there. It’s just proof that owning a brain is hard work!

When you ask questions and feel curious, the natural reaction in your brain is to think of solutions. Your brain doesn’t like lose ends and hates to feel wrong. Don’t accept, “I don’t know” from your kid or your own brain. Keep pushing and maybe rewording or getting more specific in your questions. Your brain will grow tired of pushing back and will give you something.

Solutions feel better than hopelessness. Even if you’re not sure they’ll work or can’t yet visualize their actualization. Questioning your challenges will help you see them in new light and help you open up to strategies. It’s the key to  getting through the noise about how much today’s schools are struggling.

Try it this week: Massage your perspective by owning that it sucks and then ask questions of the problem you’d like to solve.

1. What could be causing or keeping this problem pattern?

2. What strategies could I try to improve this problem?

3. How will I remember to use the strategies and celebrate my success?

Time for this week’s pep talk:

Hey, kid!

Back to the school building, yeah? I imagine it’s like lots of stuff in life: a mix of awesome and terrible, with a baseline of boring have-to’s hanging out in the back of your brain. Not to worry, though. You got this!

Today, your grown up got a little taste of the long, long list of things you’re working on at school. No, not solving equations with variables, but, instead all the invisible studenting you do behind the scenes, like packing your backpack and dealing with boring times. They’ve got a better understanding of why your brain is so tired at the end of each day, and they’ve got a new perspective to bring to you:

This year only sucks differently, but not necessarily more. Last year was hard because we schooled from home. Now that we’re at school, we’re realizing that not everything about school is amazing. Taking roll is mostly boring. Walking quietly in a hall in something you probably didn’t miss when we were home last school year.

School has sucky parts about it. Trying to stay safe during a pandemic is one of them this year, too. But, not all is bad or wrong. If you’re feeling down or upset sometimes, you’re doing it right. No one’s life is without struggle. In fact, it’d be pretty boring if you were never challenged, never trying to level up in one way or another, no?

Your grown up also learned a way to make problems less overwhelming, and that is to ask questions. Problems have invisible questions built into them. When you face a challenge, you can ask yourself 3 things:

1. What could be causing or keeping this problem?

2. What strategies could I try to improve this problem?

3. How will I remember to use the strategies and celebrate my success?

Think about it, you have to first ask a question to understand the problem. Then, you have to match a strategy to what you understand. Then, you have to try the strategy and celebrate when things go right! Asking questions when you face a challenge will help you feel less overwhelmed and more in control. It will give you something to do about whatever you’re facing, and action feels a lot better than immobilized worry.

So, this week, think of something that’s challenging you and ask yourself

1. What could be causing or keeping this problem pattern?

2. What strategies could I try to improve this problem?

3. How will I remember to use the strategies and celebrate my success?

You may be surprised how quickly you brain goes from mopey to detective mode!

I’m proud of you kid! Sending you all my love!