ly for its spectacularly strange ending with distance learning. At every transition in time, it’s important to take a little while to reflect on what went wonky, what went right, and what we learned. This week on the podcast, we’re doing a review of the 2019-2020 school year and its indications for executive function.
We’ll start with the wonky, the things we didn’t expect, or thought would go differently.
First up, Independent Learning. Distance (or Remote) Learning asked students to maintain their school workloads at home, without teacher support or the study-friendly spaces that school provides. This put a lot of pressure on students’ executive function skills and challenged them to find supports on their own. To start, some students realized that they relied on the built-in prompts of the school day to help them initiate tasks. Some of our kids need visual prompts and reminders, like due dates written on the board, to help them keep track of what’s coming up. Others relied on seeing teachers in their schedule to support their systems of getting work started and turned in. Without the regularity of prompting, many of our students felt “fuzzy” about what was due, when, and how to prioritize their work.
Having lots of time available as “school hours” was helpful to some students, who shifted their at-home learning times to accommodate the teenage night owl tendencies. For others, though, having loose boundaries on time meant no external push to stay “on” or “off” task, so their brains chose fun over work. (Remember, this isn’t a reflection of their characters; our brains are programmed to seek fun things to give us the neurotransmitters we need to feel good and engaged with life.)
One unexpected challenge our kids faced was the shock of independent work after being in such collaborative school environments. Our classroom activities are often engineered to get our kids thinking and talking together—often this is part of the preparation and learning necessary to complete independent work or assessments. Yet, distance learning took away many of these opportunities to collaborate, leaving students feeling isolated and lost without the assist of their former learning partners.
Independent (aka Distance or Remote) Learning relied on the following executive functions:
- Task Initiation
- Organization (mental space, physical space, and digital space)
- Self-monitoring for staying on task at home
- Prioritizing (work vs play, which assignment first)
- Attention and Focus
- Emotional Regulation (especially when technology failed, which it did for everyone at some point)
A second wonky issue was too many platforms. There is so much amazing technology to support learning, but when each teacher chooses a different platform, app, or online learning tool, it can spell disaster for our kids! Many of my clients and students reported frustration that their teachers were using too many digital spaces. Teachers designed lessons on certain platforms, had students do learning and research on yet other platforms, had students create work on again more platforms, and had students return work through yet another digital space.
Here’s a real example. John (not his real name, because duh, I’m not going to out my kids or shame their teachers; this is just food for thought and the way we learn!) John received an email with an attachment for a PDF of Google Slides. He had to sign-in to his email account to get the message, and then he had to sign-in to his school google account to get the slides. Inside the slides, he found his work for the week. He needed to download a poem by clicking a link, then watch a video of a piece of writing in another link, which took him to a new website. (Notice that he’s having to keep track now of not only what to do, but where to find it…and he’s got the barrier of signing in for many of these tasks. Plus, when he’s taken to the new website, there’s a chance an ad or other content will steal his attention and pull him into the Internet Rabbit Hole). Once John had both the readings, he needed to download his Google Doc assignment, where he’d do his writing. He also needed to sign-in to his online reading account and complete 3 articles (after searching for the titles). If he didn’t pass the articles, he’d have to go back to the Google Slides and find the titles of his make up articles, then go back onto the reading website, sign- in again (and these passwords never match the district ones!) and try to find and pass the new articles. After John finished his Google Doc, he needed to share it with his teacher on Google Classroom, pressing “yes” two times to ensure he both attached his work and submitted it (the pressing “yes” twice is a surprisingly consistent hurdle for my kids!) Ok. I will stop there—even though that example covers ONE of John’s six classes—because I think you get the idea.
Now, imagine the tax on your attention and working memory to realize that teachers use DIFFERENT platforms and websites, many with different log ins and different means of interaction. The brain cardio required to even access the work was exhausting—and we haven’t even begun the actual work that will impact your actual grade.
Teachers had the absolute best of intentions when designing online learning for their kids. And, most of us had to do so very quickly while also balancing the stress and demands of sheltering in place. So, this isn’t a knock on my fellow teachers. But it is certainly worth consideration in terms of the executive function demands we put on our kids. We can use this lens to reflect on the “disengagement” schools complain about. I mean, if I had to run 12 miles just to get to my classroom, then jump over six desks, do a cartwheel, then make 3 baskets, I think I’d pretty likely to disengage at some point too.
The last bit of Wonkiness of distance learning is using supports without a plan to fade them out. This is where I will admit my own shortcomings. Not being physically present with my students made me realize just how much I relied on my being there for kids. And this isn’t a bad thing; it reflects my stubborn unwillingness to let anyone fail. I’m always, always looking for a way to teach better, to find a new support, to make it happen for a kid. But, in doing so, I was creating a wee bit of dependence because I didn’t have a fade plan for many of the supports. I didn’t stop to reflect on how a student could independently access the type of support they found helpful without me physically there. This was painfully obvious in my students with attention challenges. So many of them struggled to learn at home when they didn’t have my gentle prompts, attention-grabbing teaching styles, and brain breaks to support their focus. Their success with me is a very worthy and fulfilling goal. And I know there is not one of us who can go full-independent without needing some help at some times (hello? Anyone out there grow, harvest, and process their own grain to make bread? And repair their own cars? And deliver their own mail? Didn’t think so. Needing help is not a fail). So, none of us will ever be 100% independent, but we’ve got to do better at thinking of fading the supports when we put them in place. I have to think backwards in terms of what the supports will look like in later years of school, the workplace, and adulthood. On the positive side, distance learning gave our kids a chance to internalize and adjust some supports for themselves—because they absolutely had to. I’m talking with my kids to see what worked for them, so I can prioritize those strategies for future students.
So, what went right in 2019-2020’s school and coaching year?
Our kids learned to prioritize and play the to-do list game: The positive flip side of an unexpected challenge, such as switching to a school-from-home model overnight, is that it helps you find out what you’re made of. Many of my students and clients reflected that they grew from the challenge of distance learning. There were a few days they wanted to quit for sure. But, in all, many kids said they felt like they learned more about themselves as learners. A few kids set up new systems to organize, and many more reached out for help organizing. (It is true that the first step to improving yourself is realizing you need the help!)
Part of being under such new and stressful circumstances is that we’re forced to adapt, and sometimes great things come out of adaptations. My biggest example of this is my students’ improvements in prioritizing. They were able to often figure out what was worth the most points, and for which class they needed to focus, and they would start there. Some focused on their lowest grades, to bring them up. Others focused on the classes they were almost or just barely passing, to keep those grades safe. Their systems of prioritizing were different, but what was the same was their skill development. They didn’t wait for someone to tell them what to do. They listed assignments based on what they prioritized! I also saw students and clients figure out what didn’t matter much for their grades, moving those items to the bottom of their lists. This sounds like bad advice from a teacher (just saying “skip it” to some things), but think about your real life: if you and your family are hungry, but there’s also muddy shoe prints on the floor in the hall, you’re going to let the family go without food so you can clean, of course! Nope! You’re going to make a meal and either solicit help with the mud of be like Elsa and let it go. As adults, we absolutely use this advice and don’t do all the things other may think we should. So, this art of balancing is something we can teach our kids now. (Maybe they won’t feel so guilty about the lists that never end, if they learn how to write good and realistic lists).
We had time at home to learn how our kids learn and what they need: So many memes about teachers being saints! And, we are not. There are a lot of factors of the school social construct (the building, the principal, the classrooms, the schedule…) that enforce the teaching-and-learning routines. If you struggled to play teacher as your child’s parent, that’s because you’re human and the parent. You don’t have to replace teachers, even in distance learning. The great part of being a fly on the wall (a fly that sometimes has to remind the human child to work) while your child did school activities is you got to see first-hand the way your child learns. You got to see which subjects he did with ease and which he tried to avoid. You got to see some of the misconceptions and strengths. You maybe even got to try some adaptations that you’ve heard about but hadn’t asked your child to try yet.
For example, one of my clients is a first grader with attention issues and difficulty articulating his hand muscles. As you can imagine, writing is incredibly hard for him! Being at home gave him the chance to privately try using his voice to speak into his tablet, which wrote down his thoughts for him. He can also practice what he might say to a peer who asks what he’s doing and why. The more comfortable he is explaining it, the more likely he will be to not feel embarrassed and actually use the help in class. An extra bonus is he’ll also shut down any potential bullies because he won’t give them the emotional reaction they want from him, since he’s been practicing responses.
Another example is an eighth-grade student with dyslexia. He never wants to have his tablet read to him in class, again for fear of embarrassment. But at home, he embraced the support, and we explored ways to disguise the support (with ear buds) so his peers likely won’t notice at all. He’s much more comfortable with it because he was able to try it out with less pressure.
Now that parents have seen the demands of school, I think we’ll be coming at it from a more informed perspective. Teachers will also start next school year with a deeper appreciation of the home-school connection and will likely communicate a lot more consistently. We grow from our struggles!
We definitely don’t have it all figured out. I’ve spent more than fifteen years in the field and deeply diving into executive function, and I’m still learning every day. But, the important thing to remember is that at each transition, there is much to learn when we reflect on what went wonky, what went right, and what we learned. I’ll be interested to hear from you! Drop me an email at Sarah at sarah Kesty dot com or through Facebook or Twitter. I’m planning a bunch of new episodes and would love to do some listener Q&A!
Sending all my love to you!