How to do an Executive Function Reset This Summer
For parents and students alike, summer provides a much-needed break from the logistical gymnastics of the school year. Students with weaker execution function skills (like planning, organization, and time management), are often most in need of a reset by June. Now that the reset is here, don’t let it go to waste. Use these slower, lower-stakes months to build your student’s executive function muscles while their mind gets a break from school. Here are a few ways parents can make executive function skill-building a natural part of summer.
Shhh … even summer has goals.
Your student probably has a few things they want to do this summer. These things may not seem remotely academic — like watching every Star Wars film before Andor is released, or planning a trip with friends to see BTS in concert — and that’s OK.
All that matters is that your student has things they want to do sometime between now and when school starts, and that creates an entry point for you to have a conversation about their goals for the summer.
The word “goals” need not enter the conversation. Instead, focus on asking your student what they’re excited about for the summer, and what they want to do with their free time. If they express an interest in doing something, that’s a goal that you can support them in defining and achieving.
The content of the goal is less important than the conversation it’s allowing you and your student to have. In that conversation, your student is taking time, with your support, to reflect on how they want to use their summer months, and then identifying some specific goals that motivate them.
Once you have goals that your student has generated, you have engagement, a spark of motivation, and some great raw materials for building other executive function skills like planning and time management.
A Star Wars movie marathon can be broken down into total hours of viewing time, and then scheduled around other commitments like a summer job and coordinated to include other family members or friends who want to join in. Concert tickets require a plan to save and will possibly require your student to skip some smaller expenses like Starbucks.
Helping your student achieve a summer “goal” can be a huge win. They get to do something they’re excited about and you get to support them as they work towards it, all while building important executive function skills.
Traveling this summer?
If your student is headed out of town this summer, whether they’re off to camp or joining the entire family for a week at the beach, you have the perfect opportunity to work in some executive function skill-building.
Packing for a trip is a great executive skills exercise. It requires you to think ahead, envision where you’ll be, and set aside what you’ll need while you’re there. Encourage your student to go through this exercise a few days before that family beach trip and write a packing list. They can set the list aside, review it the next day to see if they missed anything and then start gathering and organizing everything they will need.
Some camps and teen programs provide packing lists, but even these can be used for skill-building. Have your student review the list, make note of what they already have, and make a plan to get anything else they don’t yet have before they leave.
Planning a day or more of a family trip is another great way to build executive skills. You can provide the structure to assure the day’s plans still meet your family’s needs while giving your students a chance to engage in some real-world problem solving: “While we’re at the beach, we want to take one day to do a marine biology boat tour. Can you take a look at this brochure and figure out which day we should do it? Then you can pick a lunch place for us to all go afterward.”
Self-management is one of the most important executive function skills but it often gets overlooked. Students need to learn to regulate their emotions, manage their anxiety, and take care of themselves to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
The problem is that the good habits required to build these skills are hard to implement during the busy school year. If journaling for five minutes every day helps your student avoid feeling overwhelmed but they’re not in the habit of doing it, they won’t be able to first add it to their routine during midterms. That’s why summer is the perfect time to experiment with self-care routines and make the best ones habitual.
All of these ideas may sound like simple tasks — asking our students to identify their own ideas for the summer, pack their suitcase, or try some new self-care rituals — but, in fact, each of these actions is packed with important executive function skills.
In the frenetic lives that most families lead today, students don’t often get the opportunity to engage in these “simple” but powerful tasks that help them as they build the muscles needed to be successful in school and life.
The part that’s not simple, in many cases, is getting students to engage in these tasks merely because a parent asked. Often, someone who’s not the parent can make more headway and that’s where our Executive Function Coaches come in. We’re here to help you and your student make the most of this summer.