Summer Assignment Tips for Students with Executive Function Challenges

Diana Cohen
July 12, 2022
min read
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Summer assignments are a perfect storm for students who have executive function challenges.

Summer work is, by nature, long-term work. The assignments get sent home in June when school is out and aren’t due until August or September. This months-long gap makes it hard for students to adequately plan their work. In the case of summer, the months-long gap is often filled with worthy distractions, like travel, camps, summer jobs, and free time. (Yes, free time is and should still be a thing, especially in the summer.)

With all this in mind, it’s not hard to see why summer assignments present a veritable gauntlet for students with executive function challenges. Take a student who is not a natural planner or needs extra help prioritizing, and then give them work that’s not due for three months and can only be done at the expense of precious time with friends and family. We know where this is headed.

Or do we?

While the challenge of summer work is very real, the strategies to make it less challenging are equally real. So, while getting your student to complete their summer work might never be “easy” it certainly need not end in late night tears or unfinished work come September.

Step 1: Break the work into parts

The real enemy here is not the work. It’s the fact that the work lacks urgency or concrete structure. August and September feel ages away and it’s pretty hard to imagine what that finished essay will look like, anyway. (Or how an entire 30-page packet of math work will ever get done.)

This is where “chunking” the work is incredibly helpful. If your student struggles with EF skills, this is probably something they’ll need you to coach them through, but they can do it. And they’ll get even better at it with practice.

Have your student review each assignment and make a list of every big thing they have to do. Once they’ve listed the major things they have to do, you can coach them to break things down even further. “Write my English essay” might become, “Outline my essay, do a first draft, and then revise it.” The more specific, the better! Math problems can be broken down into a certain number that feels manageable to your students in a single sitting.

Step 2: Assign due dates to the parts

Now that you’ve helped your student turn their big assignments into actionable lists of tasks, they can assign specific deadlines for each task. It often helps to work backwards from the last step. If the final draft of the essay has to be uploaded by August 26, each step should work back from there, with revisions perhaps happening the week before that, and a first draft two weeks before that.

Again, this is an area where students with EF challenges will likely need extra support and coaching, and that’s ok. The goal is to try to gauge how much they can flex this muscle on their own and then provide just the right touch of support where they need it.

Perhaps your student can independently list out all the due dates, for example, but could benefit from some reality testing. “Do you think you’ll want to take a break between finishing the first draft and starting your revisions?” “How long does it typically take you to write an essay of this length?” Ask probing questions that will help them reflect on and improve their own plan

Step 3: Make the plan concrete and visible

The truth is that steps 1 and 2 have already gone a long way toward making your student’s summer work more concrete and structured. But even the best plans aren’t likely to get implemented without a system.

Students with EF challenges often find it hard to envision all the steps over time that they’ll need to take to get to their goal. Digital tools help in some ways but can be a hindrance in others. If your student has marked all their due dates in a Google calendar, for example, they might only get reminders about each deadline a few minutes before it’s due.

Imagine your student forgot that they’d set aside three hours one day to draft their essay and then first gets a reminder that it’s time to do it when they’re already out for the day with friends. Best laid plans, right?

Desk-sizes or wall-sized paper (yes, paper!) calendars can help turn plans into action. Using post-it notes, your student can put their various due dates on the calendar and then leave the calendar out somewhere visible, perhaps on the fridge or the wall in their room. The visual result helps them see both the big picture, and all the steps involved. And the post-its make it easy for them to adjust things if they identify a needed change in the plan.

Easy as 1-2-3?

Last we checked, summer work isn’t high on any student’s list. So, even with smart strategies, students with EF challenges may find that getting their summer work done on time is a struggle. The important thing to remember is that things can get easier and more manageable with time and skill-building. Even if the results aren’t perfect, there’s inherent value in coaching your student through the planning process or setting them up with an Executive Function Coach who can help.

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