Why is My Bright Student Struggling in School?

Jed Applerouth, PhD
March 8, 2021
min read
Why is My Bright Student Struggling in School?

At Applerouth we’ve been getting one particular phone call over and over again from parents: my bright student is not keeping up in school. In many cases, the student did well before starting middle or high school but the increased academic demands at the higher grade levels have thrown them off course. What’s keeping these bright kids from doing their best?

Executive Function Skills are an Important Piece of the Puzzle

While there are many reasons why students may start to fall behind in middle or high school, and it’s important to consult with your child’s school to get a complete picture, lagging executive function skills may be a contributing factor.

Academic challenges tend to increase each year: spelling tests and book reports become research projects; arithmetic becomes algebra and then calculus. The content becomes more challenging as does the process of staying on top of an increasing academic load. For many students, it’s the increasingly-demanding “process” side of school that’s getting in the way of their success. In higher grades, students have to juggle an increased number of academic subjects with more advanced materials, satisfy the specific requirements of each of their teachers, and manage assignments which demand more long-term planning and organization. Students may have inherited or created systems of organization and studying that worked very well in younger grades, but eventually begin to show weakness as educational demands increase.

It can be extremely puzzling (and downright frustrating) for parents to see their bright student struggle to get the work done efficiently, effectively - or at all. The thing is, when it comes to getting the work done in school (and in life), intelligence alone isn’t enough. Students also need strong executive functioning skills especially in middle and high school, which require a greater degree of self-regulation and independence with each passing year.

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning (EF) skills are what enable us to complete tasks effectively. These skills include attention regulation, cognitive flexibility, planning, organization, self-monitoring, impulse control, inhibition, motivation, task initiation and persistence. EF skills are essential for managing new situations and demands, and today’s students will likely face more novelty in their lives than any previous cohort.

EF skills develop throughout childhood, with development continuing into the teens and early adulthood. For some students, the demands of school outpace their still-developing EF skill set. This is an especially common scenario for students with learning differences, who often struggle with EF. In students with ADHD, certain elements of brain maturation can be delayed by 3 to 5 years compared to peers.

Helping Students Improve their Executive Function Skills

John Dewey, celebrated psychologist and educational philosopher, shared the powerful insight that “we do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” Teaching students to skillfully reflect on their experience, learn from their mistakes, and make modifications to their approach is essential when it comes to building EF skills.

There is no “ready made” solution for developing and enhancing executive function. There are tools and techniques such as schedules and checklists which can be helpful, but what works brilliantly for one individual may not work as well for another. We each need to come up with a system that will work for us, given our capacities, our challenges and our preferences. Students will need to have buy-in, a sense of ownership, before a proposed system becomes effective and engrained, leading to durable behavioral changes.

One of the most effective methods for assisting students develop critical Executive Functioning skills comes through a process of coaching. Coaching is distinct from direct instruction in many ways: it emphasizes inquiry -- focusing on asking over telling, curiosity without judgment or shame, and metacognition -- encouraging the student to develop a heightened level of awareness about their own thinking process, shortcomings and strengths. The focus is to build long-term capacities, the ability to operate more independently without adult support.

A coach is not going to replace the frontal cortex for a student and take over their tasks and responsibilities. Instead, the coach will hold space for the student and structure a conversation that will lead them to begin to think more critically, and with more sophistication, about their role as a student.

Asking the Right Questions

When a student’s academic systems fail or begin to break down, the key is to engage with curiosity, and ask non-judgmental questions to enhance that student’s self-awareness:

  • When you’re trying to do your homework, what part feels most difficult?
  • What resources and supports are you using? What additional resources might help?
  • When do you study? How does that fit into the rest of your day?
  • Where do you study? What’s working (or not working) for you about that environment?
  • How much time do you think you will need to set aside to complete a given task?
  • How do you prioritize your assignments?
  • How are you organizing your materials? Your workspace? Your digital environment?
  • How often are you taking breaks? What do your breaks entail? Do they leave you recharged?
  • What does your self-talk sound like? How is it affecting your efforts?
  • How are you feeling about your assignments? How does this affect your motivation for the work?

The student lives at the center of this process. By asking (rather than telling) and by deeply listening, you are signalling to the student that they have ownership. They will be the ones to identify the challenges, and they will have the inner wisdom to begin to offer solutions. They may not get it right the first time, and they’ll likely need some guidance along the way, but their inner resources and inner knowing are already present. We must help students cultivate a sense of competency and confidence to tackle the many challenges they are facing and will face in the future.

The goal of EF coaching is to help students develop a repertoire of self-management skills which will allow them to become more independent, less reliant on adult-provided structure, and more flexible in their approach to learning and embracing new challenges. Students who achieve this will not only become more successful in school but also in life.

At Applerouth, we are committed to helping build better learners for life. When we can help our students succeed with today’s academic challenges in a way that honors and respects them, we can put in place processes that will serve the students for years.

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