Students who struggle with executive function skills often hear what they are doing wrong.. These students receive more negative feedback than positive feedback. This can quickly evolve into a negative feedback loop and become discouraging for the student, since sometimes they don’t understand why they’re receiving this feedback or how to change their actions. As mentors and parents, we can help reverse this pattern by focusing on our students’ strengths and helping them see that they are not just their shortcomings. And, their missteps can actually be an opportunity for growth.
Positive reinforcement can go a long way. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, it’s often more beneficial, both immediately and in the long run, to figure out what went well and make that your focus. Maybe your student studied hard but still got a 50% on a test—they got half of the questions right! Congratulating them on what they did well may help them get up and try again. Not only does this promote positive thinking and a sense of pride for the student, but also challenges them to examine all aspects of their work. This helps them continue to do whatever methods worked well the first time, but it also guides them to find the next piece they need to improve on. Maybe they aced the vocabulary questions but missed the grammar and comprehension questions. This tells them that the way they studied for the vocab worked well, but they need to approach studying differently for the grammar and comprehension sections. It can be helpful to ask your student to write a list of what went well and what went wrong. Even if their list just has a few positives, congratulate them on those successes—it’s important to keep some level of confidence present, as the “bads” can become overwhelming and can easily lead to a feeling of defeat.
Dyslexia expert Sally Shaywitz, of the The Yale Center of Dyslexia and Creativity, said, “Dyslexia is an island of weakness surrounded by a sea of strengths.” Helping our students see their challenges as islands can be a helpful visual. This phrase also allows us to see that even though we may have many “islands of weakness,” they are only islands; the islands are surrounded by many strengths that we may take for granted, and which will help us overcome the areas of opportunity. Having a conversation with your student about their “sea of strengths” may help them realize that their shortcomings really are just “islands,” and that they are doing so many things well. This kind of self-analyzing and self-reflection will support your student in the future by teaching them how to figure out what works for them and how to translate that to other assignments and areas of their life.
Many of our students have a difficult time breaking their assignments down into manageable pieces and understanding what they need to work on. This is the case not only during the process of completing an assignment, but also when receiving feedback. When you receive negative feedback, it can be easy to jump to the conclusion that nothing is going right. This is obviously a very discouraging thought, and this leaves some students not wanting to try again. But if you provide positive feedback and help students focus on their strengths, they are able to understand that with work, they can and will improve, especially since they are already doing so many things right.
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Many of us, whether we realize it or not, have experienced “burnout” at some point. Burnout is the feeling of exhaustion due to overwork or feeling overwhelmed by work, and generally results in the decline of our performance and quality of work. Many students experience burnout at some point in the school year. This feeling of total exhaustion typically peaks mid-semester as assignments pile up, we fall into routines of staying up late and cramming, or we just begin to drag our feet as we work through (what feels like) endless math homework. It’s not always easy to differentiate normal levels of stress from burnout. Typically, a student who is feeling academically exhausted and experiencing burnout will have a decreased interest in both academic and non-academic activities, and may be lackluster in their daily routines or even in reaching out to friends. David Ballard, of the American Psychological Association, defines burnout as “an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance.” Knowing that we may all experience this feeling of exhaustion at some point allows us to better prepare for dealing with it and even being able to prevent it.
How can we help our students cope with and minimize the effects of this somewhat inevitable burnout? There are a few simple actions we can take (and remind our students to take) in order to work past this mid-year dip.
Sleep. Sometimes, when we feel overwhelmed by the amount of work we have, especially as a result of procrastinating, it’s tempting to stay up late to finish our required tasks. While this may feel like the most productive thing to do in that moment, it realistically leads to a greater sense of exhaustion, initiates a routine of staying up late, and therefore inhibits our ability to focus the next day. Instead, it may be most helpful to set the task aside and get a good night’s rest. Not only does this improve mood and energy levels in the days following, but also allows us to resume the task with more focus and stamina. Remind your student to follow their nightly routine and try to be in bed by the same time every night—even if that means setting an assignment aside to complete in the morning.
Knowing when to set work aside and start fresh again is important and improves the quality of work and life. Your student may be tempted to work until their project is perfect or finished, but this can begin an exhausting routine and is not sustainable. Instead, try helping your student by having them set smaller goals. This serves a few purposes: it allows them to feel accomplished and encouraged as they work, but it also provides good break or stopping points, similar to short chapters in a book. Smaller goals allow your student to set their work aside while feeling proud of what they have done. They can then take a movement break, or even rest and go to bed. This will help keep them feeling encouraged as well as give them a concrete place to easily pick up the project the next day.
Just as it’s valuable to recognize when to set tasks down, it’s also helpful to to clearly prioritize to-do lists and assignment lists. Knowing which tasks are most important versus which tasks can be completed later will allow your student to feel more organized and have a better sense of what they need to focus on. This can help the daily tasks feel less overwhelming and create consistency, which will improve their focus and energy. With this in mind, it can also be helpful to intersperse small and realistic tasks between the larger, potentially looming projects so your student can feel a sense of accomplishment throughout their work day, helping them stay encouraged and keep up the momentum with completing their to-do list.
Finally, remembering to incorporate movement into our daily routines is imperative. Taking frequent breaks to get up and move helps us reset and refocus while also improving our mood and energy levels. Movement breaks can not only shake the feeling of monotony in our days, but they provide a consistent and dependable routine—especially when school feels overwhelming.
By understanding that burnout and exhaustion are more common in students than we assume, we can take precautionary steps to prevent it or make informed decisions to help our students cope more effectively. Support your student in getting enough sleep, maintaining consistent routines, recognizing when to set tasks aside, and continuing to incorporate movement into their days to help them prevent or deal with the effects of burnout.
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The spaces in which we work have the ability to impact our mood and productivity significantly. Because we all work so differently, there is no one way to curate a workspace to be the most beneficial, but there are actions we can take to make sure that our work spaces are individualized, efficient, and allow us to be our most productive. When schools shifted to be remote in March, and then again as students and parents geared up for a (primarily) remote fall term, there was a steady stream of articles, blogs, and posts regarding “creating the perfect workspace” for your student. Although some of the work spaces are pristine and Pinterest-worthy, a designated work station in your student’s room is just one of many options. And, it may not be the right option for you or your student! Some of us work better alone, while others work best around others. In a time of remote work and learning, finding the right workspace can be a difference between passing and failing a class.
Many students may actually benefit from working around others. It can be helpful for these students to see others also at work, as this can help them feel more focused and less isolated. For many students, the idea that they’re missing out on events happening around them leads to more distraction. Finding a separate but central place for these students to work is important, as it allows them to have a work space where they can concentrate while also being held accountable and knowing they are not “missing out.” This space could be the dining room table, a desk set up in the living room, or perhaps a desk in an office with another focused worker.
Students easily distracted by auditory and visual stimuli may benefit from a more isolated environment. However, it can be helpful to find a space that is still somewhat central. This allows the student to work in a quiet space with limited distractions while making it easy for a parent to check in. Whether a student works better alone or around others, creating a space that is central but separate can be a helpful strategy in promoting focus and productivity.
Other environmental factors such as lighting, neatness or messiness, and comfort level of a space can all also significantly impact our ability to focus. If possible, have your student set up their work area in a bright and naturally lit space. Not only does this improve the student’s mood, but the light will also help them stay more alert and awake. Similarly, a messy work space can both affect mood and ability to stay focused. Have your student re-organize their space at the end of each day; this allows them to come to their desk in the morning, able to begin their day in a clean and focused environment. It’s also important to make sure that your student is comfortable in their work space and that they have everything they might need to do their work. This eliminates time spent unnecessarily situating themselves in the space or searching for materials they need in order to complete their tasks. However, a space that is too comfortable can be detrimental as it can feel too casual and lead to distractions like watching TV or constantly checking social media.
When a student’s work space is outside of their room, this “climate control” is more achievable and allows for more intervention. When a student is working behind their closed door in their bedroom, it’s harder for parents to hold them accountable and check in since students feel like parents are prying and invading their space. A central workspace also ensures that students won’t work from their beds. This can hinder productivity since we associate our beds with rest, relaxation, and sleep!
No matter how you and your student decide to curate their work environment, remember to take breaks throughout the day that involve leaving the work space to move and refresh. This will improve your student’s focus and prevent the space from becoming stale. Knowing how your student works is the most important piece of information when setting up a work environment for them. It may take trial and error, and it may require a frank conversation about study habits and acknowledging your student’s major distractions. Setting up a space that works well for your student can make all the difference, and taking the time to figure out what works best for your student will greatly benefit them in their academic endeavors.
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Failure is discouraging and difficult to cope with. We’ve all been confronted with failure and felt that devastating, gut-punch feeling. However, our ability to get back up and persevere is what leads us to some of our most successful and rewarding moments.
“The true test of a champion is not whether he can triumph, but whether he can overcome obstacles.” —Garth Stein
Seeing a student experience failure can be difficult, as we can empathize with their feelings. We want to see them succeed as much as possible, but facing challenges is inevitable — whether in academics, sports, or social situations — it’s a part of being human. Helping your student cope with failure and see it as an opportunity for growth will aid them significantly in their future academic, athletic, and professional pursuits. Many students, from a young age, become conditioned to view failure as a negative circumstance in their lives, but that’s not always true. More often than not, failure can be a great teaching and learning moment. Throughout history, great occurrences have been born from mistakes and failures. The acceptance of failure, however, is easier said than done.
Perfectionism: many students with ADHD, anxiety, and OCD face the debilitating pursuit for perfection. Sometimes the idea of failure feels too big and scary for a student to even begin an assignment, let alone turn it in. They would rather not submit their work than face failure in the form of imperfection. A student like this may need support in actually turning their assignment in. Help your student click “submit,” or make sure their paper is printed and ready to go the night before. Encouraging your student to turn in an “imperfect” assignment will help them warm up to the idea that everything they do does not need to be perfect, and that they cannot improve without receiving constructive feedback. By facing failure, you actually take a step closer to perfection. Walking them through the feedback they receive, and reminding them that this is a growth process, may also help.
Mindfulness and the ability to be non-judgemental of oneself is also important when confronting failure. Studies have shown that students who are more mindful have greater resilience and are better equipped to shrug off their mistakes, get back up, and try again with more success. Gently remind your student that their failure is an opportunity, and that everybody experiences failure at some point. Reminding your student that failure is nothing to be embarrassed about will help them cope with it more gracefully and be less hard on themselves—in turn, allowing them to see it as an opportunity to improve next time.
Our setbacks, challenges, and moments of failure are what help us improve for “next time.” Life is not absent of these moments, and the sooner a student realizes this, the more resilient they will become. Knowing that these moments and challenges will continue to happen and can be opportunities for growth will help prepare your student to cope with instances when they’re not successful. At Stride, we’re all about that concept of “grit!”
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It can be easy to fall into a rhythm of believing that our capacity for learning and accomplishing success is fixed. However, those who believe that their capacity for learning and growth can be built upon, tend to have much greater success and lead happier lives. This is the difference between a “fixed” and a “growth” centered mindset.
A person with a fixed mindset may be more prone to viewing scenarios as black or white: believing people are either smart or unintelligent, good at math or bad at math, kind or unkind, and the list goes on. Someone with a fixed mindset may believe that people are capable of only a certain level of achievement, in any area. A student with this mindset can be challenging to work with, as they easily become discouraged and do not have as much of a drive to improve. But, we can help them develop a growth mindset. If a person with a growth mindset is confronted with a challenge, they believe the challenge is surmountable. A student with a growth mindset may receive a poor math grade, see that they have been challenged, and understand that if they apply themselves correctly, they can improve. This can also apply to social situations; perhaps a student has faced social challenges, but with a growth mindset, they know that they and their peers have the capacity to change which helps them overcome their social fears and anxieties. The idea of a growth mindset was pioneered by the Stanford researcher Carol Dwek.
A growth or fixed mindset is not something we are born with, but rather a perspective we develop on situations. We have some control over the way we approach challenges. So, how can we help our students develop and strengthen their “growth mindsets”?
First, it is important to remind your student that they have the capacity to grow and adapt. When they face a challenge, whether in academic, athletic, or social situations, remind them that they are not stuck in their current situation. Remind them of how they were successful. Maybe they received a 50% on a test, so remind them they knew 50% of that material. Or, you can ask them to tell you how they studied, or how they practiced, and brainstorm with them about how they could improve next time. Also, you can remind them that even though they may find school difficult, they’re not alone— many people struggle but still find success, so they can too.
Parents and mentors can model a growth mindset by talking about our own challenges and how we found opportunities within those obstacles to adapt and improve. Opening up an honest conversation will allow your student to see that everybody faces challenges, and it is our decision how we allow that challenge to impact (or impede) our progress. Discussing this in relation to discipline can also be helpful; although we do not always have the “motivation” to change, if we can practice discipline, we can achieve great success and will see our capacity for growth expand.
Bringing up the idea of a role model other than a parent or mentor in this conversation may also be a great way to emphasize the importance of a growth mindset. Ask your student who they are inspired to be like, and have a conversation about how your student thinks they got there—chances are it was not all luck, and that role model was not inherently born with every skill they needed to have in order to achieve their success.
It is also important to have conversations about growth which are not centered around academics. Your student may have an easier time seeing their success in sports after employing a growth mindset. This can then be more easily translated to academic success and behaviors.
Knowing when and how to apply a growth mindset to situations where we face challenges and failures is imperative to our ability to success. This is a perspective that is not easily taught, but with gentle reminders and examples over time, our students can learn the benefits of a growth mindset.
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Creating a trusting and honest relationship with each of our students is imperative in helping them grow and achieve success. However, this is not always easy, especially during stressful times. How can we work on building more trusting relationships? Routine, boundaries, and communication all play significant roles.
First, it’s important that your student understands the reason that you, as a parent, and their mentor, are sometimes hard on them; it’s because we care so much. Stating this explicitly may seem obvious but is a great way to begin a conversation about accountability and honesty. When students begin to legitimately understand this, they may be more open to receiving feedback and listening more intentionally.
Establishing boundaries and routines is helpful to building trust. When both parties know what to expect, neither the student nor the parent is caught off guard. Part of this means establishing routine. Routine provides necessary structure to your student’s life and will help them stay organized—in turn, reducing stress and underlying frustration. It also allows you, the parent, to have an idea of what to expect from your student and what their schedule looks like. For instance, it may be helpful to have a quick check-in with your student on Mondays and Wednesday, for 15 minutes, at 5:00pm. Creating a consistent communication schedule not only allows the student to know that this is coming, but it will also build a consistent dialogue that opens communication and reinforces honesty. Boundaries may come in the form of notifying your student that you are checking in, but it may also mean refraining from checking in too often. Boundaries might mean sticking to your word: whether that means holding the student accountable for work, or making sure you maintain your communication with them in the way that you had agreed upon.
Verbal communication is the most direct form of communication, which means it’s so foundational in our relationships. The most effective verbal communication with students is positive reinforcement, especially when the language is specific. So many of our students are used to hearing what they should be doing better, or differently. Even if they’re small wins, make sure to celebrate them with your student. Another form of verbal communication is “tough love.” This might look like, “I saw that you missed a deadline in English. I know sometimes things come up, but let’s figure out why you missed this assignment. How can we prevent this next time?” This provides the student room to explain their actions by asking them questions. In turn, the student is more likely to stay engaged in the process and it requires a degree of self assessment. In our verbal communication, it is important to phrase conversations in a way that makes the student understand that you care about them, and that’s why you are trying to hold them accountable.
Nonverbal communication is also important. Our body language dictates how others approach us and communicate with us. When a parent or mentor presents themselves as happy and engaged, the student is more likely to feel comfortable being vulnerable and honest. For example, studies have shown that when you mirror another persons’ body language, they feel more open to communicate with you. We want to encourage as much openness, honesty, and trust when addressing academics because it can become so easy and habitual for students to become closed off or discouraged.
Listening to what your student is feeling, whether about academics or their emotional difficulties, is imperative. When you let them know that you are willing to listen without providing feedback or answers, you are allowing them to share without them feeling defensive. Knowing how your student is feeling will help both you and your student’s mentor guide them in the right direction without closing off the conversation.
In any relationship, communication, boundaries, and good listening are important. Helping your student establish and maintain consistent and easy-to-follow routines will allow all parties to feel a greater sense of organization and reduces stress.
Parents know their students best, which is both a blessing and a challenge. Keeping an open and understanding approach to conversations will help build trust and honesty.
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Lunch box in hand, coat on one arm, and searching for a laptop charger while rushing to make it to school on time is a common morning image for many students and parents. We’re all familiar with this type of hectic morning. But these mornings cause unnecessary anxiety, stress, and tardiness. In order to leave the house on time every morning, with everything that you need for the day, many things need to happen. A student’s morning routine is already full and can easily become hectic when they have to: take a shower, brush their teeth, get dressed, eat breakfast, pack their backpack, pack their lunch, remember their project, remember keys, and get out the door on time. These are a lot of tasks to accomplish, especially first thing in the morning when attention and focus are not at their sharpest. A “launching pad” can help us prepare for our morning and stay organized.
Having everything ready to go and in one place helps our students remember what they need for the day before leaving the house. This idea is called a launching pad. The idea of a launching pad was originally developed with ADHD adults in mind, many of whom often forget essential items at home such as their keys, wallet, or phone. In order to remember these things, they are encouraged to create a designated spot by the front door like a table or basket, where they can keep all of these items. Before they leave the house, they can easily grab everything they need for the day without forgetting anything. When they get home, everything is returned to the launching pad so it won’t be forgotten next time they leave the house. For kids, however, the items they bring home may not be able to be immediately returned to a launching pad. Students need to use what’s inside their backpacks to do their homework, empty lunch boxes can’t be left by the door for the next day, and sports uniforms need to be washed before the next game. While a student’s needs may be different than an adult’s, the idea of a launching pad can still be utilized.
We need to help our students fall into the routine of prepping their launching pad at night. Before they go to bed, students can pack their lunches, sports bags, and backpacks—all ready to go by the front door. They can also pick out the next day’s outfit and lay clothes out to further eliminate time spent getting ready to leave the house in the morning. Not only does this help build routines, but also ensures a greater sense of organization and peace of mind knowing that everything is there, ready to go in the morning.
A student will likely need help and reminders to set up their launching pad and take all of the necessary steps to achieve this. Your student may benefit from writing a checklist of the items they need to accomplish to prepare their launching pad. This list may include: pack laptop, pack homework folder, lay out clothes, pick out shoes, pack lunch, pack sports bag, set everything by the door. Having a list ensures that nothing gets missed and can help your student stay accountable to following this routine. With patience, persistence, and self-discipline, this routine will become a habit, greatly reduce anxiety and stress, and help with organization.
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Maggie Pieper is more than just a familiar face at Stride. She’s often the first face you see as you walk through the doors while she takes students’ temperatures as they enter the building. You can also find her supporting students in the homework center, writing emails in the common area, or working with one of her students in a classroom. Maggie has had a unique Stride experience; she is currently a mentor, but she has also been a student.
Similarly to many students, Maggie has anxiety, which has affected her life both socially and academically—making school a difficult experience. She was diagnosed with anxiety when she was 7 and struggled through school for most of her life. She shared that “If it weren’t for Brandon, I would have dropped out of high school my sophomore year. I kept saying, ‘I’m dropping out,’ but Brandon would just reply ‘No, you’re not.’’’ This support helped her graduate from high school a semester early.
Maggie started working with Brandon at the beginning of her 9th grade year, before Stride was what we know it to be now: a multi-employee business with a physical center. When asked if she ever thought she would be a mentor, Maggie replied, “No, I really didn’t.” In high school, Maggie’s main goal was to just pass her classes so she could graduate. She added that, “Without Brandon’s help, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now with the confidence I have.” Brandon helped her develop systems that worked for her, including introducing her to boxing: something she still incorporates into her daily routine. Maggie said, “Having exercise in my life really helps me stay focused and feel good, I notice a difference when I miss a day.” Even though sport-specific exercise is not for all students, every student can find a key activity that provides a break and helps them refocus and stay attentive—even if it’s just going for a 10 minute walk or taking 15 minutes to draw. Executive function coaching also helped Maggie learn how to set a weekly schedule and daily routine, which are skills she now helps her own students learn.
Maggie has seen firsthand how much a weekly plan can help a student. When she worked with Brandon as a student, he helped her gain independence in creating her plans, which now helps her provide great support to her students while they plan out their weeks. Having dealt with anxiety and disliking school as a student, Maggie explains, “I’m able to really empathize with my students, understand where they are coming from, and help them find systems to alleviate some of their anxieties.” She understands the impact that anxiety has on a student’s life, and how it can thwart their success.
After her experience as both a student and mentor at Stride, she has a lot of valuable insight into how mentors and parents can help students succeed. She advises parents to have patience with their students. Most students understand that their academic success milestones may not be conventional, but letting your student know you understand where they’re coming from opens an honest dialogue. Strict discipline can cause many students more anxiety and further discourage them from wanting to follow through on task initiation and completion. Her advice to students is similar: have patience with yourself. Not all students get straight As, and that’s okay. It doesn’t affect your personal value at all. Students just need to work toward goals that make sense for them, and that’s not always attending Ivy League schools or graduating with a 4.5 GPA. Maggie emphasizes that all students work differently and have different paths. “Not every student needs to go straight to a four-year college, or any college for that matter. Everyone’s situation is unique, and it’s okay if college isn’t the goal for everyone.” she says, speaking from her own experience. Maggie took a break from academics for a year and a half, and knew that a traditional college environment was not the right fit for her. She is currently enrolled in EMT certification courses.
Although not far out of high school herself, Maggie offers so much wisdom to both parents and students. She says, “It’s important to understand that the process should be emphasized in education and that we don’t need to compare ourselves against the conventions of society.” Stride not only provides an environment where parents and students can feel a sense of community and understanding that they are not alone, but the mentoring program helps students to develop effective systems that work for them. When asked about what she wishes she had known as a student, she responded, “There are a lot of other students who struggle in school—know that it’s not just you. It’s okay if you’re facing challenges. Remember that academic success does not define your self-worth. We all face challenges.”
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Motivation—we throw this word around so often.
Some days we wake up motivated to power-clean the house. Some days we wake up feeling unmotivated and unready to work. When we feel unmotivated, we beat ourselves up about it. What was so different about the previous day? Why did we feel excited to get work done then, but not now?
Because, being motivated is not a personality trait. It’s an emotion.
We can’t fairly categorize kids (or ourselves) as permanently unmotivated or motivated. Motivation is a fleeting feeling. I can walk out of a meeting feeling motivated to start a project, and the following day when it’s time to actually begin the work, I’ve lost all that momentum and I get frustrated with myself for the “change of heart.” It’s easy to get down on yourself. People look ahead to their goals, and feel overwhelmed by the concept of the end results that could be achieved if only they were more motivated. But that’s not fair. We can’t get frustrated with someone when they’re sad, and motivation is no different. And we can’t get too frustrated with ourselves, or our students, for motivation that seemingly disappears. There’s something deeper that sparks feelings like motivation, or an issue that causes a lack thereof. What we can do, however, is set ourselves up better to succeed, and figure out what small steps we can take to gain ground in achieving our end goal: whether it’s a project, assignment, or an overwhelming amount of laundry.
Discipline, routines, and accountability are responsible for our work getting done. In the words of our friend and Boulder counselor, Nick Thompson, “people aren’t more motivated than you, they just have better routines.” When we have strong routines, there’s less of a will-power battle. We know what’s expected, and we condition ourselves to remove that internal fight and just do whatever it is we need to do. As adults, it can feel ridiculous when students decide to flip tables and stop doing expected things that were previously non-issues. We don’t always understand why they’ve made that decision, and why it feels impossible to get them back to their previous mindsets. View it from the perspective of you falling out of your workout schedule—it seems incredibly simple from the outside, but we all know there’s an inner battle going on that’s accompanied by a lot of solvable guilt. Taking away the physical structure of school and the routine of going to class in person has removed one huge consistency we all took for granted until March. That basically opened a trap-door for students to fall into. They probably didn’t jump down intentionally, but it can be really hard to pull them back up and out of the hole.
So, we’re left with routines and accountability. They go hand in hand—if students aren’t ready or able to hold themselves accountable to following routines, parents (and mentors!) get to step in and support them. I say “support,” but we know that often just means “fight about procrastination” etc. for families. For mentors, accountability “support” looks like a discussion to find out what drives them. As parents and mentors, we know our students, and we need to shed our frustration in order to have a productive conversation with them. If school doesn’t inspire them, what does? Sports? Successful athletes are incredibly disciplined, and maybe that’s the element that needs to be brought into the discussion. Encourage your student to take an athlete mentality into school and see what happens. Support them with the shift, and make sure they know you’re always on their team—even if (when) they slip up.
Motivation and anxiety have something big in common—both terms are overused. Instead of describing a student simply as “motivated,” be more specific. Are they goal-oriented? Are they driven? Are they hardworking and it pays off? We use anxiety too frequently as well. It’s too broad of a term to accurately describe what’s happening. Are you stressed about an upcoming deadline for a project you’ve procrastinated on? Are you overwhelmed by your workload in general? Are you apprehensive about meeting the family of a significant other? Too often, we categorize those occurrences as “feeling anxious.” It’s not untrue, but there are better ways to phrase it. Which brings us back to motivation: there are better ways to phrase that. We have to find the more specific issue that is preventing a student from being productive and focus on solving that problem.
The most common type of email we’ve been seeing this fall is from a panicked parent saying, “Remote learning has been a nightmare because my kid is so unmotivated to go to class and do any work.” First off, you’re not alone. This is a nationwide issue, and students with executive function challenges are affected by this more than many. But let’s chat about your student. What’s the part that’s frustrating them the most about remote learning? Is it not seeing big friend groups? Is it feeling misunderstood by teachers? Is it an intangible feeling of dread regarding global health, but they don’t quite know how to put that into words? One step at a time, figure out how to build up that “motivation” again by uncovering and addressing the more specific, underlying concerns. With no pandemic to blame, at one point in high school, I decided that Algebra 2 was feeling like more work than I wanted to put in. After years of zero missing assignments, I just decided to stop doing math homework for a few weeks. This was unprecedented in my academic career, and my mom found out because she ran into my math teacher at Safeway (Boulder is small), and my teacher expressed her concerns regarding the quantity of my missing homework assignments. What my mom quickly realized, after bringing that conversation home to me, was that math had gotten more fast-paced and I was lost. Once I slowly figured that out for myself (with some prodding from my parents and FAR more supervised homework sessions at the kitchen table), I was able to spend a few lunch periods with my teacher, catching up and getting back to where I needed to be. I wasn’t struggling with doing homework because I was unmotivated, I was struggling because I was encountering topics that were really hard for me, and I hadn’t felt that overwhelmed by new content before. I was embarrassed that I didn’t understand what we were learning; my defense mechanism of choice was total avoidance.
So, let’s stop referring to kids as motivated or unmotivated. Parents and mentors can work as a team to figure out what the underlying issues are with seemingly “unmotivated” students. We have to continue holding them accountable, but that goes beyond threatening them with less screen time if they don’t complete all of their assignments. That means supporting the routines we can encourage or control. That means before we get mad, we pause and look for underlying reasons to help us understand why they’re not following through on schoolwork. Overall, we have to stop using the idea of motivation as a measurement that contributes to student success. If kids keep hearing adults tell them that they’re not motivated, and how frustrating that is, it rarely has the desired effect of inspiring them to focus more on their schoolwork. And remember: just because they’re having a semester where they refuse to do homework does not mean they have no hope of growing up to be wonderful, driven adults.
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Starting a new quarter can feel daunting, especially since school structure is constantly threatening to change. This uncertainty can heighten anxiety for students, as there is less predictability and stability.
Anxiety is often characterized as “fear of the unknown.” For some students, anxiety can be the fear that they are forgetting or missing a task that will adversely affect them in the future. Some students are worried about the product of their task before they even begin, hindering their ability to start on the assignment— sometimes struggling with perfectionism to the point where they would rather not do an assignment at all than do it imperfectly. Anxiety may stem from a fear around previous poor performance on a test, essay, or quarter overall; this may result in the student putting even more pressure on themselves to do well next time because they’re scared they won’t be able to succeed. However the anxiety manifests itself, it can be a significant detriment to our students’ academic success and hinder their task initiation ability.
Many students carry their negative experience from a previous assignment, or unsuccessful quarter or semester performance, to the next challenge they face. Learning to move on from these anxieties takes discipline, but will lead to long-term academic resilience. Task initiation can help students tackle this!
Task initiation is something that many students have difficulty with. Students often struggle to get past the anxiety associated with beginning a project—whether that’s a fear of failure or anxiety around what to choose for a project. However, once a student is able to get beyond that fear of the unknown and begin their work, they’re able to see that it is not as scary as they originally thought.
Here are some tips to help ease anxiety of the unknown:
Make a list of your successes and challenges from previous projects or terms. This allows you to move forward with the lessons you learned and leave the negative attachments in the past. It also helps break down your anxieties so that you can see them, making them a little easier to quell.
Use time blocking and other scheduling techniques to plan out your day. Knowing when you are going to work on certain tasks will help you see how you are going to accomplish your daily goals. This is especially important if school scheduling is switching from in-person learning days to asynchronous learning days.
Remind yourself that you are on the right track. You’re doing well. And if you recognize that you have not done as well as you wanted, identify what you can change and actively choose to work on improving one thing. Reminding yourself that you are doing well releases dopamine, which encourages you to continue on that path, as your brain seeks that rewarding feeling again.
While all of these things can help our students avoid feelings of anxiety, task initiation remains a barrier to success, especially if a student struggles with anxiety or feels overwhelmed. Often procrastination is a product of anxiety around tasks. So how can we work to reduce anxiety and the fear of the unknown by utilizing task initiation?
Break down the task into manageable pieces. This is a simple step students can take, and mentors and parents can help with! Breaking a project into smaller parts helps to remove the intimidating feeling that can accompany a big assignment, s and this allows the student to accomplish those manageable pieces one by one and see their progress as they go. Incorporating time blocking into these smaller tasks is helpful as well. Looking at a whole assignment or project can feel overwhelming, but when a student has a clear idea of what they need to get done in order to complete a task, they are more likely to succeed and less likely to feel overwhelmed and procrastinate.
Maintain a consistent daily routine. This creates consistency, even when school is “consistently inconsistent.” Having a dependable, daily routine can help us stay organized and focused on the day’s tasks. Being able to execute a daily routine early in the day also allows us to feel accomplished early on, encouraging us to continue this trend.
Even though the uncertainty and unknowns of this time can cause anxiety and make accomplishing daily tasks more difficult, there are simple systems we can establish to help us overcome such challenges. The development of task initiation skills is essential in managing anxiety. We can build and strengthen task initiation skills by creating and maintaining consistent routines, breaking tasks into manageable pieces, and creating lists to help us visualize how we can accomplish our goals. Remember that you are on a track to success.