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Executive Functions: Helping Kids Succeed at Remote Learning

How executive functioning skills are crucial for distance learners.

Remote learning was a disaster for many students when it was introduced in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Schools and teachers were not prepared, access to technology was inconsistent, and kids did not have the skills to succeed at working independently.

 @vesnoi_/twenty20photos
Children learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Source: @vesnoi_/twenty20photos

Many improvements have since been made in remote learning. It has become more synchronous, with teachers providing live rather than prerecorded classes. Teachers and students have better access to and understanding of the technologies, and many schools have implemented a more regular schedule and routine. Even so, with about half of all students in the U.S. attending school virtually, 2020-21 may be another lost year for many of them.

While economic issues, family structure, and quality of teaching will all play a role in the success of remote learning, another factor may be even more crucial to learning remotely: executive functioning skills.

Remote learning requires that students display far more self-management skills than does traditional education. These are the skills that psychologists refer to as executive functions. Before their school day even begins, students need to wake up, get dressed, have breakfast, and turn on their computer. During and after school, they need the ability to follow instructions, often without help from their teachers; to know how and where to get started on academic tasks; to keep their assignments and completed work organized; to manage and prioritize their time; to sustain their attention and not get distracted, and to do their work independently.

At the most basic level, kids are not going to learn if they don’t go to school or pay attention. All these behaviors require executive functioning skills or a parent who can manage their child’s remote learning.

While elementary school teachers recognize the importance of executive functioning skills (and curricula are designed to provide structure and clear instructions for students), middle and high school teachers often assume—incorrectly—that their students are capable of employing these skills effectively. In the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom, teachers provide some structure for these students, often presenting them with homework assignments at the end of class, reviewing study guides, or answering questions that clarify expectations. Other students are also nearby, available to model, ask for help, and provide feedback.

While typical middle and high school students can use these structures to succeed, there are many kids who need more guidance. Students with weak executive functioning skills—not just those diagnosed with ADHD or a learning disability—often do not write down or remember their homework or may be unable to keep up with the pace of the classroom. Remote learning amplifies their difficulties and may also impact other students who previously relied on the support of the traditional classroom.

As a result, parents and educators need to take a more proactive role to ensure that tweens and teens have these skills and know-how to apply them to remote learning. Students must avoid distractions, maintain energy, push themselves, shift tasks, get up in the morning, and finish work on time—all actions related to executive functioning skills.

These basic strategies can improve students’ executive functioning skills for remote learning:

Determine what skills need to be mastered. For example, a student whose desk or workspace is a mess may benefit from improving organization. In all likelihood, this student struggled with organization long before the advent of remote learning but now needs this skill more than ever.

Work as a partnership on improving executive functioning skills. Rather than imposing your ideas, ask the child what would help them make the most of their remote learning experience. If they agree, explore a few low- and high-tech solutions.

Team up to find technologies and apps that can support weak executive functioning skills and use them for yourself. For example, kids who struggle with time management, planning, and organization can find it very helpful to use a calendar app, such as Google calendar. Learn how to use it yourself, model its use, and become an expert with its features so you can share your knowledge with your child or student.

Parents and educators who actively teach students to ask for help, figure out what needs to be done, and determine what's important will play a critical role in helping students succeed at remote learning.

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