A+ Advice for Parents

Q: Our son is having a rocky start in middle school. It's thrown him completely off balance. He forgets assignments and can't manage time. The counselor thinks he needs better "executive functioning skills" and says to work with him. What are they?

A: Executive functioning concerns the "numerous mental processes and skills (that) help us plan for -- and respond to -- the tasks, challenges and opportunities we face," writes Kristen Stanberry, an education writer who became interested in the topic after helping her son navigate the demands of high school.

Students with strong executive functioning skills have impulse and emotional control and can keep track of time, prioritize, plan and finish work on schedule. They can apply previously learned information to new problems. They're good at analyzing ideas. They know where and when to look for help when they get stuck.

For an in-depth look at these skills, go to Stanberry's excellent article, "Executive function: a new lens for viewing your child," at GreatSchools.org.

A rough transition to middle school isn't unusual, says Jan Abraham, a Naples, New York, middle school math teacher who has taught in the U.S. and abroad.

First, she says, "Determine where your son needs help. For some, it's as simple as establishing and practicing routines that make days go smoothly. For example, getting ready at night for the following day (i.e., preparing his backpack with his homework in the proper folders, putting his trumpet next to his backpack for band practice, setting his alarm and so on)."

Some students are overscheduled and parents need to discuss prioritizing time: What choices will they make if priorities compete?

Others need to learn how to use the school's web portal and school planner. "I ask students to add to their planner everything they know they'll do during the school year, from Grandma's birthday party in December to robotics on Tuesdays in January and February," explains Abraham. "We discuss how to record and monitor assignments. They need to know and own their schedule."

Many students benefit from explicit instruction in how to plan. "They are surprised to learn that there are actual steps to follow to get things done -- whether it's writing a report or building a fort," Abraham says.

She teaches six steps using real-life projects that match students' interests:

1) Analyze the task. Describe what needs to be done.

2) Plan. How will you handle the task?

3) Get organized. Break down the plan into steps.

4) Figure out the time needed. Plot hours, days or months for each step. Set aside the time on your calendar. Set alerts.

5) Make adjustments. Stuff happens; be flexible and regroup.

6) Finish the task in the time allotted. If you can't, analyze why not. Was it poor planning, or factors outside of your control? How would you do it differently?

Projects can be as simple as planning a movie outing or as complex as that of an avid skateboarder who wants to build a half-pipe.

"A disorganized student doesn't become an efficient whiz overnight," says Abraham, "but if you model and make him practice, he'll master skills that will give him a leg up all his life."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

More like A+ Advice for Parents