The various types of learning models being used during the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the way that teachers interact with students and with their parents. Whether teachers are at schools that currently use in-person, remote or hybrid learning approaches, they need parental support and cooperation more than ever to enhance their effectiveness.
Parents and teachers, working in partnership, can help children develop learning strategies that rely more heavily on executive function. The key is to focus on reinforcing messages and strategies that encourage children to take charge of their thinking—not only in virtual and in-person classroom settings but as part of their non-school activities as well. The ultimate goal is to teach children how to be the boss of their own brain.
Develop Executive Function
Many parents won’t be familiar with the concept of executive function—or indeed the idea of guiding students to learn how to learn. In their own K-12 education, today’s parents likely never encountered lessons about how the human brain learns and how people can become more effective learners. As a result, it will be helpful to share three key messages with parents:
- The term executive function refers to the capacities of the human mind to develop and carry out plans, to get and stay organized, to make decisions, to hold information in working memory, and to focus attention on the task at hand. A helpful metaphor is to think of executive function as the brain’s CEO directing other parts of the brain, such as those that control the senses and body movement, to take action to carry out plans and perform tasks.
- Many people believe that these kinds of thinking skills are inherent (for example, you're either naturally organized or you’re not), but researchers have established that it is possible to improve various aspects of executive function through conscious effort and practice. For instance, over time, you can improve your working memory, which makes it easier to solve problems and remember all the steps in a task.
- There are simple strategies (described below) that you can use at home with your children to help them—and you—learn to think smarter. Enhancing executive function can make a difference in schoolwork, on the job, and in personal pursuits such as hobbies and other pastimes.
Strategies for Parents and Children at Home
Encourage parents to use these strategies at home to reinforce what students are learning in the classroom.
Be the learner that you want your child to be. Learning doesn’t stop when you reach adulthood. Underscore the importance of lifelong learning and share the many examples of applying executive function in daily life. For example, you may want to involve your child when you’re learning how to use a new computer app or ask for your child’s assistance when trying a new recipe for dinner.
Learn out loud. Take advantage of opportunities to model problem-solving, planning, and organizational strategies. For example, you might ask your child, “What does incomprehensible mean? Let’s see if we can break it down. Part of the word is comprehend. We know what that means, right? To understand. And in- at the beginning of a word often means ‘not,’ so this word probably means not understandable. Let’s look it up to check and see if we’re right!”
Apply classroom learning to life outside of school. A common lament in the classroom is, “Why do I need to learn this? I’ll never use it again!” Parents can demonstrate the many ways that academic learning comes in handy in real life. A couple of examples: You can work with your child to measure a room to figure out how much paint you need to buy. Or you can have your child help you plan a vegetable garden, determining the most efficient way to plant the seeds based on the spacing requirements of each veggie variety and the total amount of space that you have.
Organize a space and time for remote learning and studying at home. Whether your child is experiencing school in a virtual or in-school classroom this year, you will still want to make sure he or she has a specific place designated for learning and studying. Take the time to work with your child to furnish a well-lit, comfortable study nook that is free from distractions. Set aside a quiet time after school or in the evening for homework and reading. Make a habit of reading with younger children, and let older children see you enjoy reading on your own.
Predict what happens next. Predicting what will happen next in a story employs key aspects of executive function, as we think about how the plot is organized and what clues are available that suggest where the story is going. When reading with children, stop and ask them what they think will happen next. When you're watching TV together, mute the sound during commercials and encourage children to predict the next scene or conclusion of the program.
By practicing smarter thinking, parents will help their children improve their learning. At the same time, they may well discover how learning remains a positive experience for themselves.