Academic Anxiety: How To Help Kids Build Confidence In Their Schoolwork

academic anxiety image 1Sometimes stress can manifest itself in unexpected ways.

Have you ever had a flash of anger come over you as someone cuts you off in traffic… only to realize that you just weren’t paying attention as they changed lanes because you were busy thinking about a fire you were going to have to put out as soon as you got into work?

Or maybe you come home to find that the dog has chewed the corner of the couch, and get uncharacteristically upset… only to realize you’re actually just stressed about having the house ready for your in-laws coming into town that weekend.

Well the same thing can hold true for our kids.

They may misbehave, or procrastinate, or act withdrawn, citing boredom or disinterest, when in reality they’re actually stressed about their schoolwork under the surface.

This is the phenomenon of academic anxiety, and unfortunately it’s on the rise.

In this post we’ll cover exactly what academic anxiety is, what some of its underlying causes are, and some ways to tackle it so that your kids feel more prepared, and less stressed about the rigors of their schoolwork.

Is academic anxiety on the rise?

Yes. Anxiety among kids is significant, especially in areas where there’s a lot of pressure and competition for kids to perform well. Whether it’s preparing for college exams, book reports, or other homework, students are spending hours studying and trying to perfect their academic work.

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Photo: woodleywonderworks

About 8% of kids have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, but many more have the symptoms associate with anxiety like rapid heartbeat, clammy palms, upset stomach and constant worry.

Sometimes, this anxiety results in perfectionism, where kids want their school work to be perfect. So instead of writing an essay just once, if it’s not good enough, they’ll crumple their paper up and write it four more times.

Other times, anxiety will cause them to shut off: either ignoring their schoolwork entirely, or simply putting it off as long as possible through procrastination.

Either way, when kids become overly worried about school work, they don’t have time for being a kid.

The link between ADHD and anxiety

Now although, anxiety can be a problem for any student, it can especially be a problem for students who have ADHD, or who already have tendencies towards problems with focus.

For instance, in some students ADHD can trigger anxiety, and as students get older and move through school their symptoms will worsen.

This is because as they become more aware of their executive functioning struggles, they will begin to realize their work and homework takes them longer. This can then lead to missing assignments or not giving themselves time to complete projects and homework. And it’s a vicious cycle that leads to stress and anxiety from falling behind and not performing to their ability.

Some students may even avoid schoolwork all together and it is not because they are lazy or unmotivated. It may even be a subconscious decision to avoid school work or certain assignments. They may also make a decision to focus on one larger, or seemingly more important assignment and let the others fall to the wayside. This behavior, however, will just lead to increased anxiety and negative feelings about themselves.

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Photo: tinkerbrad

Because there has been an increase in students with both anxiety and ADHD, if you think your child is struggling with anxiety, whether it is related to ADHD or not, it may be helpful to consult a professional and determine if you should intervene.

Some signs you should be aware of for are:

  • Changes in your child’s eating or sleeping
  • Constant negative statements about themselves or any self-harming behavior
  • Displaying physical signs of anxiety such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Withdrawal from friends or family

That being said, there are things we can do as parents, if you think anxiety may be an issue for your child.

How to approach academic anxiety as parents

I recently spoke with WTOP on this topic and laid out a few ways in which we can help our students cope with anxiety.

First, accept how your child is feeling

Accept how your child is feeling, and also know that you can’t be dismissive. What you don’t want to say is “stop worrying” or “it’s not a big deal.” Instead you want to ask questions that will help your child solve problems.

By acknowledging them first, they’ll feel more like you understand what they’re going through and be more receptive to help. It’ll also give them a chance to get their worries out and into the open without worrying about being judged.

Second, guide them towards better time management with questions

So, when you’re talking about homework, you don’t want to say “Do you have homework today?” Instead, ask:

“What are your priorities for today?” or…

“How long do you think it will take you to finish that math assignment?”

Kids that worry a lot about school sometimes have poor time management skills, and if a task should take a half hour, they may spend 90 minutes on it.

By asking “How long will this take you?”, you’re helping them to better estimate their time before they start, which will then reduce the pressure they feel to get it completed quickly, or do more than they are capable of.

Third, help them sort and prioritize their assignments to avoid overwhelm

Sometimes kids stay up late because they start their homework late, often because they’re feeling overwhelmed and under-prepared. When kids are overwhelmed, their assignment load can seem daunting.

In these cases, we encourage kids to sort their assignments into three categories: “must do”, “should do”, “could do”.

The work that absolutely has to be done first goes into the “must do” category. If it should be done, but not necessarily at that time, put it in the “should do” category, like a math assignment that’s not due for a couple of days. And then the work that isn’t required – for example, recommended reading and not required reading it goes into the “could do” category.

Having kids think about their assignments this way can help prioritize what absolutely needs to be done versus what’s simply a nice to have, and get them back into the position of feeling in control of their work, rather than overwhelmed.

Test Anxiety: It’s about more than studying

Now there’s also another variable we haven’t yet touched on, which is also tied to anxiety about school: taking tests.

Test anxiety is definitely real and very common. When students are anxious about tests, they are not using the frontal lobe of their brain as effectively. This part of the brain is responsible for focusing, reasoning, and planning. When you are worried and anxious, your frontal lobe capacity diminishes by about 30%.

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For example, a University of Chicago study had students write down all their fears and worries in a journal before taking a test, and found that when kids jotted down their worries right before the test, they performed almost an entire grade point higher on average.

When kids worry, their performance suffers. So below we’ve outlined four main reasons students become anxious before exams, and some methods we can use to alleviate some of this stress.

Problem 1: They don’t know what the test is going to be like

The best way to reduce nerves about what is going to be on an exam is to use all of the real test material you can get your hands on. Whether they are provided from the teacher or through a test prep book, the more your student can familiarize himself with the wording and style of the questions the easier it will be to comprehend when test time comes.

Along with repeated and consistent practice with this material it is shown that taking 5 full length practice tests drastically reduces nerves. I know, it sounds repetitive but trust us on this one they’ll be thankful when they step into the testing room feeling confident and prepared.

Problem 2: They don’t know what will be on the test

Most students have anxiety about the material on their exams because they do not focus on their deficiencies when they’re studying, or better yet they don’t even know what those weaknesses are! When a student understands what skills he is lacking it makes it way easier to study, he’ll understand exactly what he needs to focus on. In turn, he will stop being so uncertain which will relieve this anxiety.

However, sometimes there are still holes in our learning and a student will come across a question on a test that they didn’t study and panic will set in. Sometimes this is because of time constraints in studying but a tutor can be beneficial in this situation. They will help set goals and teach test taking strategies that will help guide them when they are deciding what questions to answer and how to pace themselves if they come across and concepts they are not familiar with.

Problem 3: They don’t know what the testing experience itself will be like

Again, the best way to ease testing anxiety is practice, practice, practice. Especially when it comes to preparing for standardized testing such as the SAT or ACT being sure to take all the practice tests that are assigned under the proper time constraints is vital to a productive test prep plan.

It is the best way to ebb anxiety that is related to taking the real test. Be sure to treat practice tests as if they were the real thing, set up in a quiet area and have all of the materials that will be allowed on test day so they will know exactly what to expect.

Problem 4: They’re worried about what grade they’ll get

As your student takes practice diagnostic tests make sure to track the progress. The more they take the better idea of how they will score on the real thing. If all measures are taken to reduce anxiety on test day they should score in that ballpark. Knowing this information will help to put their mind at ease and boost confidence in their abilities as they prepare.

Next steps for tackling anxiety

The pressures put on kids to do well in school is alive and well. And this means we need to counterbalance this pressure with constructive strategies to help them cope and navigate through their learning experience positively.

So first, if you think your child may be anxious about school, sit down and talk through the situation, giving them the space to air out there concerns.

Then use some of the strategies outlined here (or others you’ve implemented on your own) to help work through the stressors they’re feeling and build a more healthy and productive relationship with school.

And then let us know in the comments:

How have you dealt with academic anxiety in your household?

Do you have any questions or feedback for us on other situations we might not have covered here?

We’d love to hear from you.

ADHD And Math: 3 Struggles For Students With ADHD (And How To Help)

adhd and math image 1I remember in elementary school memorizing my math times tables… what stands out most to be is the “mad minute.”

It was a short quiz of 20 multiplication problems and we were given one minute to complete them… and it could probably be defined as the most stressful 60 seconds of my young life!

Now, imagine doing that exercise, but at the same time not being able to keep track of all these operations in your head and constantly losing focus on the problem.

This is what most of our children with ADHD face when they look at a math problem.

ADHD and math don’t seem to be a “natural” fit, and there are various factors that go into why math is so difficult for kids with ADHD.

So in this post, we’ll break down some of the struggles kids with ADHD face in math class, and some ways to help make sure your child’s math foundation is strong.

ADHD and Math: The issue at hand

Students who are affected by ADHD often have a hard time with math because their memory is not very strong and blocking out external stimuli is a struggle.

Memory, which is where information is stored for later use, is one of many executive functions. Executive functions refer to skills such as reasoning, task switching, and planning. Kids with ADHD do not have strong executive function skills, which significantly affects their performance in school.

Which brings us to our first struggle…

Struggle 1: Word problems are overwhelming

A 25 foot ladder is leaning against a house and a hose is stretched from the base of the house to the garden and passes the ladder after 8 feet and you have to find out how tall the house is and what the angle the ladder makes with the house.

Wait, what just happened?

If you read the problem above and got confused or zoned out, you’re like many people who dread word problems. For students with ADHD, the stumbling block with word problems lies in the combination of words and numbers that make it difficult to store the information in their memory as they progress through the problem.

Even if the student is able to follow along with the problem, when it comes time to solve it, all of their energy and focus is already used up!

The solution to the word problem struggle

Have your student read the problem in small parts and draw a picture of the part he just read.  This breaks the word problem into chunks, allowing the student to place just a small piece of information into his head.  Adding a tactile and visual dimension to his learning by drawing part of the problem at a time only strengthens his memory.

Check out the image below. It shows what the picture might look like as your child is reading.  By the end of reading the word problem, he will have completed the drawing in the bottom right.

adhd and math image 2

Taking this piece by piece approach to reading and drawing might mean that your child might have to change the original drawing as he goes, but that’s okay… it’s important to get something on the page before he finishes reading the whole problem.

Struggle 2:Order of operations are confusing

Remember PEMDAS: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally?

It’s an acronym that stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction and is supposed to help us recall the order of operations in complex math problems.

The struggle that students with ADHD have with math problems that require them to conjure up the correct order of operations has to do with their working memory and ability to maintain focus throughout the multiple problem solving procedures.

Solution? Make it visual

Have your student highlight math signs and symbols.

adhd and math image 3Make colored pens, markers, and highlighters your kid’s best friend by encouraging her to color or highlight the sign, – + = x ÷, of each problem.

ADDitude magazine recommends highlighting math signs because it is a visual reminder to the student of the kind of math operation needed to solve the problem.

It may also be helpful in downtime to allow use of mobile math apps that work on the topic your child is struggling with. These tend to be effective because of the very high level of visual engagement kids have with video games and screen time.

Struggle 3: Staying focused enough to finish the problem

Aside from issues with working memory, issues with focus are why students with ADHD tend to struggle with math problems.

Staying intently focused on a single task takes a ton of mental energy, which often conflicts with the desire that many kids with ADHD have for constantly changing stimulation.

This is why completing a mathematical proof, a complex word problem, or a problem involving intricate problem-solving procedures can seem out of reach for your child.

Solution to the focus problem:

Have your child take a focus break. Focus breaks are 2-5 minute breaks when the student steps away from his homework, even if it’s in the middle of a long mathematical problem, and does something unrelated to his work.

This might be spending a few minutes on his phone, playing fetch with the dog, or better yet, a brain exercise to strengthen his focus. Dr. Robert Myers writes about brain exercises that are used to improve the executive functions in kids with ADHD.

Does your child struggle with ADHD and math?

We want to help you and your child who may exhibit any of these struggles. To get more tips and resources to help your child with ADHD, click here.

With ADHD Homework Can Be Tough: Here Are 3 Strategies For Success

adhd homework image 1

If your child has ADHD it goes without saying that you’re committed to helping them become successful, resilient, and overcome their academic challenges.

But on average, students with ADHD say that 80% of their interactions at school are negative ones.

Whether that’s because of how they feel about themselves, their surroundings, their peers, or just school in general… it means they spend a majority of their day feeling negative.

And there’s one issue in particular where this negativity tends to manifest itself most: homework.

With ADHD homework can become a real struggle. But what we also know, is that it’s not a problem that can’t be overcome if we take the right steps.

In our opinion, there are 3 keys to success for students with ADHD:

  1. Know how ADHD manifests itself in your child
  2. Be the “Charismatic Adult”
  3. Set them up now with healthy homework and study habits

And in this post, we’ll cover different ways ADHD manifests itself and approaches to homework and studying that will help get them moving in the right direction and turning a negative school experience into a positive one.

1. Know how ADHD manifests itself in your child

It is important to know how ADHD affects your child before you can choose the best approach to help them succeed academically.

adhd homework image 2For example, in an interview with author of Understanding Girls with ADHD, Pat Quinn, M.D. we discussed how ADHD can manifest itself differently in girls than it does in boys.

More often than not you hear ADHD and you think disruption. However, that is not always the case, especially when it comes to girls. Girls with ADHD may actually tend to be more shy and withdrawn. This is because when their minds wander away from the task at hand, they’re more inclined to not want you to know they’re not paying attention. As an avoidance strategy, it’s more straightforward to stay quiet.

Alternatively, with boys (generally speaking of course) the research shows they tend to manifest their ADHD symptoms more externally, whether through running around, interrupting vocally, or actively misbehaving. But it would also be a mistake to characterize all boys with ADHD in this way, because there are many who don’t exhibit this behavior.

The bottom line is this:

Every case is different. You know your child. So it’s essential to try to best understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to schoolwork to determine which strategies are appropriate, and which don’t seem relevant.

2. Be the “Charismatic Adult”

Studies show the number one differentiator between students with behavioral, attention, or learning disorders who succeed and those who do not is the presence of a “charismatic adult’ in their life. As psychologist and researcher Julius Segal notes:

“From studies conducted around the world, researchers have distilled a number of factors that enable such children of misfortune to beat the heavy odds against them. One factor turns out to be the presence in their lives of a charismatic adult– a person with whom they identify and from whom they gather strength.”

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Reflect on your own experiences…

How did you get to where you are today both personally and professionally? Did you have a charismatic adult in your life who encouraged and believed in you?

Being this figure in a child’s life does not mean being Mother Theresa, but it does require taking an interest in the child and their strengths rather than focusing on his or her shortcomings. And when mistakes and failures do happen, it means helping them work through them constructively so that they walk away from the situation knowing more than they did before and feeling positive about the experience.

3. Set them up now with healthy homework and study habits

You’ve heard them all before…

“It’s so booorrrrring…”

“I don’t have any homework.”

“I’ll start after I finish my video game.”

For most kids with ADHD homework and studying is filled with dread and excuses, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s break it down by topic so we can really hone in on how to help develop these essential habits that will carry them to success now, and later in their academic careers.

ADHD and Procrastination

Your child constantly procrastinates, even after dozens of reminders. How can you get him more excited about homework and completing it earlier?

Step 1: Have a predictable schedule

Allow a thirty minute break after school before getting started on homework. When kids know what to expect they are less likely to procrastinate.

Step 2: Consider the “Tolerable 10”

Set a timer for just 10 minutes and encourage them to work as hard as they can until the time runs out. This helps give them a push to get started, and after the 10 minutes is up they can either take a short break or continue for another round.

ADHD and Time Management

Time management is the enemy of kids with ADHD. Your child is smart, but when it comes to completing assignments they can take hours longer than the instructor intended. How do you help them minimize distractions and encourage productivity?

Step 1: Make a game plan

Break homework or projects into smaller more manageable tasks. Check in, and make a big deal when he’s accomplished one or a set of tasks. For many kids, time is too abstract of a concept. Consider using candy or baseball cards and letting him know he’ll be rewarded when the task is complete.

Step 2: Help prioritize

Ask what they will do first to help them get started. Make sure they understand the directions and can do the work. Then, let him go at it alone but stay close by so you can help if needed.

Step 3: Use a timer
Once you have broken up the assignment into more manageable pieces and helped prioritize their work, set a timer and encourage them to work in short spurts (see the “Tolerable 10” above). Then slowly make the time longer, but never more than 30 minutes.

ADHD and Missing Assignments and Instruction

Either they miss the teacher’s instructions, forget homework and books, or sometimes just ignore assignments entirely. How do you ensure homework and assignments are getting done without seeming overbearing?

Step 1: Trust but verify

Set expectations, rewards, and consequences for completing homework and assignments. Then verify with an online grading portal if one is available. Communicate with teachers if necessary, but always do this with your child so that they’re involved in the process.

Step 2: Tie privileges to effort

Link things like screen time and hanging out with friends to the amount of time spent studying and doing homework, rather than outcomes like grades. Kids can see the direct correlation between working and learning, and a benefit… rather than feeling overwhelmed by the idea of getting better grades, when they may not know exactly how.

Step 3: Talk to teachers about emailing assignments and homework

Kids with ADHD and executive dysfunction may benefit from having the option to submit homework online or through email. They can focus on one thing at a time, and submit it right then and there, rather than having to manage organizing it, and bringing it to school and turn it in.

ADHD and Distractions

Pulling your child back into study mode from a break or video games seems near impossible. So how do you pull them away from those distractions and focus on homework?

Step 1: Put a limit on breaks

Kids may need a break after a long school day. For elementary aged kids, a 30 minute break after school should do the trick. Older kids may need more time to “chill” after school is out, but ideally assignments and studying should start before dinner time. Use this to have them indulge their break time, while still setting boundaries.

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Step 2: Control screen time

Limit breaks to outdoor activities or things that don’t involve a screen. Video games and social media are specifically designed addictive and hard to detach from. So allow a mental break, but don’t let them make things harder on themselves than they need to be by getting wrapped up in something that’s hard to pull away from.

ADHD and Homework: What’s next?

Now, after all of this you may be asking yourself:

“If I do all of this will my child eventually be ready for college and academic independence?”

The best way to ensure your child will be ready for the independence they crave is to back off slowly, but stay supportive.

Set up weekly meetings, maybe every Sunday before the school week starts, and discuss upcoming assignments and offer support. You’ve guided them through this far and it is time to let them take the wheel… just make sure they don’t head off in the wrong direction.

Now lets hear from you. Do you have a child with ADHD? How do you manage it as a family? What strategies have you found successful?

Let us know in the comments!

Why Is My Smart Kid So Scattered? And What’s the Real Impact on Grades?

smart but scattered image 1Every day I speak to parents who are stressed out and confused. If you live in the DC area, you can probably identify with being “stressed out.” But many are also confused at how their smart kids can be so scattered.

The parents who call our office looking for help are confounded by the fact that their kid is really smart (heck, most of these kids can tell you a story a mile long, remembering every last detail, and some have even been in the gifted program), but their grades are mired in mediocrity because they are perpetually disorganized and procrastinate like crazy.

Parents report that when left to their own devices without any parental oversight, these kids can’t keep up with their assignments and rarely study for tests, let alone remember when the tests are in the first place. And not surprisingly, when parents try to help, their overtures are resisted.

It just doesn’t make sense. How can a such a smart kid be so forgetful? Why is life with this kid so chaotic, with assignments left until the very last minute, stressing everyone out? And why, when help is clearly needed, do these kids push their parents away?

The Real Reason Kids Are So Scattered

Let’s start out with one of the most common reasons kids underperform in school — weak executive functions. Executive functions (EF) refer to cognitive processes occurring in the frontal lobe of the brain. They have to do with focus, problem solving, planning and organization. As you can imagine, these abilities are incredibly important in school.

So when kids aren’t all that focused or organized and have a hard time thinking ahead, we often assume that they’re lazy, unmotivated, or just don’t care about school. But actually this isn’t the case at all. It’s often that their executive functioning abilities, which do get better with age, are weak.

ADHD vs. Poor Executive Functions

Sometimes, parents wonder if a child with weak executive functions has ADD or ADHD, because the symptoms seem similar, and there definitely is overlap. A lot of kids have weak executive functioning abilities, but the problem might not be significant enough to warrant a diagnosis of ADHD. However, everyone with ADHD has executive functioning deficits.

The Disconnect Between Ability and Achievement

Regardless of whether your child just has weak EF or ADHD, it doesn’t really matter. The symptoms are similar and there’s almost always a divide between ability and achievement. Kids with weak EF are capable kids who underperform. They have the potential to get As, but they’re earning Bs and Cs, stressing you out, and falling further behind. The work they turn in to their teachers is not always in line with their intelligence. We see this a lot in writing. Very verbal students have a tough time organizing their ideas and sustaining focus long enough to get all their thoughts down on paper.

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Now, not all kids who have executive functioning weaknesses have problems in writing, but what they almost always have in common is difficulty staying organized. Their binders, backpacks and oh yeah, even their bedrooms are not the tidiest in town. And so often, when things are scattered, time management isn’t so great either. Prioritizing is not a natural ability. The students we see don’t think about homework in an organized fashion.  They don’t think to ask themselves “What do I have to do tonight? And what should I do first, second, and third?” Getting organized enough to prioritize homework is tough for some, but what’s even harder is planning out that book report that’s due in two weeks or that science project not due for another month.

What the Research Says: The Impact of Disorganization on GPA

For years, we’ve been helping kids to get and stay a bit more organized, and it’s not an easy process. Most kids need regular upkeep to develop “habits of mind,” and for many, this takes a long time.

As a classroom teacher, I always knew that the students who came to class prepared had a leg up. There was a clear difference between the ones who did their homework and had it filed away in the right folder and those who slapped down a few answers on a piece of paper and had to dig through their backpack to find it. But I never saw research on the impact of disorganization on homework completion. I just knew that my disorganized kids chronically underperformed, even if they could do well on tests (because they were indeed intelligent).

A few weeks ago, I was reviewing some new research when I ran across a study from The Journal of School Psychology. Here’s what I found: kids with attention difficulties turned in 12% fewer assignments than kids without attention problems. Although this doesn’t sound like a big number, the impact on grade point average for these kids was significant. The researchers found that the culprit wasn’t behavior during homework, like lack of focus, it was actually organization (bringing home the right materials, bringing the completed work back to class the next day, etc.). Disorganization was the most important predictor of homework completion and GPA.

What You Need to Know

The bottom line is that when your child has a poor sense of time and seems to have trouble keeping track of his things, it’s not intentional, and no amount of nagging or reprimanding him will help. Instead, what really helps is simply understanding that your child needs more structure than the average kid. Simple measures to set up routines and structures can work for all your kids.

Personally, I’ve found simple systems to be the best, and that’s because although I love to be organized and tidy, I have to work at it. It doesn’t come naturally for me and I’ve found that other parents have similar struggles.  By targeting a few easy-to-implement routines and strategies that can be done on autopilot, virtually any parent can help their child even if he or she is resistant.

The key is choosing the right strategies and using them consistently. Both elements need to be present to see lasting and positive change. If you want to reduce the stress in your household surrounding your kid’s organization and time management (or lack thereof), check out my online course Getting Past Procrastination: Get Organized, Beat Procrastination, and End The Homework Battles In The Next 3 Weeks.

ADDitude Magazine Features Our Very Own Tutor: Congratulations Jan Rowe!

We are proud to announce that our tutor Jan Rowe has been featured in ADDitude magazine!  In addition to being a phenomenal one-on-one subject tutor, educational coach, and Wilson reading tutor, Jan heads our tutor training programs and imparts her knowledge and experience to all of our tutors.

Jan listens to the child she is tutoring and gets to know the gaps in knowledge and skills so that tutoring can be catered to the specific needs and wants of the child.  Read the full story here.

If you think that a wonderful tutor like Jan could help you and your child, contact us here!


Why Your Child Doesn’t Organize or Plan Ahead (And What You Can Do About It)

Time management. Organization. Studying. Planning ahead.

Do these ideas give your child a sense of excitement? Or fear of the unknown? If your child seems uninterested or even afraid of these ideas, it may be more than just a feeling of being overwhelmed and a dislike for school. They may have executive functioning deficits.


I hear the phrase “executive functioning” more and more these days, and whether or not students have it. What exactly is executive functioning?

Executive functioning skills are cognitive processes in the frontal lobe of the brain, the area behind the forehead. These are skills that are really important for kids when it comes to school. Executive functioning skills are important for focus, self-control, planning, sustaining focus and resisting distractions. These skills allow people to juggle multiple things in their mind at one time. For example, when writing an essay, can you remember to capitalize the letters and use proper punctuation, spell the words correctly and also make sure you’re writing makes sense? If you can, you probably have good executive functioning skills.

Executive functioning skills also have to do with a thought process: finishing something, starting something new, planning ahead, and staying organized along the way. Executive functioning skills get better as kids age, but even at a young age, the skills are important for school success.


Executive functioning sounds a lot like ADD or ADHD. How exactly are they related?

Issues with a child’s executive functioning skills are actually very closely related to ADD or ADHD. Professions no longer use the term “ADD”; it was replaced in the mid-1980s by Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or AD/HD. The slash actually represents with or without. A child could have ADD and not the hyperactive part, but they still have an ADHD diagnosis. ADHD has to do with things like focusing and sustaining focus for a period of time and also being able to regulate attention.

Many parents say, “Well, my kid doesn’t have a problem with attention. He can play X-box for 3 hours. But when it comes to homework, it’s much harder for him to regulate attention!” That’s really where ADHD comes in. It’s not about paying attention to any one thing, it’s about making yourself pay attention when things are difficult and there is trouble regulating attention.

When it comes to executive functions, sometimes people can have poor executive functioning skills but they may not meet the criteria for ADHD. However, everybody with ADHD does have poor executive functioning skills.


I think my child is showing some symptoms that he has issues with executive functioning. What are some signs that might help parents see this?

Kids who have executive functioning difficulties often have a hard time staying organized. It’s not just in subjects, but also time management. If your child might have a messy backpack, forgets to write their assignments down, and doesn’t always bring the right materials home from school, he might be struggling with executive functioning skills.

Help your child create a mental to-do list for what he has to do for homework that day or even plan ahead. Long-term planning is often really difficult for these students. If something is due two weeks from now, they have a hard time breaking that assignment down into smaller, manageable chunks. In addition, kids with weak executive functioning skills might have a hard time focusing and putting effort into homework, especially when it’s really not interesting to them. They might even be able to just focus for 5 or 10 minutes before they lose track. For these kids, they need to have breaks on a regular basis and have assignments broken into smaller pieces so these chunks are much more attainable than a single, massive, intimidating project.


What is the first step in helping my child improve his executive functioning skills?

If you suspect your child has some executive functioning deficits, the first step is to realize that tasks like focusing and planning ahead are just going to be harder than for other kids. It’s not that your kid wakes up one morning and says, “You know what? I’m just going to really aggravate my mom.” or “I’m going to frustrate my dad.” It’s not like that at all. Kids want to please! They want to do a good job, but things like staying organized and focusing and planning ahead are just innately difficult for them.

It’s really important to acknowledge the fact that your child is going to need much more structure than the typical kid. You might not see a plan to start homework from your child the minute they come home from school each day. You might need to engage in a dialogue with your child to make sure they know what they’re going to do first, second or third. You’re also going to have to provide a distraction-free area for him to do homework. If left to his own devices, he’ll often do homework in places like his bedroom, which is really distracting! A child with executive functioning deficits just needs a little more external structure than the average student.


What do I do if my kid doesn’t want to listen to me?

A low frustration tolerance is typical for kids who struggle with attention. It’s not uncommon for these kids to really push back towards their parents’ overtures, even when they know they need the help. If your help has gone on deaf ears by your child, consider getting someone else to do the heavy lifting. Often, kids are much more willing to listen to someone who doesn’t have an emotional attachment to them, like a tutor or someone who has training in Educational Coaching.

Educational Coaches have the ability to work on three specific things with kids. One is organization, both with materials and time. The second is time management of short and long-term assignments, and the third is study skills. Kids with executive functioning issues get by because they’re really smart, but when the work becomes harder and there’s a lot more of it, they really have a hard time.


Having somebody who can work in these three areas, in addition to helping with subject areas, is really the key. Give us a call at 703-934-8282 or fill out a Get a Tutor form and we would be happy to help.

Top Apps To Focus and Finish

As students prepare for exams before winter break, many are having a hard time getting and staying focused when their cell phones are inches away. We know taking away these electronics will cause a battle and result in an argument, but how do we get them to focus on studying and not Snapchat? Today, I interviewed with WTOP radio about top apps that students can download to focus and finish.


How do you encourage your child to develop good study habits?

One thing we know for certain is that each child faces their own unique challenges when it comes to studying; But what we’ve found that it’s common for kids to procrastinate because they feel overwhelmed and underprepared. So they will put off studying when there’s a lot to do, especially for a quarter test or mid-term exam. And if you have a kid like that, start off by asking powerful questions.

Instead of “Have you studied?” ask, “What are the three things you’re going to do to get ready for that exam?” or, “How will you know you’ve studied successfully?” By asking questions, you’re not telling your child what to do, you’re helping them to figure it out with a bit of guidance.


5789da94-c6bd-4413-b0ff-0ac3d6c335f0With so many assignments online these days, it seems like kids are more distracted than ever by their computers.

Yes, that’s absolutely true. Think of it from your child’s point of view. Would you rather scroll through your twitter feed or study for math? Play Minecraft or complete that study guide? For most kids, technology is much more interesting. And although it can be a distraction, technology can also be an advantage.

I love the apps Self Control for Mac and Stay Focused for PCs. They both allow kids to blacklist websites they deem to be distracting (Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, whatever it may be) for a certain period of time, say 20 or 30 minutes, so they can focus on what they should be doing – studying.


What about the phone? I bet that distracts kids even more than what’s on their computer screen.

Yes, and kids think nothing of having their phone in hand while studying, but they really do not need it to study – even if they say they do! It’s okay to have a basket labeled, “electronics go here” say to your kids, “put your phone here until you’re done studying and then it’s all yours.” If this might be hard for you, another option is an app called Forest. Whenever kids want to focus, they click the app to plant a tree. In the time they set, say 20 minutes, a tree will grow while they’re studying. But, if they leave the app, the tree will wither and die. So the harder they work and study, the lusher their forest is, and that’s motivating to kids!


4 Study Tips for Elementary Math & Science

frustratedboyStudying for math and science can be a stumbling block for some elementary students.  Trying to keep numbers, diagrams, and science terms straight in your head sometimes overwhelms study sessions and students (and parents!) might shut down.

Helping your child study effectively for math and science is a vitally important skill and worth developing early on so that she can carry it with her as she moves into STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—subjects in high school.

You can make a difference in your child’s math and science performance now and in the future by trying some of the following tips.

1. Play “Beat the Clock”

Print out math or science facts that need to be memorized for an upcoming test from websites such as Sites like this one allow the selection of specific facts such as multiplying with fours or addition of twos only. Practicing one fact pattern at a time leads to quicker mastery.

Jot down the time it takes your child to work through the page. During the next practice session, set the timer for that amount of time and say, “I bet you can’t beat the clock!” Keep decreasing the time as your child progresses to automaticity.

2. Changing numbers

Because math and science are taught differently now than they used to be, sometimes parents don’t know exactly how to instruct their kids on solving problems the way they are taught in school.

But if you want to help your student practice, the best thing you can do is to take a math problem from your kid’s notebook or textbook and change the numbers in the problem.  If you just change the numbers, you and your child can refer to his class notes to make sure he can solve it in the exact same way.

To learn more about the best ways to help your kids with homework, check out this blog about Common Core math.

3. Use a dry erase board with many colors

To practice for an upcoming math test, write a few math problems on a small dry erase board. Kids love using dry erase boards and many prefer them over traditional pencil and paper.

Try out different color markers, too. Color increases attention, so don’t be afraid of using bold hues.  Putting each part of the equation or graph in different colors helps students follow along with very long solving procedures.

Research shows that kids with ADHD especially benefit from having the signs in math problems stand out in a different color. This helps with their attention and memorization.

4. Draw a picture

Kids have a tendency to want to solve problems in their heads.  By drawing a picture, it makes your child lay out all the steps visually, which allows her to avoid mistakes and often get the right answer.

This technique doesn’t work with all math problems though.  It’s best for word problems, anything to do with geometry, and certain fractions that can be drawn out.


HELP: My Child is a Victim of a Disorganized Digital Desktop!

Does your child’s computer desktop have random folders and loose documents scattered over the screen?  Ever encounter a situation in which your son or daughter is trying to complete homework but cannot find it on his or her chic (and expensive…) iPad or laptop?

Although tablets and laptops can ease the flow of hardcopy papers, which in itself can improve organization to some degree, they cannot solve all our clutter and disorganization problems.

Students who come by organization innately typically have a neat backpack, binder, and digital desktop.  This article is not for those students.  Instead, it’s for those who struggle with the essential executive functioning skill of organization in almost every part of their life, including digital files.

So, how can you help fight digital disorganization? Here are a few ideas that just might work in your family.


Rule 1: Open the Dialogue

Sit down with your child and open the dialogue. Ask her how she might organize her electronic papers this year.  Would she like to use an online resource such as Dropbox, Evernote, or Google Drive?  If so, terrific!  These programs allow students to save files to the cloud, so that they can access them anywhere and at anytime, as long as there’s a Wi-Fi connection.


Rule 2: Create a “One Subject, One Folder” System

At times, documents will need to be saved to your child’s desktop, and herein lies the problem. Many students tend to just place individual files—PowerPoint presentations, word documents with assignment instructions, and anything else—on the desktop, arranged in no logical way.  This makes it inefficient, if not impossible, to locate important files in a pinch.

With your child, create a folder for each school subject. Even extracurricular activities like band or swim club that have affiliated assignments, schedules, or contact lists ought to get their own folder and be treated like a distinct subject.


Rule 3: Cluster Your Apps and Programs

Applications and school-related folders should function like oil and water—no mixing!  Keep all apps, such as Skype Dropbox, on the opposite side of the screen from school-related folders.  Check out this article for a step-by-step approach on how to implement this practice.


Rule 4: Make Shortcuts for Important Documents, NOT Copies.

One of the issues students face when keeping local and cloud-based documents is that they often have many different versions of the same thing. It’s not uncommon to end up with multiple versions of the same file without knowing which is the most up to date. If you’ve ever had multiple files each labeled something like “draft,” “final,” FINAL,” “FINAL FINAL,” you know what I’m talking about.

Consider showing your child how to make shortcuts to documents instead of placing copies of documents he wants quick access to on his desktop, only to end up with a puzzle of a problem.

If your student is a PC user with Microsoft Office, check out this article to learn how to make shortcuts or pin documents to the task bar.  And for Mac users, here is a reference on how to do the same thing, or in Mac language, how to create an alias.


Rule 5: Get Your Child on Board

Make it an exercise in taking turns. First, let them be the expert and ask them to teach you something about the computer (we always have things to learn about technology from our kids!).  Second, share with them an organization tip and encourage them to practice it when school starts.

Giving your children some freedom regarding the specific spatial configuration of their desktop apps and files—which apps are neighbors, etc—and the overall aesthetic (even if you hate their background, they may love it, and that’s what counts) will make them feel like the desktop is truly their own.  More often than not, having a sense of ownership over something usually translates into taking better care of keeping it organized and usable.

If Educational Connections can be of assistance helping your child prepare for the school year, either with a brush up of content or learning organization and executive functioning skills, please send Erin an email at [email protected] to inquire about a tutor or educational coach.

A New, Better Way to Diagnose ADHD?

adhdLike many people, I get lots of emails, especially newsletters from different organizations. But there’s one newsletter I read religiously because I always find the cutting-edge information reported to be fascinating. It’s called the Attention Research Update and it’s written by David Rabiner, Ph.D., a research professor at Duke University. I was especially interested in his latest topic about a new way to diagnose ADHD.

Over the years, I’ve seen the condition overdiagnosed and underdiagnosed because the criteria for meeting the identification can be subjective. Finally, science is catching up by providing objective, data-driven information that can help clinicians make an accurate diagnosis.

The FDA has just approved a new device designed by Neba Health that works for children from six to 17 years old. It uses electroencephalogram (EEG) readings to track the brain’s electrical nerve impulses. In just 20 minutes, doctors can get scientific data to determine whether ADHD is present or not. Although the test won’t be used in isolation (other information such as the child’s educational and behavioral history should also gathered) it is a good step in the right direction for giving parent’s confidence in their child’s diagnosis.

TIME magazine just published an easy-to-read article on the topic called Reading the Brain: FDA Approves First Scan for Diagnosing ADHD. In addition, you can read Dr. David Rabiner’s more in-depth article on this new way to diagnose ADHD.