What Executive Function Skills are Expected in Middle School?
Middle school in many school systems in the US encompasses grades 6-8, or from about the ages 11 to 13. This is a critical time for the building on foundational Executive Function skills that began in elementary grades, K-5. These include:
- Self-regulation – managing strong emotions and inhibiting impulsive behaviors
- Attention – sustaining focus, especially for lengthy or challenging tasks
- Task Initiation – starting a non-preferred task
- Organization – keeping track of materials at home and in school, organizing ideas and information for essays and research papers
- Planning and Prioritizing – mapping out multi-step tasks such as long-term class projects and judging which assignments are most important to tackle first and which assignments matter most
- Time Management – allocating an appropriate amount of time for work and other commitments
While some children seem to develop these skills seamlessly, many struggle and benefit from a level of direct 1:1 instruction and support that is often unavailable in most middle schools.
What are the signs of Executive Function problems in Middle School students?
Parents often see signs of Executive Function challenges in their child in middle school, when students face increased demands for self-management.
Parents and teachers may notice:
- Organizational challenges – the student has difficulty organizing: whether a backpack, a desk, or multi-step directions for class assignments, the student may lose or forget to turn in homework
- Behavior or emotion management challenges – the student is impulsive or easily frustrated, cannot resist online distractions, has difficulty settling down to do work and persisting with tasks
- Time management challenges – the student leaves work until the last minute, causing panic and stress at home
- Academic challenges – the student lacks persistence or often does not complete or even start assignments, may do poorly on tests due to ineffective study habits, may lose credit for late assignments
Parents of middle school children who are struggling may wonder:
- How can I get my child to start their homework earlier without constant reminders?
- How can I help my child manage frustration?
- How can I help my child increase self confidence?
- My child is smart, but why does he/she receive low grades?
Is it better to wait until High School to work on Executive Function skills?
In middle school, students must learn to adapt to the expectations of several different teachers who may schedule tests and due dates for projects on the same day. Pre-teens and teens need to be productive amidst the distractions of phones and computers, as well as the complexities of peer relationships. Developmentally, parents see that middle school students may insist on managing their academics without parental oversight, yet they are often unequipped to do this independently. By 8th grade, Executive Function skills form the basis of a smooth transition to high school, where school demands compete with students’ social and extracurricular activities – and the academic stakes are higher. A child’s challenges in middle school have increasing relevance as a child matures, ultimately playing a central role in shaping student achievement. Unaddressed, a deficit in the critical foundational area of Executive Function skills can have long-term effects on a student’s success and, consequently, their self-confidence as a learner.
What does it feel like to be a Middle School student with Executive Function challenges in school?
Middle school can be an awkward time for even the most “together” students. But for adolescents with Executive Function challenges, daily life in middle school can feel downright unmanageable without the proper supports. Consider below some common obstacles that seventh graders face.
Challenge #1: Getting to class on time and prepared
Put yourself in the sneakers of a 7th grader. You have eight class periods in the course of a six hour day. You are expected to visit your locker before school, take out the books you’ll need until lunch, and leave the rest in your locker. You have two minutes from the moment one class ends until the next one starts in which to pack up your books and papers, and walk down the hall to your next class, all the while resisting the urge to chat with friends in the hallway. When you have trouble with organizing materials and planning ahead, there’s a lot of stress in these rushed transitions between classes. And maybe you also get treated to an exasperated teacher when you need to pop back to your locker (again) for your pencil.
Challenge #2: Tracking homework assignments
You’re a sixth grader with four or five different teachers, each with a slightly different system of assigning and collecting the homework. Some teachers post assignments on a corner of the board, and some teachers provide handouts. Many teachers post the homework online. The trouble is, different teachers sometimes post assignments on different sites. On top of that inconsistency, some teachers want you to submit homework online, others want a hard copy (with the proper heading). If you’re a kid with challenges in cognitive flexibility, organization, or emotion regulation, this variation between expectations in your classes can be frustrating. Unless you have a system for finding assignments, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. And that feeling of being overwhelmed can cause you to avoid the homework completely.
Challenge #3: Writing on demand
Classes in middle school sometimes begin with a “do-now” exercise. Starting from the moment class begins, you have five minutes to write down two to three ideas in response to a given prompt. Your working memory challenges or slower processing speed can make it hard to compose a thought in your head and rapidly transform it into grammatically correct language. Your attention challenges make it hard to keep your focus on writing when there are some really loud kids in the hallway or the student next to you keeps clicking his pen. Your struggles with organization result in a paragraph with no topic sentence and some unrelated details that seemed important when you thought of them.
Students with Executive Function challenges face extra stress in middle school when demands increase for flexibility, productivity, organization, and timeliness. While it’s frustrating for a parent (or teacher) when a student can’t “get it together” it’s even more overwhelming to actually be that student. Lots of bright kids need to be explicitly taught how to manage themselves effectively – and we’ve found that once they know how to do that, all students can thrive…even in middle school!
How are Executive Function Skills Evaluated in Middle School Students?
If you are concerned about your child’s Executive Function skills, a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation can help shed light into what is going on and how to help. The purpose of the evaluation is to identify your child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses in the areas of cognitive functioning, information processing, memory, learning, executive functioning, academic achievement, and social-emotional functioning. When specifically evaluating Executive Function, it is best practice to have a psychologist conduct parent and teacher interviews, behavior observations, behavior rating scales, along with formal standardized assessment. This combination of information will illuminate specific Executive Function weaknesses (i.e., task initiation, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility) and real-life challenges likely affected by the deficits (i.e., problems with following directions, organizational skills, handling long-term assignments, homework completion). The collective goal of gathering all of this information is to determine how it manifests in real life in both the home and school environments, and then, most importantly, where and how we can intervene. Of note, the evaluation should not only highlight specific Executive Function weaknesses, but also report on cognitive strengths that can be used to help compensate for the weaknesses. For example, if a child has strong visual spatial abilities, then it will be critical to employ an intervention with a great deal of visual aides and supports.
Special Education evaluations
Another way to have your child evaluated is through your public school system. School aged children can be referred for a special education evaluation for many reasons, either by a parent or by a staff member. Referred students are typically struggling for a period of time, despite receiving intervention in many forms, such as small group or one to one help, and may not be making consistent or adequate progress. Concerns may be related to the student’s academics, behavior or social-emotional adjustment or functioning, communication abilities, motor skills, or a combination of these areas. Depending on your state, and whether your school district is using Response to Intervention (RTI), which is a tiered system of support, students may go through a series of interventions before being referred for a special education evaluation.
One example of a special education referral may be for a middle school child who has been struggling with writing and is not making progress on writing assessments given by his teacher, despite participation in a small intensive writing group and one to one time with the teacher or a written language specialist.
The evaluation, either parent requested or staff referred, must be completed within the federal or state established timeline. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) federal law states a 60-day timeline for the completion of initial evaluations, but states may determine their own timeline. The federal or state law also dictates the timeline in which the Team must come together to review the evaluations. In Massachusetts, for example, the Team must meet within 45 days of that signature date to determine eligibility, based on formal assessments, observations, review of school records and educational history, as well as data and information brought to the team by the classroom teacher, parents, and any other individual who may work with the student (e.g. a reading specialist, counselor, etc).
While an evaluation can often uncover useful information that aids in proper educational decision making, some states may require medical documentation or diagnosis by your child’s physician in order to receive individualized and unique instructional supports and accommodations within the classroom. The sharing of testing results with your child’s doctor may be beneficial in order to gain the most appropriate supports when your child is struggling in school. For information related to Federal Guidelines, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Your state’s specific regulations for special education eligibility are typically easy to locate via a google search.
How Executive Function Coaches Help Middle School Students
Executive Function coaches work with middle school students to:
- Understand their brains and how emotions affect learning
- Learn and practice methods to cope with strong emotions
- Learn and apply strategies to stay on task and maintain attention
- Learn how to get started on work and how to persist when the work is challenging
- Develop personalized systems to organize materials and work areas
- Develop systems to start and complete writing assignments
- Learn how to break longer-term assignments into smaller parts and plan how to get the work done
- Develop self-reflection skills to help students take ownership of new habits
- Identify and use technology that improves their productivity
- Learn how to study and take tests effectively
- Gain insight about what motivates them, and use that knowledge to be productive
- Learn how to advocate for themselves with teachers
Case Study: Maria, a 7th grade student with a mild learning delay
Maria* was a popular and active girl. Although she struggled with writing, math, and other demands of middle school, she was reluctant to seek out help. Maria was worried about seeming “different” from her peers.
Maria had a diagnosis of “nonspecific neurological developmental delay”. In middle school homework was now becoming difficult, especially in math. Writing was challenging, but she loved reading. Parents and teachers observed that she was having trouble grasping the big picture. In addition, her parents noted that Maria was not meeting academic standards with schoolwork despite considerable effort and time spent. Additionally, Maria was having difficulty getting all her homework done, cramming for projects at the last minute, and was experiencing challenges balancing her social life, school, and sports.
Maria had been on an IEP for math and reading with minimum to moderate support, which included “push-in” supports and accommodations in class. The effectiveness of available support was mitigated by the fact that Maria was very resistant to help at school; she perceived it to carry a social stigma and she did not like the special education teacher.
Both parents were involved in Maria’s work. Maria’s mother helped her daughter with school work, assisted in scheduling, and helped manage peer relationships. She edited papers and corrected worksheets. Maria’s father helped her with math.
How Executive Function Coaching Helped Maria
An Intake Meeting Provides a Roadmap: Having met with the Maria and her mother both individually and together, and after a review of relevant material, the intake specialist identified Maria’s Executive Function challenges and made a plan for her coaching support.
Agreed on Goals and Priorities: Based on Maria’s identified challenges, target goals and priorities included: developing emotion regulation around homework; learning to plan and prioritize for homework, writing, and for test preparation; improving metacognition for problem solving and self advocacy; and developing more sustained attention for reading efficiency. An additional goal of Maria’s was to minimize parent involvement. She was eager to be more independent.
Established Means of Support: Maria started meeting with her coach twice a week. Her coach had a background in speech-language pathology and a specialty in written language.
Maria’s Progress with Coaching
Coaching Approach: The coach introduced a number of specific tools and strategies that targeted Maria’s particular challenges. These included a planner, graphic organizers, chunking of information, and outlines. The coach made a point to celebrate Maria’s successes and incorporate Maria’s interests into her approach. For example, Maria got a brightly colored planner that she felt motivated to use. Noting that Maria liked sports, the coach often used sports analogies in her sessions. Her coach supplemented oversight of work through text messaging for student check-ins that included written and visual updates. In an effort to meet the student’s desire to decrease her mother’s involvement, the coach ensured that the tools Maria learned could be used independently. The coach also actively gauged student progress and helped Maria define small goals and outline steps to attain them.
Six-Month Progress Update: In six months of consistent coaching, Maria was independently using a planner (she had not owned one previously) and a calendar, writing outlines, planning homework, and taking advantage of editing tools. Her grades had improved and she was able to better identify strengths and areas for improvement. By then, coaching support had shifted to once weekly in person and once weekly online. Throughout the summer, the coach and Maria had focused on project-based coaching, finding projects on Pinterest and using Executive Function skills to plan and execute them together.
Long-Term Outcome: Maria is consistently using the tools that her coach introduced. She knows when a strategy is needed and has a keen sense of which one to use. She is much more confident and shows strong organizing and time-management skills in all facets of her life, including projects and writing. Her grades continue to improve and teachers have noted her solid performance. Thrilled with their daughter’s growing independence, Maria’s parents also provide significantly less unwanted involvement, which has benefited their relationship with their daughter.
Case Study: Jay, an 8th grade student with ADHD
Jay’s* challenges with attention, organization, and writing left him feeling discouraged and resistant to his parents’ help.
Jay had three primary challenges. First, he was unable to work for more than fifteen minutes before taking excessively long breaks. Second, his materials were in a perpetual state of disorganization. Finally, his writing lacked organization at both the paragraph and essay levels. His weak attention was the underlying and ongoing challenge, as it made it difficult for him to get organized or to remember what his focus was in a given section of his paper.
The teachers at his school were invested in his success but uncertain how to help him. They had put in place a 504 plan for his ADHD and also offered editing support at the writing center. He rarely was able to take advantage of this resource, however, due to his last-minute approach to assignments.
In middle school, Jay’s parents, particularly his mother, had been monitoring his homework almost constantly, but both parents knew this kind of hovering was inhibiting his growth. He was becoming even less engaged as they provided him more attention and constant check-ins.
How Executive Function Coaching Helped Jay
An Intake Meeting Provides a Roadmap: It was clear that although Jay was polite and enthusiastic, he appeared almost too physically restless to finish a thought, let alone consider various tools that could help him. His backpack and binders were chaotic. Those two issues were marked as urgent priorities. The writing challenge was evident from samples the family provided. While Jay’s writing showed an appreciation for exploring ideas and the ability to make sophisticated arguments, his work also demonstrated a lack of rigor in defending those arguments in a way that others could follow. Significant proofreading oversights also distracted from Jay’s finished papers.
Established Means of Support: Coaching sessions were typically 60 minutes in person, though they became 75 minutes once Jay was able to stay focused for longer. The coach also followed up with text exchanges to keep Jay on track 2-3 times a week. Jay shared access to his online Schoology account to keep the coach informed, and the two of them decided that Google docs was a good way to share work in progress. The coach kept Jay’s parents in the loop with a weekly email and through portal notes. The parents also asked for a monthly 30-minute consult to ask more detailed questions about Jay’s work.
Jay’s Progress with Coaching
Coaching Approach: His coach had to tackle the particular challenges Jay faced – disorganization, writing challenges, and attention – in a way that would not overwhelm him. Jay was somewhat motivated but also anxious. Early wins were important, so the coach tackled small things that were achievable. At first, it was simply staying focused for 5 minutes before taking a break, filing papers for just one subject, and figuring out how to organize one paragraph. As Jay’s capacity to work grew to 10, 15, and then 20-30 minutes through feedback and encouragement, the coach used more sophisticated tools and strategies. To help him with what he and his coach called “Stuff Management,” the coach taught Jay a four-tiered filing system. To address the disorganization in his writing, the coach demonstrated a foolproof paragraph organizer, a whole paper management system, and a method for creating outlines both before and after drafting a persuasive essay. For his difficulty sustaining attention, the coach used a homework planning system that broke the work up into manageable chunks and also showed him a method for returning to his work after breaks. The coach very carefully began where Jay was in terms of skill and attitude to bring him to a place where he could be more receptive to those tools and strategies that, in the long run, would make the greatest difference in helping him.
Six-Month Progress Update: Within six months, Jay had given up a number of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. Instead of thinking of himself as disorganized, as if that were a permanent state, he realized that he became anxious when class was winding down, so he did things that created more problems later, such as stuffing everything into his backpack to rush to class. With modest experiments and feedback from his coach, he gradually found that he had time to file his classwork and assignments without the anxiety. Also, by getting an outline done in coaching sessions and a “good enough” draft done early on a shared Google doc, he was able to take advantage of the feedback from the school Writing Center. Grades moved up from the C range to consistently in the B range. Most importantly, his attentional capacity had dramatically improved, which had a tremendous effect on his self-confidence and willingness to take on greater challenges. It wasn’t that paying attention was easy for him; he just knew how to manage it better now.
Long-Term Outcome: Jay is at a respected four-year private college now. For his first three semesters, he received all A’s with a full course load. He is currently studying abroad, navigating another university and country on his own. He has succeeded in marketing internships and in his work for the school newspaper. His parents are proud of his tremendous success. He stays in touch with his coach for updates and, on rare occasions, for advice. He has learned how to manage the fact that paying attention is harder for him than for some of his peers, but he consistently performs well. Perhaps most importantly, he has tremendous confidence in himself that he has earned through overcoming what used to be his greatest obstacle.
What Can Parents Do to Help Their Middle School Children Develop Executive Function Skills?
When your child loses track of belongings at school
Troubleshoot with your middle schooler. If he finds that bringing his entire backpack with him throughout the day, rather than stopping at his locker, enables him to get to class on time and/or reduces anxiety, then why not request that he be allowed to carry a backpack to class? Or, maybe a conversation with his homeroom teacher could help him get a locker that’s more centrally located. If he finds that he’s spending time at the end of class scrambling to put away loose papers, help him to create a filing system that works for him. Whether it’s a separate folder with sections for “to do” work and “to pass in” work or a compartment within his binder, what matters is that he’s willing to use it.
When your child forgets to bring home materials
If your child is willing to try it, request a daily “backpack check”. This means that before leaving school for the day, your child checks in with a teacher or counselor who can prompt them with the following questions: “Do you know what your assignments are, and do you have all the necessary materials needed to complete the assignments? If not, let’s find them.” The idea is that the support will gradually be faded, so that student will develop the habit of independently asking themselves these questions before heading home each day. At home, help your child to bookmark her teachers’ websites on the computer so she can more easily check assignments that have been posted online.
When in-class assignments are overwhelming
Here’s a chance for your child to practice self-advocacy skills. One option is to ask a teacher for a “heads up” the day before about the prompts and allow the student to come in with some bullet points they have prepared in advance. If the student discusses a plan with the teacher ahead of time for how they will complete a particular assignment (the plan can be as simple as bringing it home to have additional time to formulate and write down ideas), most teachers will be willing to help. If she does not yet feel ready to take the step of approaching the teacher, a parent or Executive Function coach can guide her in composing an email to the teacher to ask for extra time and/or modifications.
Organizing a home workspace
- Designate a separate and quiet work area at home. Make sure there’s a desk or tabletop with good lighting and comfortable seating (or a large exercise ball for kids who need to fidget).
- Hang up the school schedule and a small whiteboard or bulletin board for posting reminders.
- Use In and Out homework trays to track new and completed assignments.
- Have an organizer for things in-progress, to do later, and file away.
Organizing school supplies
- Use a 5 subject notebook and binders with tabs to consolidate course notes when allowed.
- Color code supplies by subject. For example, make the composition book, folder, and binder for class X all red. Textbooks can also be color coded using book sock covers. Color coding makes supplies easy to track and sort. It’s an especially helpful strategy when there’s an extensive supply list or your child is using a locker and transitioning between classrooms.
- Label all binders, notebooks, and folders with their respective subject. Add the student’s name and homeroom to the inside flap of everything so it can be returned if it’s ever lost.
Organizing the backpack
- It’s best to start with a durable backpack with enough zipper compartments so that everything can have an assigned pocket. Things are less likely to get lost if they are always kept in the same place. For example, pens should always be kept in the same front pocket for quick and easy access.
- Prepare the backpack the night before and station it by the front door for school the next morning to minimize frantic morning searches.
- Sort through and clean out the backpack and its contents at least once a week. This will prevent loose papers and old snacks from collecting and provide you the heads up when you need to replenish supplies of pens or paper (before it becomes an emergency).
- Use a weekly homework planner and update it consistently. Highlight important due dates in a noticeable color, and cross off assignments as they are completed. An important tip for making planners work well for a student is to write “no homework” when nothing is due the next day rather than leave a subject blank. Why? It’s a great double-check strategy – when students actively note “no homework” days, they are both reminding themselves that they checked and teaching themselves that a blank space in their planner needs further investigation.
- Use a paper clip, binder clip, or personalized bookmark to mark the page or week inside the planner so it’s easy to flip to in a hurry.
- Have an expandable 7-pocket file folder or accordion folder divided by subject for all homework. Keeping all homework in one folder divided by subject makes it easier to remember and carry between classes or to and from school.
Maintain organization consistently
Students who are organized are equipped to perform better in school. And just as you need to maintain your house (or your health) with regular attention, students also need to maintain their organizational systems on a regular basis.
Help your child reflect and set their own goals
Middle school students are starting to build greater self-awareness, gaining an understanding of who they are as learners. This ability, known as metacognition, is an important Executive Function skill for lifelong success. Parents can encourage self-awareness by helping their students think carefully about what they’d like to accomplish for any given time period. Goal-setting does not need to be only for January 1st or the start of a new school year! Here are 6 steps to effective goal-setting with your middle school student.
1) Take Ownership: Take time to brainstorm with your middle schooler some of the challenges they face. Remember, to see results, your child’s goal needs to emerge from them truly wanting to improve something about their life. (In other words, just because you may want their backpack more organized doesn’t necessarily mean they want that as their goal.)
2) Keep It Simple: Focus on one goal area at a time. Even though we may have several things we want to improve, if we get overwhelmed by trying to accomplish too much, we will be right back where we started. So what is it your child could benefit from most?
- Being more organized?
- Managing your time better?
- Staying focused in class?
- Planning ahead?
- Managing frustration?
3) Make It SMART: When we think of SMART goals, we think of goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. SMART goals provide the roadmap to how you’ll work toward your objectives. SMART goals can often start with a fuzzier big-picture goal. Below, you’ll see some examples of how to turn “fuzzy” goals into something sharp that invites real action.
- BIG PICTURE GOAL: I want to be more organized. While an admirable goal, do you notice there’s no “how” here? There’s no way to judge whether you’re working toward the goal when you keep at this vague level.
- SMART GOAL: I will stay organized by filing important papers into different colored folders for each subject and recycling unneeded papers at the end of each school day, leaving no loose papers in my locker or backpack.
- BIG PICTURE GOAL: I want to manage my time better and get my school work done.
- SMART GOAL: In order to better manage my time, I will start homework as soon as I arrive home at 4pm and avoid my phone and TV until 6pm or until all homework is complete.
- BIG PICTURE GOAL: I want to stay focused in class and ignore distractions.
- SMART GOAL: During class times, I will ignore distractions by keeping my cell phone in my backpack, sitting in the front of the room, and taking detailed notes in a notebook designated for each class.
- BIG PICTURE GOAL: I want to stop procrastinating.
- SMART GOAL: As homework, the day a project or assignment is given, I will break the project into steps and create personal deadlines leading up to the due date in order to plan ahead and avoid procrastination.
4) Track your progress: SMART goals are measurable, so each week help your child reflect on their progress. Ask your child:
- Have you stuck to your goal? If not, what is holding you back?
- Is it a realistic goal for you or is there something you need to change to make it more attainable?
- What specifically will you do next week to make sure you come closer to success?
5) Celebrate your accomplishments: Each week as you and your child reflect on progress, be proud of the small things they are accomplishing. They may not have all the pieces in place yet, but take the time to recognize those attempts forward.
6) Continue owning that new habit: This is not just a goal; this is your child’s new self! They have accomplished what they thought they couldn’t! Encourage your child to keep it up, create new goals, and continue to improve their life.
Encourage your child to use graphic organizers for writing assignments
A graphic organizer functions as a template, formatted to keep a student’s writing organized. For students who feel overwhelmed by a writing task, graphic organizers provide a way to break up the task into clear and manageable parts. It’s like a road map to show them where to go. Many students find that once they learn how to organize an essay with a graphic organizer, writing becomes easier and much less stressful.
Build self-advocacy skills to prepare for a successful transition to high school
As early as possible but no later than the time a student reaches seventh or eighth grade, students need to be able to advocate for themselves. Though these skills tend to be more difficult for students with ADHD and Executive Function challenges, fortunately, all of them are teachable. Particularly for tests, papers and projects, the following self-monitoring and self-advocacy skills are critical:
- The student checks the due date in the instructions and confirms it with the teacher to recognize the relative urgency of a matter, so he/she tackles the project in a timely way.
- The student paraphrases instructions to be sure that he/she understands them and knows what all of the different parts of the assignment are.
- When frustrated or upset, the student suspends disbelief and tries assuming that the teacher wants all students to succeed if they work hard, including her/him.
- Both in class and at home, the student determines any points of confusion and makes notes for questions to bring to the teacher for clarification.
- The student communicates with the teacher (by email if possible) to set a time for help on specific questions.
- In a meeting with the teacher, the student has a reliable method to record (notes, recording pen/app for example) any new information.
- The student asks follow up questions when the explanations aren’t making sense to her/him.
- The student constructs a timeline and gets support from someone (a parent, the teacher, or a professional Executive Function/ADHD coach) to ensure follow through.
- The student shows the teacher progress at least once or twice (more for bigger projects) for quality control.
While no single tactic guarantees success, these approaches give students the best chance possible to build a relationship with the teacher, to understand the assignment, and to stay ahead of deadlines. These steps will also help them advocate for themselves for years to come, so they can manage themselves effectively in high school and, beyond that, in college.