Executive Functioning Help for Students Adjusting to On-Line Instruction Due to the Coronavirus, and Beyond

Executive Functioning Help for Students Adjusting to On-Line Instruction Due to the Coronavirus, and Beyond

As if it’s not enough for them to cope with our unprecedented coronavirus (COVID-19), pandemic, many students all over the nation are also having to deal with related school closings which means having to adjust to a new reality of web-based academic instruction until it is safe to attend classes again.

While some would imagine that on-line learning is less stressful than the classroom, this is far from true for many students. Web-based academic instruction may present an enormous challenge for many students, particularly those who struggle with understanding, initiating, and attending to tasks, also known as executive functioning.

As an Executive Function Coach for over eight years as well as having attended a hybrid graduate program with a heavy emphasis on online learning, I can also relate to the challenges of modifying successful classroom strategies into a form that is conducive to web-based platforms that our educational system is trying to tackle at the present time.

Transitioning from traditional brick and mortar classroom settings to an entirely web-based platform poses multiple concerns as it relates to executive functioning. In order to proactively address these concerns, it is important to understand what domains of executive functioning may be impacted by the current abrupt transition to this instructional format and how effective executive functioning can be of benefit:

  • Self-Monitoring and Metacognition. To put it simply, self-monitoring refers to paying attention to your behaviors and metacognition refers to paying attention to your thoughts. These skillsets provide a basis upon which behavioral change occurs. In online classes, problems often arise in the form of competing reinforcers, or “creature comforts”, that are readily available to us while working remotely from home or in similar spaces. In order to fulfill obligations in such a setting, asserting control over unhelpful behaviors and regulating thoughts is crucial.
  • Time Management. This domain involves understanding how long tasks will realistically take to complete and using that information to plan when and how long to work on them. Since time is an abstract concept, understanding how to manage it is often hard for students whose abstract reasoning skills are not fully developed. Suddenly having to function in the even more abstract time environment of web-based learning platforms can exacerbate this problem for many students.
  • Planning and Prioritizing. Planning involves thinking about the steps needed to accomplish a task, whereas prioritizing entails completing the most important task first. Online coursework will be harder for many students to conceptualize as a priority. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the other competing tasks may require less input for a more valuable output (i.e., it’s less work and likely more enjoyable to watch Netflix than do Stats homework!). Breaking down a task into concrete steps helps create a more effective time management and prioritization process.
  • Task Initiation and Completion. Developing plans and allocating time is only part of the battle! Perhaps the hardest step for many is the actual execution of these tasks. Task initiation involves starting work independently and task completion involves maintaining focus until the task at hand is completed. Because the first step is clearly defined, plan development facilitates both task initiation and task completion.

If they are able to master the executive function domains listed above, students will enjoy a smoother transition to on-line instructional platforms. But if they are experiencing difficulties with this process, addressing it sooner than later is highly recommended

During this stressful time, please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions regarding executive functioning or have a student in need of executive function coaching. Executive function coaching sessions are available both in-person at my office or via teleconference.


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