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Academics & Arts
Upper School@Home

Executive Functioning: Upper School@Home

Executive functions are involved with most aspects of daily life, including learning, emotions and social situations. The transition to Laurel School@Home presents many new opportunities to utilize and strengthen executive functioning skills.

Leveraging Executive Functioning for Remote Learning in Upper School

This week's focus is on the skills of SELF-MONITORING and WORKING MEMORY
As always, Laurel's team of psychologists is ready and available to support girls and their families. Don't hesitate to reach out to Dr. Cordiano (tCordiano@LaurelSchool.org) or Dr. Pearlman (iPearlman@LaurelSchool.org) with any questions or concerns.

  • Estimate work time: encourage your daughter to estimate how long a certain task might take to complete. Then have her check her estimate against the actual time it takes to complete the task. This can help girls notice when distractions might stretch their work longer or give them important feedback about rushing through work too quickly.
  • Use a timer: encourage your daughter to set a timer while she is working to get a sense of how much work can be done at one time and further strengthen time management and work efficiency. Any timer, including those from voice-controlled speakers (e.g., Echo), a phone timer, or a visual timer (e.g., www.timetimer.com) will work for this purpose.
  • Review directions: girls who read directions at the start of the task, reference the directions while working and review the directions before completing work are more likely to notice errors and missed aspects of an assignment.
  • Proofread and check for errors: especially as she is doing more work online, help your daughter get in the habit of reading her work out loud for errors and/or using a proofreading checklist to look for common mistakes (e.g., capitalization and punctuation for written work, paying attention to operation signs for math and science work).

  • Give directions in multiple formats: different girls benefit from different ways of connecting with information. Giving directions in written and verbal form allows girls to select which strategy works best for them.
  • Simplify information: particularly as they are adjusting to different ways of learning and working, avoid overwhelming girls with too much information at once. Keep directions, whether verbal or written, simple and clear to avoid confusion and increase focus and follow-through.
  • Use external storage: whether it’s a to-do list on a scrap of paper, a tidy schedule on a colorful whiteboard or an app set to give reminders at certain times, reliable external systems can decrease the burden on working memory and keep information from falling through the cracks.

Additional Strategies Include:

  • Minimize distractions: encourage your daughter to remove unnecessary distractions from her workspace. This includes obvious distractions such as electronic devices (when she doesn’t need them for work) but in a home setting could also include loud conversations between other family members, noisy siblings or the sound of the television. Consider noise-cancelling headphones and physical barriers between people working in the same space. Do the best you can, knowing that when everyone in the family is sharing the same space, certain distractions are unavoidable. 
  • Review directions: your daughter may benefit from having directions in multiple forms - some girls prefer verbal directions, some can read directions on a screen and some need directions written or printed out. If your daughter gets stuck at the start of a task, ask her to tell you the directions in her own words to ensure she understands what is being asked of her. 
  • Break down tasks: if your daughter struggles to get started, help her divide complex tasks into smaller steps. For more structure, encourage her to write down steps to check off as she completes them. Encourage her to use a timer to complete specific steps or parts of a larger task (e.g., “I’m going to work on this for at least 20 minutes now…”).
  • Offer choices: when possible, think with your daughter about the order in which she wants to complete her work, to offer autonomy and increase motivation.
  • Take breaks: brain breaks that include physical activity are key to helping girls get started on tasks throughout the day. Most younger girls need brain breaks after 35-45 minutes of sustained academic work.

  • Create a workspace: encourage your daughter to create a workspace that is conducive to academic work. Make sure that her workspace allows for seated work and standing work, has necessary supplies and is clean and free from distractions.
  • Make a schedule: create a schedule that works for your family. This can range from a loose routine with certain blocks for certain types of activities to a highly structured order for girls who thrive with more detail. Be open to tweaking the schedule as you discover what works best for your daughter and your family.
  • Use a checklist: having a visual checklist can help girls stay on-task and see what is left to do. Encourage your daughter to check off tasks as she completes them throughout the day.
  • Beware of complicated systems: overly complex organizational systems (think color coding, multiple folders and specialized tools) can actually hinder efficiency and create unnecessary clutter and distractions. Decide with your daughter the simplest strategies to keep her on track.
  • Plan for breaks: be sure to include planned breaks in your daughter’s schedule. Breaks for snacks and meals, physical activity and leisure help to round out her plan for the day.

  • Maintain routines: adhere to regular routines for bedtime, mealtimes, work time and leisure time. Ask your daughter to write her general order of activities throughout the day. If your daughter is going to bed later, help her work backwards from the time she needs to be ready for school to determine an appropriate bedtime.
  • Take breaks: encourage a variety of options for physical activity, including yoga, walking the dog, outside play or aerobic exercise (e.g., jump rope, jumping jacks, calisthenics). Most girls need brain breaks after 35-45 minutes of structured academic work.
  • Prioritize play: offer a variety of low-tech leisure activities, including art and active play/sports activities 
  • Discuss emotions: check-in with your daughter about how she is feeling and offer to listen or to help come up with ideas to manage those feelings
  • Normalize reactions: help your daughter understand that sadness, anger, disappointment, worry, confusion, frustration and other intense emotions are normal and understandable reactions to this situation

  • Change it up: encourage a change of scenery while working (e.g., completing some work in a different area of the house, working outside when conditions allow)
  • Take breaks: walking away and doing something else for a time can help girls clear their minds and return ready to approach a problem in a new way
  • Review directions: encourage your daughter to state task directions in her own words to ensure she understands what is being asked of her
  • Clarify her question(s): help your daughter move beyond, “I’m stuck,” by asking her to state or write her specific question(s) about the task
  • Problem-solve asking for help: think with your daughter about specific ways to get help when she needs it, including checking in with her teacher, asking a classmate or working with a parent or older sibling
  • Embrace the YET: use growth mindset language to help your daughter reframe mistakes as important learning tools and normalize that everyone is learning through making mistakes during these uncertain times


  • Emotion regulation: identifying and managing intense emotions, like anger, frustration and disappointment
  • Flexibility: shifting between tasks, generating multiple solutions to problems
  • Initiation: beginning a task, from generating ideas to actually starting the work
  • Organization: using effective and reliable systems for managing work and belongings
  • Planning: making and adhering to a short- or long-term plan
  • Self-monitoring: monitoring one’s pace of work, allocating time strategically and catching one’s mistakes
  • Working memory: holding and using information in short-term memory

Each week, we will focus on 2-3 executive functions and present strategies to help your daughter leverage her executive functioning skills for remote learning.

These strategies are offered in the spirit of supporting your family, should you find them helpful. Given the demands placed upon everyone during these uncertain times, no family should feel obligated to follow these strategies - or even to read any further if you’ve reached your limit of new information for the day!

If you are interested in even more content on executive functioning, Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls’ (LCRG) Research Brief “Executive Functioning and Study Skills in Girls” offers additional research-backed information. Resilience and executive functioning go hand-in-hand. You can find detailed information on LCRG’s five components of resilience, which help support girls’ executive functioning, on the LCRG website.
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