Three Activities for Homeschoolers to Improve Executive Functions

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, I had noticed that an increasing number of my patients are being homeschooled. In the southern part of Rhode Island where I live, the majority of the homeschoolers are what are described as secular homeschoolers. Their parents have informed me that they do not homeschool their children due to religious or spiritual reasons but because they feel they can provide their children with a better education than they might get in the public schools. Some parents report that the opportunity to pursue interest-based learning in which kids can explore and develop their own passions rather than be structured by a cookie-cutter curriculum is also attractive, while others report concerns about their children’s safety in public schools as well as some of the negative influences they may encounter among their peers. Another concern voiced by my homeschooling patients is that their children are not being taught problem-solving, study, executive-functioning, or social-emotional learning skills in the school setting. These types of soft skills are not part of a classroom teacher’s typical training and are rarely a part of the health curriculum or provided through an individual guidance counselor. Homeschooling parents who want to ensure their kids are learning executive-functioning and social-emotional learning skills often need to do this on their own. Homeschooling curriculum generally do not address these concerns but our team at LW4K has developed many activities for homeschoolers to improve executive functions. 

We have written a series of articles for homeschooling parents and want to describe a few activities for improving executive functions for homeschoolers. Interestingly the homeschooling parents to whom I have spoken report difficulty in finding these types of social-emotional learning and executive-functioning training courses online. It has become increasingly easy to find an engaging online curriculum for academic skills. However, teaching the executive-functioning and social-emotional learning skills that are considered to be crucial for 21st-century jobs and success is left to the parents themselves. Many of them refer to our LearningWorks for Kids website for information about executive-functioning and social-emotional learning skills. Recently we developed LW4K LIVE, a program that provides online small-group, game-based tutoring to teach these types of skills. Thus far, kids are fully engaged by our game-based approach and are learning to apply these executive skills in the real world. 

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  • One of the criticisms of homeschooling in the past was that kids were isolated from others and would have fewer chances to practice nonacademic skills. They had fewer opportunities to engage in gym class or social interactions that happened during lunchtime and in project-based learning. This is no longer the case for most homeschoolers – homeschooling parents often find themselves extremely busy taking their kids from one activity to another. These activities have opened the door for practicing and developing executive-functioning skills. Homeschooling students need to problem-solve, learn to share, practice communication skills, and display flexibility in their relationships with others. In addition, homeschool students need to use executive-functioning skills such as organization and planning so they can get their work done beforehand and skills such as task initiation, task persistence, and time management so that they can fit other activities and playdates into their schedules. Because parents can devote more energy to teaching these skills, homeschooled kids might be better able to master them. 

    Here are 3 activities for homeschoolers to improve specific executive functions. 

    Task Initiation: Focus at the beginning of a task. Show your child how to get yourself ready to start something and then maintaining that focus lends itself to efficiency. Model focus by verbally describing how you want to begin a task. For instance, you could model the steps you take before going to work in the morning by saying, “I need my car keys, cell phone, wallet, briefcase, and lunch.” Your child may develop his own set of verbalizations about checking that he has his backpack, homework, lunch, and gym clothes before leaving for school in the morning. 

    Task Persistence: Find multi-step activities to do together. Sometimes it can be very helpful to teach focused effort and persistence by engaging in tasks that require a series of very simple sequential steps. For example, making recipes with many ingredients, constructing puzzles or following the instructions to build a bookshelf or another piece of furniture can be beneficial. Increase sustained Focus and perseverance by engaging in these types of step-by-step tasks. Developing skills that help your child to not give up readily, and to persevere in the face of difficulties and possible failure, will be very useful. This will increase his potential for being successful and give him an awareness that his success depends on the degree to which he is willing to put effort into a given task. Starting and completing other tasks with many separate steps, such as a science project, making a cake from scratch, or building a complicated Lego model provides opportunities for both frustration and reward. Help your child to experience the rewards of this by praising his effort and teaching him how to find satisfaction through his efforts.

    Flexibility: Practice learning through trial-and-error, rearranging, or randomizing. In video games, children frequently learn directions and expectations by making mistakes until finding an approach that works. In real-world situations, however, children are often reluctant to make mistakes and learn from them and may require practice to become comfortable doing so. It is important to use judgment in practicing trial-and-error learning. For example, seeing if the laptop computer works after dropping it is not appropriate, whereas trying different furniture configurations in the living room, putting flowers into different arrangements, or taking a new route to the store are all great opportunities for learning Flexibility skills. Fun activities for learning how to effectively employ trial-and-error learning include trying on clothes that don’t usually go together, or using random fruits while making a smoothie. Verbally evaluate your experience with these efforts, pointing out both the positive and negative aspects to your child. Demonstrate that you are not afraid to make mistakes and can even laugh when you do.  Encourage your child to talk about lessons learned from his own mistakes. 

    Homeschooling offers an opportunity for active teaching of social-emotional learning and executive-functioning skills that is often not available in public schools with what might be a limited curriculum. Our new LW4K LIVE program provides direct teaching with kids and gives parents many activities and suggestions to take these skills to a higher level.

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