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Supporting Study Skills in a Remote Setting

By Kate Ryan

In my role as an educational consultant for the Landmark School Outreach Program, I see many teachers grappling with the best way to adapt their tried-and-true teaching methodologies to this new school landscape. Many experienced educators are feeling as though, after decades in the classroom, this is their first year of teaching all over again! The challenges are wide and varied: in-person teachers must manage staying distant from their students and teaching in a mask, teachers whose schools follow a hybrid model are tasked with staying organized in a constantly shifting schedule, and those educators who are fully remote face the challenge of engaging their students in a meaningful way. Whatever the learning environment, there are so many new strategies, apps, and best-practices to discover in an attempt to best support students. Although there is much uncertainty facing all of us, I do see a central question emerging from the dedicated and talented teachers with whom I partner: how can we support students who struggle with executive function to access content in a remote setting? No matter the setting, teachers are keenly aware that their students are also struggling to adjust to the new norms at school. 

You are not alone if you have students who are struggling to:

  • navigate the nuances of class codes and internet access to show up to the correct online meeting space.
  • sort through hundreds of new emails and learn Google Classroom, Canvas, or any other learning management system notifications to locate important information. 
  • follow all necessary steps to completely turn in assignments online.
  • regulate their emotions because they are completely overwhelmed by the volume of information. 

Although these sets of challenges are unfamiliar and daunting to even the most seasoned educators, there is some good news: there are steps we can take and strategies we can employ to support our students and improve their ability to navigate new and incoming information. Before we examine these steps, let’s take a moment to define and review the clusters of executive function. 

According to Patricia W. Newhall in her text, Language-Based Learning Series: Executive Function: Foundations for Learning and Teaching, “Executive Function is the brain’s ability to coordinate the cognitive and psychological processes needed to initiate, sustain, monitor and adapt the behaviors and attitudes required to achieve a goal” (2012, p.2).  Additionally, Dr. Thomas E. Brown defines what he calls the six clusters of executive function: activation, focus, effort, emotion, memory, and action. Now, let’s examine the definition and the six clusters in the context of remote learning, which by nature taps deeply into the executive functions. For example, teachers may have seen students struggle to adapt behaviors and routines from their previous in-person classroom experiences to their new remote learning environment.  Teachers may have also observed that some students have difficulty sustaining their attention and monitoring their behaviors to follow through with a task from the beginning to the end. Remote learning can also tax students’ memory, and as a result teachers may have seen students struggle to easily join a remote class via Zoom or Meet because they were too overloaded with information from varying directions. Any of these scenarios, all of which are language and memory heavy, can impact students’ emotions and can lead to feelings of being completely overwhelmed.

In short, remote learning places a heavy burden on our students. So, how can we not only support students with weaknesses in executive function, but also help all students feel success in remote learning? Although we are all learning new strategies as we go, here are some suggestions:  

  • Apply the same explicit, systematic instruction of study skills (the management of materials, time and language) in-person as you would in a remote setting. 
    • Time and materials management: To give students a sense of time and order in your class, create an “opening slide” on a Google Slides or PowerPoint presentation that has the day, date, class and reminder for materials for the day. Then have another slide with the agenda for the day. This system mirrors what you might have written on the board in your classroom. Repeating this process every day will help to build and establish an opening routine with your students and help them activate for your class. Posting and reviewing an agenda also helps support students’ memory and create a predictable pattern so students know what to expect, which can reduce anxiety.
    • Materials management: Helping students organize their digital files is just as important as helping them organize a physical binder. With a physical binder, teachers can help students create clearly labeled sections and direct them to put specific papers in certain sections of the binder. The same thinking applies to digital files. Be specific about how you, as the teacher, want students to organize their digital files, including naming conventions for folders, subfolders, and files. For more details and suggestions about what this could look like in a Google Classroom, please see this additional resource. Helping students keep their digital files organized not only supports students’ effort, but it also gives them an organizational system that can help them to feel less overwhelmed.
    • Management of language and information: Think about all the ways students are receiving information from teachers: emails; announcements on a Google Classroom stream, Canvas platform, or Seesaw stream; posts on a Google Site; weekly summaries on a Google Doc with links to click on, etc. Navigating all the different sources of information and then determining what to do and how to prioritize tasks becomes challenging for students who struggle with executive function. Deciding on one way to communicate with your students is important. Creating a system as a grade level team or school is even better to  streamline the language and information being presented to students.  

References

Newhall, P. W. (2012). Executive function: Foundations for learning and teaching. In P. W. Newhall (Ed.), Language-based teaching series. Prides Crossing, MA: Landmark School Outreach Program.

Kate currently works as an Outreach consultant where she partners with schools in different capacities to help support students with language-based learning disabilities. Previously, Kate taught algebra I, language-arts tutorials, and student advocates at Landmark High School. Kate was also a special educator at a public middle school and public charter high school where she taught small group math classes and managed a caseload of students. While working at the public charter high school, Kate was also a special education department head and then an assistant principal. Kate holds a BA from Colby College with a major in human development and minor in mathematics, and she earned her master’s degree in special education from Simmons University.

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