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Newsletter: 7 things parents can do before and after school to build EF skills (April 5, 2024)

There is a new epidemic in parenting and it's not the Bulldozer Dad or Helicopter Mom.

It's the "Hand-Holder." 🙀

Don't get me wrong, I love to hold my daughters' hands.

But when it comes to teaching them personal responsibility, I often need to "let go" and allow them to try new things.

Let me explain.

What is a "hand holder" parent?

A "hand-holder" parent closely orchestrates nearly every aspect of their child's life, often stepping in to prevent any form of failure or discomfort. This can include:

  • Bringing forgotten homework to school for their child

  • Meticulously organizing their kid's backpack

  • Setting up and overseeing every detail of the study space,

  • And managing all scheduling for the child, from school assignments to social engagements.

If anything doesn't go as planned, these parents tend to blame themselves, believing they haven't done enough.

While these actions stem from a place of love and a desire to support their child, they can inadvertently impede the child’s ability to develop self-reliance, critical thinking, and the capacity to handle adversity, aka, executive function skills.

How do I know if I am a "hand holder"?

First, read the questions below and see what comes up for you:

When your child is struggling with their homework, do you immediately take over, or do you let them think through the problem first?

If your child forgets their sports equipment at home, do you rush to bring it to them, or do you consider it a learning opportunity for next time?

When your child is having trouble with a friend do you step in to fix it, or do you guide them on how to handle the situation themselves?

When it comes to choosing extracurricular activities, are you making the choices based on what you think is best, or do you encourage your child to explore their own interests and make decisions?

If you found yourself leaning toward the spectrum of "doing" things for your child most of the time, you may be leaning into the hand-holding approach.

How hand-holding impacts EF skills

Hand-holding can significantly impede the development of EF skills, which are critical during formative years.

For instance, when a parent consistently organizes their child's schedule, from homework to extracurricular activities, the child misses out on:

  • learning how to prioritize tasks

  • manage their time

  • and set personal goals.

Consider a middle schooler who has never had to pack their own school bag because a parent always checks to ensure everything is in place.

This student might struggle with organizing their assignments or even remembering their obligations without external reminders, skills crucial for personal and academic success.

What happens in high school?

As students transition into high school, the stakes and expectations rise, making EF skills even more essential.

High schoolers whose parents have habitually intervened to mediate conflicts with teachers or friends, for example, may find themselves ill-equipped to navigate the complex social and academic challenges that come their way.

A parent making all the decisions, from which classes to take to how to spend free time, can leave a teenager feeling dependent and unsure of their own judgment.

Such students might lack the confidence and initiative to explore new interests or recover from setbacks independently, qualities that are invaluable in both academic settings and personal development.

What can parents do instead of "hand-holding"?

Let's explore the times of day that parenting impact is greatest: before school and after school.

What parents can do before school to support EF skills?

1. Establish a morning routine 🌅

Create a checklist and time frame for the morning tasks (e.g., getting dressed, eating breakfast, walking out the door).

This helps children understand what needs to be done, in what order, and by when. It's not enough to know it in your head -- you have to externalize it!

2. Prep the night before 👕

Encourage your child to prepare their school bag and outfit the night before. This teaches planning and decision-making skills on a small scale.

3. Use declarative language throughout the routine 🗣️

Model your thinking throughout the morning routine by "declaring" your thinking so that your child can see what someone with a fully developed frontal lobe does in stressful situations.

I am now grabbing my phone, wallet, and keys...

Oh, I see it is raining today! I'll make sure to grab my umbrella and put on my boots.

I'm feeling a little overwhelmed with everything I need to do today -- I'm going to take a few deep breaths.

Start there and slowly add in other strategies as you master these. Let's check out what you can do after school.

What parents can do AFTER school to support EF skills?

4. Establish a homework routine

Work with your child to set a specific time and quiet space for homework to encourage a consistent work ethic and improve focus.

Ensure your activities support your child, rather than distracting them. Perhaps, they are working at the kitchen table while you are preparing dinner. Go body doubling!

5. Break tasks into steps

Help your child break down their homework or projects into smaller, manageable steps. This can improve organizational skills and reduce overwhelm.

Warning: do not DO their homework for them. Focus on using a series of "least prompts" to encourage initiation. Perhaps, pull up the egg timer and ask them how long they are willing to tolerate trying something for.

6. Get a big wall calendar and make planning beautiful

Get a big wall planner with enough space for your child to put in their ideas and plans.

Introduce this tool to do things like:

  • tracking assignments and due dates

  • Scheduling extra curriculars

  • Planning out chores

  • And anything else

This promotes transparency, collaboration, and a shared engagement with time management and prioritization skills, rather than doing it for them in secret.

7. Reflect on the Day

Spend a few minutes discussing what went well and what could be improved from the school day. This fosters self-awareness and problem-solving abilities.

I like to go around the dinner table and share a "grow" and a "glow" from the day. Maybe your family likes the Rose/Thorn/Bud approach. Do what feels good.

A final word

What is one thing you could try from this list to start making the shift to an independence instiller, rather than a "hand-holder"?

Let me know in the comments!

About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 

With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.

He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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