Why is My Bright Student Struggling in School?

March 7, 2024

At Summit, we’ve been getting one particular phone call over and over again from parents: my bright student is not keeping up in school. In many cases, the student did well before starting middle or high school but the increased academic demands at the higher grade levels have thrown them off course. What’s keeping these bright kids from doing their best?

Executive Function Skills are an Important Piece of the Puzzle

While there are many reasons why students may start to fall behind in middle or high school, and it’s important to consult with your child’s school to get a complete picture, lagging executive function skills may be a contributing factor.

Academic challenges tend to increase each year. The content becomes more challenging as does the process of staying on top of an increasing academic load. In higher grades, students have to juggle an increased number of academic subjects with more advanced materials, satisfy the specific requirements of each of their teachers, and manage assignments which demand more long-term planning and organization. Students may have inherited or created systems of organization and studying that worked very well in younger grades, but eventually begin to show weakness as educational demands increase.

It can be extremely puzzling (and downright frustrating) for parents to see their bright student struggle to get the work done efficiently, effectively – or at all. When it comes to getting the work done in school (and in life), intelligence alone isn’t enough. Students also need strong executive functioning skills especially in middle and high school, which require a greater degree of self-regulation and independence with each passing year.

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning (EF) skills are what enable us to complete tasks effectively. These skills include attention regulation, cognitive flexibility, planning, organization, self-monitoring, impulse control, inhibition, motivation, task initiation and persistence. EF skills are essential for managing new situations and demands.

EF skills develop throughout childhood, with development continuing into the teens and early adulthood. For some students, the demands of school outpace their still-developing EF skill set. This is an especially common scenario for students with learning differences, who often struggle with EF. In students with ADHD, certain elements of brain maturation can be delayed by 3 to 5 years compared to peers.

Helping Students Improve their Executive Function Skills

There is no “ready made” solution for developing and enhancing executive function. There are tools and techniques such as schedules and checklists which can be helpful, but what works well for one individual may not work as well for another. We each need to come up with a system that will work for us, given our capacities, our challenges and our preferences. Students will need to have buy-in—a sense of ownership—before a proposed system becomes effective.

One of the most effective methods for assisting students develop critical Executive Functioning skills comes through a process of coaching. Coaching is distinct from direct instruction in many ways: it emphasizes encouraging the student to develop a heightened level of awareness about their own thinking process, shortcomings, and strengths without judgment or shame. The focus is to build long-term capacities and the ability to operate more independently without adult support.

A coach is not going to take over a student’s tasks and responsibilities. Instead, the coach will help guide the student to begin to think more critically about their role as a student and what strategies work for them.

Asking the Right Questions

When a student’s academic systems fail or begin to break down, the key is to ask non-judgmental questions to help students focus on their approach:

  • When you’re trying to do your homework, what part feels most difficult?
  • What resources and supports are you using? What additional resources might help?
  • When do you study? How does that fit into the rest of your day?
  • Where do you study? What’s working (or not working) for you about that environment?
  • How much time do you think you will need to set aside to complete a given task?
  • How do you prioritize your assignments?
  • How are you organizing your materials? Your workspace? Your digital environment?
  • How often are you taking breaks? What do your breaks entail? Do they leave you recharged?
  • What does your self-talk sound like? How is it affecting your efforts?
  • How are you feeling about your assignments? How does this affect your motivation for the work?

Through these types of questions, you are signaling to the student that they have ownership over their learning. They will be the ones to identify the challenges, and they will begin to offer solutions. They may not get it right the first time, and they’ll likely need some guidance along the way, but EF coaching is a great way for students to begin to tackle these issues and give them greater confidence to tackle the challenges that they are facing.

The goal of EF coaching is to help students develop a repertoire of self-management skills which will allow them to become more independent, less reliant on adult-provided structure, and more flexible in their approach to learning and embracing new challenges. Students who achieve this will not only become more successful in school but also in life.

To learn more about Summit’s executive functioning coaching, please reach out to one of our Program Directors who can help map out a plan that is right for your student. We are here to help.


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