By Ben Mosher, MA
Executive Function Coach
The start of the Fall 2021 semester is upon us, and it comes with a wide variety of emotions, expectations, and of course, excitement. For some, this provides an opportunity to explore a new city, make new relationships, and continuing the ever-long journey of finding yourself. For other students, this semester is an opportunity to get back to a sense of normal. With fewer online classes, more in-person socialization, and even getting to return to campus after too long of an absence. All of these are welcomed changes but can be a little intimidating after a year of being a remote student. Whether it is to adjust back to in-person classes, develop stronger time management skill, or just having difficulty adjusting to the college environment, an executive function or academic coach can be a helpful resource to have throughout your college journey.
Executive function skills are one of the most critical tools linked to success in college. These skills are time management, self-organization, self-restraint, self-motivation, and self-regulation of emotions. Although none of these skills are taught in class they are generally learned through experience, practice, and external support. It is these skills that come in handy when adjusting to the college environment. Students in the Boston area may plan to go to class, speak with their RA about a roommate issue, get to the library to work on a paper, and try to catch the Red Sox game all in one day. Without proper time management, that day can quickly fall behind, and that student may only get through a few items on that list. Even worse, if those items are not prioritized effectively, the pressing items may not have gotten done, of course, they will always make time for the Red Sox.
As you are getting settled on campus this Fall there are going to be a lot of pulls for your time, attention, and energy. It comes down to your ability to display strong self-restraint to ensure that the less desirable but more important tasks are prioritized over more enjoyable ones. For example, students at UMass Boston may want to go to Carson Beach instead of sitting in the library on a beautiful fall day preparing for the next round of exams. The ability to say no is not easy, especially when you see your friends electing to play rather than work. A helpful recommendation is setting those fun activities as rewards after the work has been completed, and you have aced that exam. That is not to say that there cannot be fun and enjoyment in a successful college schedule. In fact, making time for it is a crucial part of minimizing burnout.
The academic rigor and the pressure put on Boston University, Harvard, and similar high-ranking university students can be overwhelming. Students feel like all they have time to do is go to class and study. Especially if they are constantly comparing and competing against their peers. This can turn into burnout and resulting in finishing the semester with less than desirable grades. It is an important, early step in the semester to plan out a routine, put major assignments in your regularly used calendar, and identify times and events focused on self-care. At Tufts University there are several blogs written by students highlighting the importance of taking time away from their academic demands to do something not directly related to their schoolwork. The students found that without taking small parts of each day for themselves they would not have been able to achieve as well as they did with the incorporation of self-care. Again, looking to take advantage of the whole college experience and being a high-achieving student can be possible with the implantation of strong executive function skills.
Another challenge that can come with a new semester is once the novelty of the new classes, routine, and environment wears off there can be a decrease in self-motivation. This can look many ways; a boring class’s discussion posts aren’t getting done, skipping a class because you know attendance won’t be taken, and going to that party on Wednesday when you know you really should be studying. No matter how it looks, it can put students in a pretty deep hole that is difficult to climb out of. Some students can’t climb out of that hole and, as a result, are on academic probation for the upcoming semester. It is not realistic to expect to have the same level of motivation every single day of the semester, but there are ways to ensure that the dip in motivation does not result in failing to meet your goals. It is the act of developing and writing out the goals for the semester that can be a helpful step to still get the tedious work done in a semester when your motivation is not at its highest. It can also be helpful to use external supports for moments when your motivation is low. Students at Emmanuel College can take a course for credit to learn strategies and then can work with an academic advisor throughout the semester to ensure the proper implementation of these skills. Looking to connect with an academic coach, study group, and attending regular office hours are other ways to help ensure that you are remaining on top of the work.
It is not just motivation that will fluctuate over the semester, there are going to be some bad days. These are the days where one thing could sabotage our plan for the rest of the day, week, or even the semester. It can be a break-up, a bad test score, feeling homesick, or something else entirely. The point is that they are going to happen, and it is important to be prepared for them when they do. A student’s ability to regulate their emotions is another important executive function skill linked to success. Part of the college experience is finding yourself, and through that journey will come at least a few bumps in the road. When these bumps occur, our emotions tend to take over and push our plans to side and do the decision making for us. An important skill is to recognize when these moments are happening and work to get yourself back to a more natural state. This can be done through grounding exercises like deep breathing, mediation, or simply taking a short walk. These can be helpful for smaller moments of emotional dysregulation, but there are larger moments that may need more support. Students should look to connect with their school’s counseling services early in the semester to be familiar with them. Students at Curry College have access to the Mind Spa where they can practice stress reduction actives in a safe and controlled environment. It is important to know what resources are available to you before being in a moment when you really need them.
There are also resources available in the Boston area that are not directly related to any particular college. Collegiate Coaching Services works with students from multiple Boston area colleges. They have many years of experience working with college students looking to improve their executive function skills with support and an executive function or academic coach. Working with your coach to overcome these academic challenges is beneficial by letting students learn from small mistakes and implanting the skills and strategies to prevent larger ones.