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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Why Freshman Year Was a Strikeout: Poor Executive Function Skills

From Beyond BookSmart's
Executive Functioning Strategies Blog

By Jennifer Flewelling, M.Ed.
August 8, 2016

In my first year of college I attended a small, private school in southern New Hampshire. My 18-year-old self was thrilled at the prospect of starting this new adventure. This would be my first experience living away from home, fending for myself, and being completely self-reliant. I could not have been more excited!

And, as it turns out, I could not have been more ill-prepared...

I admit, I was overwhelmed with the freedom freshman year provided me. Being my first time unmonitored by my parents, I felt incredibly liberated to go where I wanted, when I wanted, and with whom I wanted. I became engrossed in the social dynamics of college and my focus on academics diminished.


Repeatedly I assured myself, “That will get done tomorrow…I’ll take care of that tonight…this can wait until later…”

The problem was, of course, that the tasks that should have been the focus of my time and effort, like homework and studying for exams, ended up on the bottom of the To-Do list for the day. My grades fell - fast - and I found myself sliding deeper and deeper into an academic hole, with the startling realization that mom and dad were not there to help pull me up.

Depression and anxiety were my silent partners that year - always present and lingering in the background. The fact of the matter was that I had set off on my collegiate journey with poor executive function skills in three key areas. And I paid the price.



Planning and Prioritizing

As a freshman student, I carried a course load of 15 credits each semester. Managing five courses at a time requires keen skills in planning and prioritizing. I didn’t know how to establish priorities and order my work in terms of urgency and importance. I hadn’t developed strategies for accomplishing tasks within a given time period.


Instead of taking a holistic approach to managing my course work, I fell into the bad habit of living day to day, or hour to hour, struggling to keep pace with assignment due dates.

Poor planning and prioritizing skills: strike one.


Task Initiation

Homework has never been a preferred task in my world. My poor father tried everything he could think of to entice me to do homework. He would spend hours sitting with me, prompting me to generate ideas and consider what the teachers were expecting within an assignment. At one point my father actually made signs, “Just Do It” with the Nike swoosh as an added graphic, and hung them throughout my room in an attempt to somehow motivate me to begin my studies.

I was a bright child and perfectly capable of mastering challenging content, but I felt perpetually stuck at the start of any assignment or project. In college this proved to be disastrous.

I avoided writing papers for my classes, because I could not figure out how to get started and the assignment felt so daunting that I emotionally shut down. As the looming deadlines moved closer and my anxiety rose, it prompted me to push it out of my mind and continue to avoid the task.

Poor task initiation skills: strike two.


Time Management

One of the challenges I faced freshman year was effectively budgeting my time. I didn’t know how to allot the requisite amount of time to complete a task. I frequently underestimated the time needed for an assignment, waited too long to begin my studies for the evening, and ended up struggling through all-nighters. And I never seemed to learn from my mistakes and recalibrate for the next time.

Poor time management skills: strike three.


And before I knew it, I was out.

I ended up transferring to a school close to home. I moved back in with my family and spent the next three years commuting to school and learning day by day, for the first time ever, how to be an effective student. My freshman experience would have been markedly different had I come to bat with the executive function skills I needed to manage my academic workload.


Paying It Forward

Fortunately, I have taken my rough start at college, and subsequent turnaround, as a way to connect with the students I coach.

I teach them how to review each class syllabus at the start of the semester and begin populating their calendars with assigned due dates, for example. My students learn how to break down long term assignments into smaller, more manageable steps and assign to each step a designated timeframe.


To support task initiation, I now coach students to employ the 5-Minute Goal strategy, in which they determine one or two specific outcomes to be achieved in the next 5 minutes of study time.

My students also recognize how graphic organizers can help put writing assignments in perspective and under control.

In time, I developed the skills and strategies necessary to manage my course load, a part-time job, a social life, and I even joined the tennis team in my junior year. College ended on a high note for me, thankfully.


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Jennifer Flewelling, M.Ed. is an Executive Function coach with Beyond BookSmart, as well as a certified elementary school teacher and principal, with 17 years experience in education. Jennifer has developed English Language Arts curricula, consulted with local school districts, and is now instructing in teacher preparation and educational leadership programs at Salem State University and Endicott College. A graduate of Salem State University, Jennifer spearheaded various general education initiatives focusing on supporting students’ academic, social, and emotional growth.

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