Virtual Learning and EF Skills.

What toll has virtual learning taken on executive function skills?

As schools begin approaching the end of the infamous 2020-2021 school year, it is time to do a little reflecting. One of the areas that needs reflecting upon is student’s executive function skills.

If you have no idea what that is, keep reading, I’ll explain!

What are executive function skills?

Essentially, these skills are what help us to set goals, plan, and manage these goals. These are all the skills that one needs in order to learn, work and manage our lives. These skills are about planning, organizing, regulating emotions, and self-monitoring… just to name a few.

Now that we have a basic idea of what these skills are, let’s look at some specific skills that students need to be successful during virtual learning.

Executive Functions Needed for Virtual Learning

Students work and function best in a predictable environment. They like routine and this year has been anything but routine. Because there have been so many new demands placed on students to maneuver new technology and work more independently, we have seen more students that appear to have executive dysfunction.

Executive dysfunction is when someone has difficulty performing tasks like beginning assignments, trouble following directions, or trouble managing belongings and time.

This does not mean that there is anything wrong with your student if you find they are having some of these issues. This just means that you may need to change up some routines in order to develop executive function skills in your student.

Here are a few of the main executive function skills that your student will need to be successful during virtual learning.


Organization does not just refer to organizing school supplies or their bedroom. This can refer also to a student’s workspace at home as well as their thoughts. When in a normal school setting, much of this organization is being done for a student, but not during virtual.

Planning, prioritization, and time management

With virtual learning, I am sure your student has had to work independently a whole lot more. This means that they have had to do more with prioritizing and planning what assignments need to get done first. Then, they also have to make sure that they are sticking to a schedule and not taking too much time on specific assignments in order to ensure that all daily assignments get completed.

Task Initiation

Sometimes, the hardest part of anything is getting started, and we are seeing this issue in many students during virtual learning. Certain assignments can seem overwhelming before you get going, so to make things easy for themselves, students just don’t start at all. When working virtually, there is no teacher walking around a classroom to make sure a student has begun work, this responsibility is left to the student.

Response inhibition

This is a big term that just means controlling your impulses. This is a skill that most students, and let’s be honest, adults too, have not mastered. When working virtually outside of the classroom, there can be many more distractions. Like the TV, or games, or toys, or a cell phone, or anything that can pull a student off focus.

The Good and the Bad

Much of this academic year has focused on all the negative things that have gone on and how students are being negatively impacted. But I choose to seek out some positive outcomes especially in regards towards executive function skills.

The Positives

Though not all students have learned how to work better independently, many have. As this year has gone on, students have had to adapt to the current state of education. And slowly but surely, many students have learned to be more organized and work successfully through their day.

Students have learned to make lists of the assignments to complete that day and check them off as they get completed. This is teaching organization and prioritization.

Students have learned to stick to a schedule and make sure they are getting to their virtual classes on time. This is also organization and time management.

Students have learned to work in their homes and to set aside or remove themselves from distractions in order to complete assignments. This is working on response inhibition in students.

I am thoroughly aware that not all students have been successful in learning these things. But to varying degrees, these are skills that students have been working on…whether they know it or not.

The Negatives

I am not going to try and sugar coat anything from this year because there have definitely been many negatives. Many students who are having to learn virtually from home are getting a lot of assistance.

This means that many students are not necessarily learning these executive skills, but their parents are completing many of these tasks for them. Now, while this can be a good starting point for students to learn how to organize and manage themselves and their time at home, students need to be let loose at some point.

Virtual learning will end at some point, and while you don’t want to see your student do poorly in school, you also don’t want to hinder their executive function skills. These skills are what every needs to function in every area of their life. So, as a parent, think about the bigger picture, not just the current situation.

How can Parents Help but Not Too Much?

At this point, you may be thinking, “all of this information is great, but what do I do with it?” I am glad you asked because I have several suggestions for how you can help your student as they are learning virtually.

1. Show them how to organize

As a parent, when you are working to organize or list out the tasks your student needs to complete for the day, show them the process. Gradually, you can release this duty to your student. Over time they will know exactly how best to organize their entire virtual school day so they can successfully complete all that they need to get done.

2. Recognize Problems

Help teach your student how to look for and recognize problems while they are working and then teach them to brainstorm solutions. When students are working virtually, they will often have to work independently which also means they may have to problem solve on their own too. This also teaches your student to not just solve problems during virtual learning but it will teach students critical thinking and problem solving skills they can use the rest of their lives.

3. Schedules and Time Logs

When setting up routines make sure that this includes a schedule with set times for classes, activities, or assignments. Make sure a clock is near their work space. This way, as students are learning to manage their time and complete tasks, they can know the exact times that they need to be in specific classes. They also should keep a time log for the first few weeks. Students should log when they start working on homework assignments or studying for a test or quiz. After doing this, you and your student will be able to better plan out their day because they will know how long activities will take.

4. Praise and Consequences

Make sure you acknowledge the efforts of planning, preparing, and organizing that your student is working on. This will also provide you an opportunity to give feedback on areas that they can continue to make improvements in. Additionally, allow natural consequences to occur and let your student learn through trial and error. Trial and error is a faster teacher than any classroom teacher or parent. Maybe they turn in an assignment late and get a deducted grade. You can use this to teach problem solving as well. You can look at what went wrong and then how they can fix it for next time.

Final Takeaways

As you give feedback and work on executive function skills, make sure to not blame or judge your student, this is the fastest way to have them shut down and stop working towards building independent skills.

Though virtual learning, or even hybrid learning, has been rough for all parties involved, it also can provide an opportunity for you as a parent to help your student develop strong executive function skills. Keep a lookout for ways that you can instill confidence in your students skills and also ways to encourage them in areas that they may be weaker in.

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