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Lending Our Frontal Lobes for a Smooth Post-Secondary Back to School Transition

11/05/2022
Barb Easter

I can remember sitting in a grad school seminar when the professor, referring to children with executive functioning skill challenges, said we need to remember “to lend our kids our frontal lobes.” What they meant was that for children struggling with executive functioning, as many children with ADHD do, we, as the parents, teachers, and other supporting professionals will often have to directly model and then support the development of these skills with our children and youth. This idea is one I return to frequently as both my daughter and the youth I support in private practice begin their return to on-campus, post-secondary learning. For some students, this month is marking the first return to in-person learning since March of 2020. While for others, this is the first time ever being on campus, as they began their post-secondary experience remotely. As the youth prepare for their transitions, this important idea of lending our frontal lobes has become very timely once again.

Over the past few weeks, I have found myself supporting a number of youth with their plans for in-person academic re-entry. While it is often assumed that students can’t wait to return to an on-campus experience, many are nervous. I have found myself “lending my kids our frontal lobes”. Ideas that may be helpful for other parents and professionals in the weeks ahead:

Schedules. Students are needing help with their concept of time. They are out of practice with transit schedules, many of which have changed during Covid as new routes are now in place. They need support with factoring in the time required to pass through screening checkpoints and learning how to use the apps needed to facilitate that process. There is also time budgeting to get from campus to part-time jobs. Another new experience for many of them. I have found myself helping many students set various alarms and reminders in order to help their days run as smoothly as possible.

Workload Management. Many students have not had in-person instruction at the post-secondary level. I have found myself reminding youths about how in-person learning will go. They are worried about note-taking skills and in-person groups. Many lectures have been recorded and students have been able to pause lectures and relisten to sections of the lecture in order to refine their notes. There is nervousness over losing that ability. Accessibility offices have required emails so new accommodations can be smoothly transitioned in. Students are feeling overwhelmed.

Organizing. Many students are asking for support to organize bags and supplies. Many students, especially in hands-on programs such as art, have never had to collect and bring in their art supplies. The organizing seems daunting. They have forgotten how to pack gym bags, and backpacks, while making sure they have transit passes, and masks. One student talked about sitting in her room unable to start gathering anything as it was all just too much and her brain simply fell apart. Together we went step by step through the organization process. I spoke out loud about my own organizational thinking, modeling how to work through an overwhelming process in pieces. The student’s nervousness decreased. Skills were modeled and belongings were organized in the process.

Anxiety. Students are excited. But, they are anxious. Some of my students have strong self-awareness skills and can recognize their anxiety while others speak more vaguely about their feelings. Regardless, the underlying issue is being anxious about being around people again. There are concerns about social skills, making friends, fitting in, and remaining healthy.
Each student has their own set of concerns but many don’t know what to do with their feelings. I have found myself helping them to identify what is making them anxious and talking through strategies to deal with their feelings. I have been reminding them about the power of the breath.  I have been helping them to develop simple, straightforward scripts they can use when they are feeling overwhelmed socially. For some, I have been helping them write emails or make calls to other professionals who have, in the past, been sources of therapeutic support for them.

Our youth have had a very challenging few years. This is a time in their lives when they should be branching out, and learning more about who they are as independent young adults. They should be working to individuate away from their families a little bit but many have not been able to. They are excited their world is starting to open up again. They are also overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and not sure where to begin. So, for the rest of this school year, and I am certain for the start of the next one as well, I will be lending my frontal lobes to the youth in my life.

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