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Are executive functions the key to student success?

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Engaging Minds tutor Ryanne McEvoy works with a student from Needham.Engaging Minds

With the school year in full swing, all those September resolutions to stay on top of assignments seem as faded as the falling leaves. It's time to clean out that backpack and get back into learning mode. Engaging Minds, an after-school learning center in Newton, specializes in strengthening "executive function skills" to help students achieve their full potential. The tutoring system for students in kindergarten up to sophomore year of college is based on the idea that preparation is the key to success. Dan Levine, CEO of Engaging Minds, explained how it works.

What is "executive function" tutoring?

Executive functions are the command and control centers in your brain. They are a set of mental processes and skills — organization, goal-setting, prioritization, time managemen, and others — that help kids be successful in school.


This skills-based, rather than subject-based, learning program teaches kids how to learn through the lens of their own schoolwork, Levine said.

"We like to call it tutoring with a twist," said Levine. "We are teaching kids how to be students in an efficient and effective way. And what we've learned is that grades will follow."

How does this prepare students for their school years and future careers?

"In 2016, it's more about being a skilled problem-solver than about content," said Levine. "Content is important but kids carry all the information they can need in their pocket."

Levine says that when students know how to find the information they need and organize it in a way that makes sense to them, and then they can tackle any project — in elementary school, college, and beyond.

"For a lot of students the stress and anxiety of school comes from feeling out of control," Levine Levine. "When we can help them get in control and break things down in to short attainable goals then they start to think 'alright I can do this.'"


What does a typical tutoring session look like?

A tutoring session always begins with a "big picture" check-in in which the student can map out upcoming tasks on a calendar and track progress on ongoing tasks. Then the tutor helps the student look at individual assignments and figure out the best way to approach each.

The next step is to look at individual assignments and find the best way to approach a project. Tutoring is focused on the process and not the actual work.

Levine says not knowing where to begin is a huge component of procrastination.

"We all carry the lazy bug in come capacity," said Levine. "So we take the lazy bug off the table, look at what else could be getting in their way of getting it done. It's about task initiation."

Levine said weekly sessions end with a setting a goal to keep the student engaged and working throughout the week.

How can kids use these tools to prepare for the upcoming year?

The transition out of summer mode and back into school mode can be tough. Levine suggested a few tips to get kids mentally and physically prepared.

"Doing things like previewing your child's weekly and even monthly schedule is important to get them understanding this is the next grade up and this is what I need to be thinking about," said Levine. "It can help them take ownership over what's in store."


Making sure kids have the right supplies is another important step. Levine suggests not only purchasing pens and pencils, but buying organizational supplies to help create a system for the year.

At home, Levine recommends setting up a designated study space free from distractions. The space needs to be quiet and have ample lighting. It's best to keep kids away from doing work on the floor or on their beds. He also suggests a portable caddy to hold all of the student's school supplies so they do not waste time procrastinating by looking around for tools they may need.

How can adults benefit from executive functions tutoring?

While Engaging Minds does not work with adults in an official capacity, they do hold a few workshops throughout the year.

Levine says parents can apply many of these techniques in their home. He particularly stressed keeping a thorough calendar. Organization and prioritization are lifelong skills that keep people on track at home, at school, and in the office.

Debora Almeida can be reached at