Students who struggle with executive function skills often hear what they are doing wrong. These students receive more negative feedback than positive feedback. This can quickly evolve into a negative feedback loop and become discouraging for the student, since sometimes they don’t understand why they’re receiving this feedback or how to change their actions. As mentors and parents, we can help reverse this pattern by focusing on our students’ strengths and helping them see that they are not just their shortcomings. And, their missteps can actually be an opportunity for growth.
Positive reinforcement can go a long way. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, it’s often more beneficial, both immediately and in the long run, to figure out what went well and make that your focus. Maybe your student studied hard but still got a 50% on a test—they got half of the questions right! Congratulating them on what they did well may help them get up and try again. Not only does this promote positive thinking and a sense of pride for the student, but also challenges them to examine all aspects of their work. This helps them continue to do whatever methods worked well the first time, but it also guides them to find the next piece they need to improve on. Maybe they aced the vocabulary questions but missed the grammar and comprehension questions. This tells them that the way they studied for the vocab worked well, but they need to approach studying differently for the grammar and comprehension sections. It can be helpful to ask your student to write a list of what went well and what went wrong. Even if their list just has a few positives, congratulate them on those successes—it’s important to keep some level of confidence present, as the “bads” can become overwhelming and can easily lead to a feeling of defeat.
Dyslexia expert Sally Shaywitz, of the The Yale Center of Dyslexia and Creativity, said, “Dyslexia is an island of weakness surrounded by a sea of strengths.” Helping our students see their challenges as islands can be a helpful visual. This phrase also allows us to see that even though we may have many “islands of weakness,” they are only islands; the islands are surrounded by many strengths that we may take for granted, and which will help us overcome the areas of opportunity. Having a conversation with your student about their “sea of strengths” may help them realize that their shortcomings really are just “islands,” and that they are doing so many things well. This kind of self-analyzing and self-reflection will support your student in the future by teaching them how to figure out what works for them and how to translate that to other assignments and areas of their life.
Many of our students have a difficult time breaking their assignments down into manageable pieces and understanding what they need to work on. This is the case not only during the process of completing an assignment, but also when receiving feedback. When you receive negative feedback, it can be easy to jump to the conclusion that nothing is going right. This is obviously a very discouraging thought, and this leaves some students not wanting to try again. But if you provide positive feedback and help students focus on their strengths, they are able to understand that with work, they can and will improve, especially since they are already doing so many things right.