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EF Beyond the Classroom: Why Some Unstructured Summertime is Good

Summer presents an interesting opportunity disguised as a dilemma. Students wrap up final exams, releasing themselves into a vacuum of unstructured time. Freedom in moderation is wonderful, especially after nine grueling months of homework, tests, and projects. However, too much freedom often creates problems. Without the metronomic force of the school routine, many students fall out of rhythm. They sleep way too much or way too little. Videogames and social media soon dictate the schedule, as many students watch their summer days dwindle without growth or advancement. Decades of studies show that students fall victim to the so-called summer slide. Particularly in the areas of mathematics and verbal reasoning, students lose as much as 15% of their accumulated school year learning during the summer months. Why? Inactivity. The lack of routine and lack of academic enrichment cause students to atrophy, and it’s more than academics. Many students suffer debilitating losses in their executive function skill development over the summer months due to the lack of routine. All of the gains in organization, time management, learning skills, and impression management are too quickly forgotten when the days become a slew of pool parties, videogames, and sleep. What a pity!

There is another side to this coin, though. The option in the apparent summer dichotomy is a rigid routine. Some parents opt for a summer activities schedule that would put a Fortune 500 CEO’s calendar to shame. With standardized test prep, summer camps, family vacations, and resume-building commitments, many students remain just as overscheduled as they were doing the school year, which is pretty merciless for a student who powered through final exams with the dream of not setting an alarm during the first week of June. In a flash, June and July are over and it’s time for back-to-school shopping once again. Without an opportunity to refresh and recharge, these students start the year off at a motivation trough rather than a crest. They’re just kids after all, don’t they deserve a break – some time away from the structure and stress of a daily schedule?

As is the case with many perceived dichotomies, there’s a third option. Rather, there’s an entire spectrum of “third options” in the middle of the two extremes. Students don’t have to waste their days away in unstructured madness, nor do they need a meticulously scheduled summer calendar. There’s a balance to be struck, which walks the line between rest and enrichment. In short, it’s what we at Staying Ahead of the Game call for every year when the calendar turns to June: a summer of growth.

As a company committed to sharing the power of executive function through a research-backed EF curriculum and our flagship one-on-one academic coaching program, the summer months are peculiar. We continue to work with many students over the summer, but the topics change. With a reprieve from tests, projects, and other deadlines, we often encourage students to spot the opportunities to be proactive during the summer. For some, this means tackling learning gaps with carefully crafted review/preview work. For others, we focus on standardized test prep or admissions essays. Whatever the conduit, our unyielding focus on executive function remains. The opportunities for growth over the summer are too good to ignore, particularly in the EF department.

Organization and time management skills are truly put to the test when students have the time and freedom to plan their own days. Unfortunately, too few students have the opportunity to practice with unstructured time before they head off to college. As we explained in a previous post on succeeding in college, handling unstructured time is often what separates the wheat from the chaff at the university level. In essence, responsible use of freedom is perhaps the most important skill for adolescent students to master, yet they rarely get the opportunity to test the waters. Many students follow a rigid schedule from August to May. They wake up at the appointed time and run through their pre-school routine before their first class begins. Then, students wander from class to class, governed by the pavlovian effect of the bell. After school, students often face a blur of scheduled extra-curricular and athletic events until they get home, finish homework, and go to bed. It’s rigid and unyielding. There are only a few small windows to practice the crucial competencies we hold so dear, such as prioritization, impulse management, and focused versus diffused learning. When students matriculate from high school to college, many face an uphill battle to conquer the looming figure of unstructured time. In college, there are very few mandatory, scheduled events, and most of the learning is done outside of the formal classroom. Thus, volition, the power to choose, becomes a defining factor of many students’ college experiences. If only there was a way for them to practice this skill BEFORE the first day of college.

Summer provides a unique opportunity for growth not only in purely academic arenas (standardized test prep, conquering learning gaps, etc.) but also in the executive function department. In fact, the summer puts EF under a microscope in many ways. With great freedom comes great responsibility after all, so let’s see how your student handles that responsibility. To learn how to manage unstructured time, students need exposure. The moldable nature of the summer calendar provides the perfect opportunity to assess, practice, and enhance a student’s executive functioning skills. Give them the space to practice!

We’re here to help over the summer. Please check out our other posts for ideas on how to help your child grow and develop their executive functioning skills. Executive Function is what sets us apart. To learn more about our flagship one-on-one academic coaching program, reach out today!

Evan Weinberger


Staying Ahead of the Game offers unique academic coaching & tutoring services to help good students achieve greatness.

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