After twenty years at the Virginia Military Institute, I concluded that there was a broader need for academic and executive functioning coaching in the community. This led to my decision to retire from VMI and to create Executive Function Matters. In twenty years at the Virginia Military Institute, positions in which I served included Director of the Miller Academic Center, Director of Learning Programs (including tutoring, peer mentoring, workshops and faculty development) and Associate Director of Disabilities Services. My work with the general population of cadets as well as those with learning disabilities was enriching, rewarding, and enlightening.
I have seen the reality of the statement “the freshman year in college is not Grade 13” that reflects the academic and culture shock college freshmen experience across the country each year. Like many other first-year students, they come to VMI and to Washington and Lee University with histories of academic success and impressive leadership experiences, but many quickly discover that the habits and skills that worked in high school don’t work as well in college. In retrospect, students often recognize that they didn’t have to work very hard for their high grades, often referring to high school as a “joke” or that even their hard work did not prepare them adequately for the new challenges. In college, the playing field has changed, course material moves at a much faster pace, time in class is reduced, and professors expect higher levels of thinking. The bottom line for students is that the responsibility for their learning shifts dramatically from their teachers to them, since they are expected to do much more in and outside of class than they have in the past. As a Washington and Lee student/athlete expressed about his first year in both areas – “it was a different world.” For students who find themselves overwhelmed and doubting their ability to succeed in college, we often first have to reassure them that changes in performance are not unusual, not predictors of failure, and not indicators of intelligence, but rather the need for new and more effective skills. The majority of these fall under the umbrella of Executive Functions.
Over the years, I have seen the differing patterns in attitudes and behaviors that led some students down the path to graduation and others to suspension. With few exceptions, aptitude has not been the issue, but rather Executive Functioning skills. Among these are task analysis and initiation, goal-setting, planning, prioritizing, organization, attention, working memory, problem solving, strategy shifting, decision-making and realistic self-awareness. Given the importance of these areas and the enlightening cutting-edge research findings in the neuroscience and cognitive sciences related to learning and the brain, understanding and development of Executive Functioning has been incorporated into all programs and services: individual coaching, mentor and tutor training, and workshops for faculty and students.
My decision to retire from VMI and begin academic coaching and Executive Functions consulting was based on overwhelming evidence that these are critical areas for success in all areas of life, and that professionals who have training, experience, and enthusiasm can make important contributions to the development of Executive Functions in the academic and business worlds. I realized that instruction in the development of Executive Functions can and should begin before college. As one student expressed “I would have done so much better at VMI if I had learned these skills in high school.”
I have found wonderful fulfillment working with students – seeing their self-confidence increase as they discover strategies that work, celebrating successes and learning from setbacks. I can’t imagine more rewarding partnerships than those with students and organizations that recognize the importance of Executive Functioning and support the development of these abilities.