How Non-Academic Time During COVID-19 School Closures Can Benefit Students

by | Jun 10, 2020


Because of coronavirus-related school closures, most US students will have lost between one and two months of classroom instruction this spring. On its face, this news sounds bad; after all, we’ve seen scary statistics about the “summer slide” showing that over summer vacation, third graders lose 27% of their school-year gains in math and seventh graders lose 50% of their school-year gains in math. Tacking another month or two of time without formal schooling onto the front end of summer break seems like it would be even more detrimental to our students.

Is non-academic time setting our children up for failure?

Fortunately, this extended lack of classroom time is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. Although we certainly need to be aware of the academic achievement risks  associated with loss of classroom instruction, this lost classroom time offers children a chance to develop in other important ways, such as with their executive functioning.

Executive functioning includes vital life skills including:

  • Self-regulation of emotions
  • Problem solving and critical thinking skills
  • Ability to organize and develop plans
  • Flexibility when transitioning to new activities

How does unstructured time support executive functioning development?

A 2014 study by the University of Colorado at Boulder found that children with less adult-structured time develop higher levels of executive functioning than children who participate in more adult-structured activities.

Less adult-structured activities include:

  • Imaginative play
  • Reading self-selected books
  • Pursuing self-selected hobbies and interests

Structured activities include:

  • Parent-selected music lessons
  • School-organized sports practice
  • Homework and classroom activities

When children are left to control their own time, they’re given the chance to learn more about their own interests and pursue new hobbies. They learn to structure their own time, get along with others, and follow through with the plans they’ve laid out for themselves.

How can school leaders support students’ executive function development?

This spring, school leaders should provide parents with information about executive function development and examples of beneficial activities which could fill students’ unstructured time. Many parents may be unfamiliar with the term “executive function” and need some quick facts about the value of these skills.

For example, you may want to tell parents:

  • The definition of executive function — To have executive function means someone is able to “organize direct actions on their own” (Munakata, 2014).
  • How executive function predicts student outcomes — Children who have executive functioning skills typically have better “academic performance, health, [and] wealth” (Munakata, 2014).
  • Why executive function is immediately relevant — Children need executive functioning skills in order to “[engage] in learning activities and [adjust] to school” (Blair and Raver, 2014).

Next, offer suggestions for parents to support executive functioning development in their children.

Here are some executive function activities for K-5 students:

  • Puzzles — Puzzles help students practice patience, focus, and memory.
  • Guessing Games — Games like 20 Questions require kids to categorize ideas and remember the accumulated criteria about the object they’re trying to guess.
  • Board and Card Games — Games like Ticket to Ride and Uno require students to keep up with fast-paced changes in the game and remember multiple rules about how different elements of play enter the game.
  • Minecraft — Both the regular version and educational version of Minecraft are great for building executive function. Minecraft requires players to explore and remember various geographic locations and keep track of rules on how various materials can be used.

Here are some executive function activities for older students:

  • All of the activities we listed above! Who doesn’t love a little friendly competition and gaming?
  • Volunteering — Students can practice researching volunteering opportunities in cause areas which matter most to them. Once they commit to a project, they have to practice planning for volunteer time and follow through with their commitments.
    (Note: Many traditional volunteering roles are no longer possible because of COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, but VolunteerMatch lists several virtual volunteer opportunities and org has plenty of contact-free ideas for youth to support a cause they believe in.)
  • Journaling — Journaling encourages self reflection, self regulation, and organizing thoughts and plans.
  • Performance Art — Students can select music, theatre, and dance pieces to practice. These activities all require a working memory and following through with plans to practice various skills.

Parents who want more information about how executive function skills develop in their kids can be directed to this parent-friendly guide from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

How can school leaders prepare for summer school and the fall 2020 semester during the pandemic?

Although educators and parents may be relieved to learn that this extended break away from school structure is beneficial for students’ development, we still have plenty of work to do as we prepare for upcoming classroom instruction. Explore the CSAS blog for more articles about how school leaders can support student achievement during this period of school closures. Then schedule a free consultation call with a CSAS expert about how we can partner with your team to develop a customized plan for your school’s excellence in the new school year.