The Fresh Start Effect and Executive Function

The seemingly never-ending Zoom sessions that make up remote learning have made the concept of a “fresh start,” or new beginning, more important than ever for our students.

Many of our students are experiencing slumps, times when staying in bed or watching endless YouTube videos seems like the most viable option. Nevertheless, they seem always ready to readopt their goals and make a fresh start with some guidance and strategies.

New research on the “fresh start effect” offers implications for making the “fresh-start” most effective. We all know about New Year’s resolutions, which can trigger changes lasting for varying amounts of time. According to the fresh start effect, people are more likely to adopt positive changes when they are attached to an important temporal landmark.

These landmarks can be as significant as a birthday, a new school year, or New Years’ Day. They can also be as simple as a new day, a new week, or a new month. The “fresh start” allows the person to leave mistakes in the past, wipe the slate clean, and open a path toward the future. The goal is to extend the “fresh start” longer and longer and eventually to make the new strategies into a new habit.

In our executive function coaching with students, we have developed some easy strategies you can use to provide that “fresh start effect” for your students:

  • Listen without judgment. Put the learner in the center and give them time to talk about their frustrations to help them become open to new ideas.
  • Identify a temporal marker for change (e.g., a new day, new week, birthday, weekend to catch-up).
  • Help students to create a goal or goals—just for the day, if necessary. For example, read Lord of the Flies Ch. 7, collect four sources for the paper, attend yoga class, or walk for a half hour.
  • Expand to the week: what are your daily goals within the week? Use as simple a template as possible since many students are overwhelmed by a lot of text.
  • Reflect on your day or week. Keep it simple (very productive, productive, OK, squeezed by).
  • Start again with the next morning or the next Monday (or your birthday, the beginning of the month, the beginning of the school year, January 1).
  • Appreciate and acknowledge the small steps on the way to sustained change.

Our experience at ILD has shown that fresh starts are always possible. And with the right strategy, new habits can form.

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