Podcast: Skills for High School Success

Jay Bacrania: Skills for High School Success

Today, I welcome Jay Bacrania, CEO and co-founder of Signet Education, onto the podcast. Jay’s passion is enabling and supporting personal growth – in himself, his colleagues, and his students. We discuss the foundations of Signet’s academic coaching program, through which we help students develop and pursue an inspiring vision for their lives. Our Five Keys framework can support a wide variety of learners, from students with executive function deficits and learning differences to high performing students who want to reach a new level of reflection and growth. Tune in for a deep dive on vision, mindset, and the power for reflection in helping students achieve their academic goals.

 

TRANSCRIPT

Jay Bacrania: 

There’s a simple little phrase that I love, which is we want what we want. And sometimes we don’t even know why. But there’s sometimes something very deep and profound about tapping into what it is that we desire. And following that sometimes that leads us on these incredible life journeys. Of course, there’s sort of these deeper desires that are sometimes more profound, and they’re often very superficial desires, which might be distraction. So sorting through that is important. But at the core of it, we try to help students just tap into what it is that that is calling to them, and how they can move toward that.

Sheila Akbar: 

Hey, everybody, welcome back to Don’t Force It. Today, I’ve got a real treat for you. I’ve got my business partner, Jay Bacrania. Joining us to talk about the foundations of our academic coaching program. So academic coaching is sometimes called executive function coaching at other places, what we do at Signet is really a mix of executive function coaching and life coaching us through a pure coaching methodology, it’s very student centered to help students identify and resolve challenges they’re facing in their life, or help them move towards a vision of the person, they want to be the life that they want to live. And it all sounds very pie in the sky, and idealistic. But we have a lot of really practical tools and structured discussions that enable us to help a student identify these things and actually make progress towards them. So I wanted to bring Jay on here to really talk about the foundations of this program, and the philosophy behind it. So I’m really excited for you to hear from him. He’s an extremely thoughtful person. And I think by listening to him, you can really tell where the heart of Signet really comes from. It’s really this philosophy that we’ve all really bought into that education is an amazing tool for personal growth. So without further ado, let’s let’s listen in to Jay and me discussing what he calls the the five keys of academic success. And I would love to start with what are you seeing? What kind of challenges are you seeing students struggling with these days,

Jay Bacrania: 

I think big one that I think I’m seeing now is around motivation. And around this big sense of, or the sense of what’s the point, I think kids have been through a lot over the last several years. And as they look at their peers going to college, they hear about these challenges in the economy, they think about big issues like climate change, and they’re thinking to themselves, like they don’t have that same level of kind of clarity on how to be successful or what success even means to them, which I think is the ups part of the upside of all this chaos is that they get to define this for themselves or think about it more for themselves. On the flip side, another one that I see often is kids who are just burning themselves out, just pushing themselves so hard, because in the absence of that clarity for themselves, they’re just figuring out, they’re figuring that they if they do everything at the best possible level, then that will be what gets them sort of success in the eyes of their family and their peers in college. And just, you know, in general, if many of us took on the schedule that many 11th graders had and their level of responsibility, it would be overwhelming. So just simply having the tools to meet those challenges, even if they have all the right motivations and all the right pieces in place, you know, just kind of meeting that, and maintaining a reasonably balanced lifestyle and mental health and physical health. Just balancing it all, I think is another big challenge. So there’s so many that kind of fall under that general umbrella. But those are some of the big things that that I’m seeing that we’re seeing,

Sheila Akbar: 

That sounds like a little bit of everything, both ends of the spectrum of disengagement to maybe over engagement, overextending themselves to overwhelm not understanding how to have the best ways for them to keep everything together and organized. And then you didn’t mention this, but this is certainly something we’ve seen an increase in a recognition that students have executive function challenges, or an undiagnosed learning difference, or a learning difference that while maybe already diagnosed, didn’t really need an accommodation or, you know, a special 504 plan or anything like that in school, but now has reached a level that it does. There are changes in that as well. So I know I know this. So it feels a little silly for me to ask you this question. But what’s your general framework for understanding and starting to make progress against some of

Jay Bacrania: 

Well, I’m glad Yes, Sheila. I was working with these challenges? students a lot one on one for executive function type challenges, but it didn’t have a language around it. It was just something that had After a tutoring engagement was over, like a test prep engagement is over, the parents might say, would often say, hey, this was so helpful. Can you keep working with my, my, my student. And we’d work on things like time management, and calendaring and motivation, and just a whole host of general things that seemed to be very helpful for students. So as we thought about how do we make this into something that more people on our team can do, I wanted to come up with some kind of way of articulating what it is that we do. And that was the birth of this framework, which I call the five keys. And the way I like to put this is that it is the stuff that surrounds the core academic work. So the core academic work might be, you know, learning equations and chemistry or learning how to form a good paper, or learning how to do calculus, those things are often best served by a tutor and very specific to a content area, there’s so much that goes around it that leads to success that even if a student can do those core things well around the core academic skills, sometimes they’re not successful at all. And so this was sort of this surrounding set of things. So I call it the five keys. And so the first one is vision, which we’ll dive into a little bit more in a moment. But that’s all about just having a picture or a just even a sense of what a student wants, right? A student having a vision. Now, this could be as grand as oh, I want to become XYZ, when I grow up, it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was, you know, five, or it could be a sense that, hey, I just want to do well enough in high school, so that I have options, or you know, what my passion is really music. And I really want to find a way to build my life towards that right? Vision at this age especially can be anything from just a sense of what’s on the short horizon to to a life plan. The next key is time. And so time management is so cliche, but it really is everything. If a student knows how to manage their time, and their attention, which is a function of managing their time, then they’re able to put it into the right things. And they’re able to conserve it for the things that are important to them and avoid distractions. Managing routines is also key routines are the way that we can on a repeated basis, show up and perform at a high level managing tasks is another component of what surrounds, you know, great academic work, we need to be able to take all the things that come into us every day, organize them as students and figure out how and what to execute on when how to stay on top of deadlines, all of that kind of stuff. And then lastly, stuff and this one is not as critical, it just needs to be good enough. But if it’s not, it can derail a student. And this is managing all the stuff that goes along with operating well at school or in life, digital, physical stuff related to academics, backpacks, et cetera, et cetera. So within these five keys lie most of the skills that are required to be a high functioning student the skills that surround that core academic work that I described earlier,

Sheila Akbar: 

Great. So I know you’re gonna take us on a deep dive of a couple of those. Let’s start with vision.

Jay Bacrania: 

Sure. So vision is one of my favorite, because I tend to like to play in the land of ideas and in the future, but also because I think that it ties to one of the most core elements of being able to be successful, which is desire. And so if you boil it all down, students need to at their core have some kind of desire to move forward, it could be a desire to achieve something could be a positive desire, a desire to explore something, it could also be a negative desire, a desire to escape some kind of pain, I know that some parents are able to influence that they could create a painful environment that inspires kids to move forward. That’s not our first choice. But certainly that can that can help sometimes to have a little bit of that sense of a bar or consequence. But desire is really critical. Without desire, we see students in somewhat of a depressed state, often just kind of not being able to motivate having inconsistent performance. And so vision in creating vision with the student is all about helping them to understand what it is that they want. There’s a simple little phrase that I love, which is we want what we want. And sometimes we don’t even know why. But there’s sometimes something very deep and profound about tapping into what it is that we desire. And following that sometimes that leads us on these incredible life journeys. Of course, there’s sort of these deeper desires that are sometimes more profound and and they’re often very, you know, superficial desires, which might be distraction. So sorting through that is important. But at the core of it, we try to help students just tap into what it is that that is calling to them, and how they can move toward that. So a big part of our practice is helping students understand their desire connect to that desire, contextualize it to figure out how does what does it mean for their academics? What does it mean for their school? What does it mean for their extracurriculars? What does it mean for the relationship with their families? And then of course, try to harness that

Sheila Akbar: 

Before we move Learn from vision, I’m wondering if you could give us kind of an example of a student who is able to I’m sure after some work, articulate a vision, and then how that can connect to the actions that they might want to take the routines or the tools that they bring into their lives

Jay Bacrania: 

With right now, we began when she was a freshman in college. So a little bit removed from high school, but all the same things apply. Same skills apply. And I know some of you on the call have college students. So this may be very relevant. But we started by trying to just ask the question of what do you want to accomplish in this year, and then in college, we came back to that, quote, we come back to that question every semester, and over the course of probably the first two years of just revisiting that question. And going through her experiences in college, she began to articulate a life that was really balanced, that was something really important to her. Now, her natural disposition was not toward balance, it was to her extremes, both in academics and in social life. And so by articulating she realized, though, that she had the most sense of fulfillment, meaning happiness, you know, sustainability for her own life, actually making those things explicit in articulating them, then she’s able to come up with almost a rubric for herself to ask herself, Hey, how are things going. And we come back to that pretty often, especially in the middle of the semester, when things start to get really busy, or when she’s going out a lot, she comes back that says, You know what, this is actually the picture of what I want. And so let me recalibrate and reset around this. So it’s just a, it’s a subtle tool, we’re not banging anybody over the head with it, but it’s there, she’s articulated, it’s on paper, a page or two, and it’s something that she can come back to, and really kind of reset herself against.

Sheila Akbar: 

So it’s, you know, exactly the power of a vision board is well, you know, for students, it might not be cutting out pictures from a magazine, it might be imagining a life where they’re not spending eight hours a night on homework that takes their peers three hours to do or, you know, any number of other other things that they can imagine. And I get a lot of questions from parents who are like asking us to get in there and make a result happen within the first meeting or two. And they say, Yay, all this vision stuff sounds great. But really, I want them to use a calendar, I want them to start turning their homework in on time. Like, I don’t want to waste time on vision. So you know, you’ve you’ve told us a little bit about why it’s important for a student’s life to build some sense of vision and internal internal desire. But why is it also important in the short term for executive function coaching, or this kind of coaching to work?

Jay Bacrania: 

Yeah, for students to do anything hard, especially if they’re challenged in the executive functions, they need to have a level of motivation, when there’s a common quote, sometimes attributed to Viktor Frankl? I’m sure I don’t have a right here, but but the spirit of it is, what do you have the right why you can endure any what. And so in cases, especially in cases where kids are having a hard time meeting the challenges in front of them, they’ve got to have a story in their minds as to why it’s important to move towards this. Now, there are all sorts of other things that could be happening if a child isn’t able to be successful. And so just having the right story in their heads is not going to all of a sudden change all of that, but at least gives them the reason to continue on whatever road they’re on, especially if they’re facing some challenges. So this

Sheila Akbar: 

Brings me to the next thing I hope you can talk to us about. It’s not technically one of the five keys, but it’s certainly underlying all of this stuff. And it’s around mindset, and not just mindset for those students, but also mindset for the family. You know, we can’t just change things at school and expect everything’s gonna be okay for this kid if parents are emphasizing different things or have a different set of criteria for success. So talk to us about mindset a little bit.

Jay Bacrania: 

Sure. So with mindset, I think about this sort of underlying idea of philosophy that we really, really hold dear, which is that the goal of education is to help us find our place in the world, or perhaps better said to help us create our place in the world. And time and time again, we see both with students and with adults, that ideal place seems to be at the intersection of doing something that a student loves, or something that they’re good at. And something that the world gives them recognition for. I say recognition because at a younger age, it’s not always, you know, doesn’t necessarily translate to economics and an older age often this is sort of the the way that we find our ideal careers. And it’s building a life around that. Of course, it doesn’t mean we’re ignoring other things. But that’s sort of a core in many ways of our lives. And so it’s so important to recognize that education is not to learn stuff, it’s not to get good grades. It’s not to get to a certain college, it’s to help us understand that process of that we go through which is iterative. It’s a lot of going in one direction, realizing this wrong direction going and another a lot of zigzagging, but if done right, it’s that process that leads us to that place where we really feel like you know, every day is a new day and bring something a new adventure and you Your journey for us. And so we believe in that deeply because we think that that’s what leads to a meaningful life. And we believe that education is all about that. And if that’s the case, then there’s a certain mindset that accompanies that, that we feel is really helpful and powerful, and also leads to resilience, which is that it’s not necessarily about the short term success, or about the comparison to what one should do in the short term. But it’s about repeatedly engaging in this process of moving forward and reflecting and moving forward and reflecting and calibrating, moving forward reflecting and calibrating something along the lines of that openness to experience that looking at everything as data input, keeping a long term focus on a child’s well being and success in their life, not just in school, remembering that school is a very important part of progress and should be managed carefully. And students should strive for excellence.

Sheila Akbar: 

And I’m wondering if we can address the I think the thing that probably brought most of the people here today is, you know, my kid is struggling in school, they may be disengaged or not getting good grades are working so hard, and that they’re burning themselves out. And I think a lot of that, obviously comes from a place of love and care for their children. But I know that for many people, it’s also like, how are they going to get into a good college? How are they going to, if they don’t get it together, right now, they will not get the grades they need, they will not do well on the LSAT, they will not be able to get into college. And that’s like a whole domino thing. Right? So talk about how do we balance those things? Because those are very real concerns, right? Students are going through this process college is, you know, necessary for certain types of careers and certain types of lives. So how do we balance that

Jay Bacrania: 

It’s necessary and important, and it’s also sometimes important for parents and families identity, and we can’t discount that. So So yeah, you’re right, there is a tension there, especially if a student is not performing very well. And what we generally say is that every what I generally say is that every situation is different, and that you kind of have to get under the hood to see what’s going on. But at a very general level, what I recommend is that parents provide students the support and tools that they need to be successful in the short term, and successful generally means progress, right, just do better than yesterday, because that usually is better for everyone without sacrificing that sort of long term journey. And picture that you said, Sheila that you alluded to earlier. So for example, if a student’s really suffering in a math class behind in other classes, and is in 10th grade, and you know, this whole college conversation is looming? Well, sure, it might be nice to say, alright, well, let’s step back and just kind of think about the big picture to really get them aligned. And that’s important. But at the same time, we also have to make sure that they don’t, you know, they don’t have results that ended up causing them more pain, or causing them regret or causing them not to be able to perform, you know, the way that they want to or their family wants to wants them to. So I think it’s just this balance of how do we support in the short term, while inspiring growth and in aligning with what’s in the student’s best interest, right, not pushing them too hard, and it while also building that foundation for longer term success. So two things I’ll mention, when it comes to students who are underperforming, it’s just really important to ask an honest, open and honest why which is typically best asked not by the parent, because the parent has a lens through which they’ve seen their kids for so long, that sometimes they don’t, they can’t see certain patterns, because in many cases, there’s something underlying that it could be a mindset issue, it could be a learning challenge, it could be a subclinical learning challenge, it could be just some bad habits that have compiled, compounded that they can’t get out of them. So it’s really important to look at that and ask why and really assume that it is not a won’t. But I can’t assume that students are not performing poorly because they won’t do something. But because they can’t and then really honestly asking what might that can’t be? Sometimes it’s a well, but but often that’s not the case. So that’s for underperforming students. And for students who really overstretched and over extended what I find is really important there is really interrogating why why are they pushing themselves so hard? What is it that they believe that this leads to what are they getting from it? And how can they really try to reflect on this with with a critical mindset to ask themselves what’s really important here? And then additionally, in that conversation, also think about what the costs are? Because very often students are just pushing themselves really hard because they’ve been vague notion of what they should be doing. They haven’t actually broken that down into the real specifics. Okay, I actually, I want to go to this college. But here’s what that looks like. It here’s why. And wait a second. That’s not actually you know, that’s not actually my reasoning, or that’s just because my friends are talking about this all the time, and really trying to interrogate those specifics that are driving them and again, that can sometimes be done in the printer. relationship but often, you know, coaching type relationship tends to allow things into the conversation that aren’t often, you know, in a family conversation.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, even a mentor, a teacher at school, a sports coach, older relative, not the parent, some of the the parent trusts, but that the kid will open up to, I think, is really key kind of guideline there that before you go, Jay, talk to us about one of your favorite tools, like land the plane with something really practical that we can walk away with,

Jay Bacrania: 

Practical, great. So I have a favorite tool, and it is this, it’s called the weekly review. And so what this is, is ideally, a student can pick a standing time every week, sometimes a Friday or a Sunday or good and walk through this agenda, they can sometimes do it by themselves, they could do it with a coach, they could do it with a sibling, they could even do it with a parent, as long as a parent can hold that space and avoid that the shoulds that often come out into those conversations. And what students should be asking is what went well, last week, what could have gone better. And this isn’t like a deep dive, this is just two or three things that could have gone better. Well, I could have not forgotten my backpack at school, when I had to do the homework. Or I could have planned a little bit farther ahead and started my paper two days ahead of time instead of the night before, little things like that we want students to notice those because very often students will just go through their academic lives assuming however things are they are that not realizing they have agency to make so many things better. And then I recommend a course scan, which is reviewing each course subject or commitment, right. A commitment could be an extracurricular activity, or it could be even even a family commitment or something else. But what are the, you know, 3456 key standard commitments that a student has reviewing those every week and asking the following questions. Where am I at in this class? Or commitment? How am I doing what’s isn’t going? Well, it’s going poorly, what’s coming up in the next two weeks, not just the next week? We want two weeks, so we can see far over the horizon as to what’s ahead. What specifically do I need to do this week to be successful by when and this should be broken down into specific actionable steps. Okay, I’ve got a paper due. It’s Friday, I have a paper due next Friday, I need to break this down into four or five chunks, identify how long each one will take? And then also a separate question, what am I going to do on the flip side of that to enjoy and explore, and when am I going to do that, let’s make sure that there’s that joy built in. And then finally, numbers three, and four, for all the to dues need to go into a calendar or some kind of reliable system that students can use. So you might be looking at this thinking, Oh, great, perfect, my student can do this, they’ll love this. Or you might be looking at this and saying, Are you out of your mind? My student doesn’t have a calendar, how are they going to do this. And so this is something that we often do as a sort of foundational tool that we use in our coaching, where we do this every week with students. So we do it together with them and help them really plan the week. What I like to say is, if you do this most weeks, it means that the wheels can’t really come off the whack. You can have a bad week, but you get to hit the reset button every week. And you get to come back and say alright, what am I going to do differently how I’m going to make this upcoming week better. And so this is my, with all the you know, the counterpoint to all those ideas. And the philosophical thinking is really just this weekly agenda. How do we really make every week go just a little bit better than the previous week. By the way, adults, parents, this is a tool that you can use to I have my own version of this, which I do religiously, every week for my work life that really keeps everything on track.

Sheila Akbar: 

As you can probably tell towards the end of this discussion. I’m trying to get Jay to get really practical. That’s where I live. It’s not always where Jay lives. And that’s a really great thing It makes for a great partnership here. But check out the bonus episode that we’re going to drop with really specific discussions of more tools that you can actually use with your students. I’ll share links to the templates and the tools in the show notes. So definitely check out the bonus episode that comes on the heels of this one, and come back for more that Don’t Force It.

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