Spotlight On: Finding Their Way

12 November 2018

This article first appeared in Queenwood Weekly News 9 November 2018.

Cast your mind back to the last time that you moved to a new home. Try to forget the trauma of the removalists and the sore muscles and focus on the day following the move. You probably woke up to an alarm that seemed to sound far earlier than normal, the kids probably couldn’t find their underpants, the dog was whining because there wasn’t a doggie door yet, it took five minutes to find a teaspoon to put a dash of sugar in your coffee and you ended up drinking it without milk because the local shop was a bit further away than you’d expected. By mid-morning you no doubt felt exhausted. This was because every single action involved a decision, a weighing up of options; nothing was routine, and you longed for it to be the week prior when you were able manage at least part of your day on autopilot.

This process of decision-making, of assessing the pros and cons in order to decide between options, is described by cognitive scientists as executive function. Exercising executive function engages the prefrontal structures in the brain, muscle structures that tire with the number rather than the gravity of decisions.

"Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts or drugs” says Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist who studies decision fatigue and a co-author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.” “It’s the same willpower that you use to be polite or to wait your turn or to drag yourself out of bed or to hold off going to the bathroom,” Baumeister told the New York Times. “Your ability to make the right investment or hiring decision may be reduced simply because you expended some of your willpower earlier when you held your tongue in response to someone’s offensive remark or when you exerted yourself to get to the meeting on time… As Barack Obama remarked to Vanity Fair: “You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits….I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Always Wear The Same Suit: Obama’s Presidential Productivity Secrets by Drake Baer


Executive function is under particular strain in new or complex environments where we can’t rely on muscle memory and must continually negotiate options. On the eve of her first day at school, your daughter will likely lie in bed considering some, if not all, of the following: Should I order lunch or take it with me? What time do the other girls get to school? When I get to school, should I go to the locker room or hang about in the playground? Is it cool to wear plaits or a ponytail? Should I take notebooks or loose sheets of paper? What if my English teacher wants a notebook and my Science teacher want sheets of paper and I only have a folder? Sounds exhausting? It is. But it will pass and within a few weeks the routine will be established and there might be just enough mental energy in reserve to discuss the causes of the French Revolution during History in Period 1.

The aim of Orientation is to limit decision fatigue for our very youngest girls and preserve executive function for use in higher order tasks. In the year before girls commence Kindergarten, they are invited to attend a Teddy Bear’s Picnic, an Orientation Day, Kindergarten Interviews, the Preschool Music Group and/or the Learn-to-Swim program so that they are familiar with the environment, they know the staff, they recognise their buddies and they begin to establish friendships.

In the months before girls commence Year 7 they attend an Orientation Day and a Pyjama Party where they meet their Year Coordinator and their tutors, the peer support girls show them where to find every room on their timetable, the Year 7 Captains send them on a Great Race to find all the useful spots that are not on their timetable, they eat dinner with girls who catch the same bus, the prefects lead them in games in house groups and they begin to establish the confidence to ask when they don’t know.

There are things that parents can do to assist in establishing the routine more quickly; here are my top five tips:

  1. If you have a young child, assist them with packing their backpack; put their homework folder, hat, lunch, tuck shop money and so forth in the same place in their back pack every day so that they begin to access it without having to check every pocket every time. Attach something bright to it so that they can see that it is theirs at a distance.

  2. Research transport options, look up the timetable with your daughter, decide on a route, purchase a brightly coloured purse where she can store her opal card and consider trialling the route with her during the summer break. 

  3. Purchase a different coloured folder for each subject and highlight the corresponding subject in the same colour on her timetable so that she can more easily navigate what she needs from her locker between classes. Encourage her to stick a copy of her timetable on the inside of her locker door.

  4. Encourage your daughter to put her hand up early! There are so many wonderful people keen to help: class teachers, receptionists, tutors, year coordinators, buddies and mentors, QPA reps, the counsellor. In 2019 the Specialised Programs and Catalyst Coordinators will also be offering an Executive Functioning Program for girls who need additional help.

  5. Allow time for rest. Try not to pack too many activities into the first term. It will take some time to establish the routine and that is normal. And it is also normal that a girl experiencing decision fatigue might have difficulty regulating emotions so don’t take it too personally if it seems like a rocky road to begin with. It will get better!


What we’re reading about executive function:

Obama’s Way, M Lewis Vanity Fair (recommended by Mrs Macey)

Tough Decisions: how making decisions tires your brain, O Amir, Scientific American (recommended by Ms Stone)

When you don’t do what you’re meant to but don’t know why, A Tugend, NY Times (recommended by Ms Stone)

Smart but Scattered, Peg Dawson & Richard Guare (recommended by Dr Walsh & Ms Phoon)

Do you suffer from decision fatigue? J Tierney, NYT Magazine (recommended by Ms Stone)

How to help students settle into the new school year, Bradley Busch, the Guardian (recommended by Mrs Macey)