Q&A with Megan Utne

Leveraging Personal Interests in Coaching: Q&A with Megan Utne

The Chicago Family Tutor supports individuals, students and families to discover and develop ownership of their values and goals. For most, strong connections between strengths and interests is key to a successful journey in becoming the best self-manager that they can be. At The Chicago Family Tutor, we offer coaches with diverse backgrounds and expertise to help you achieve your goals and become a confident manager of your own life.

Megan has been working in and around classrooms for over 18 years. She is an Illinois-Certified educator with a bachelor’s degree in Education from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, and a Master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from Concordia University. Her professional background includes teaching 3rd-5th grade, leading library outreach programs with local school systems, and being an Executive Function coach and tutor.

Q: What were some of your interests as a child and how did those interests shape you?

A: I was always outside. I was kind of a tomboy in that way and always interested in animals. I wanted to be a vet, and through college I was pre-vet until I switched to education. I think that the connection between both of those is caring for other creatures, whether animals or children. Even in fourth grade, I remember tutoring a second grader. And that was always one of my favorite things to do. Bringing home a class hamster, those things as a kid were the things that really motivated me in school and I enjoyed doing. That has kind of carried through with the career choices that I’ve made. I’ve also always enjoyed reading. It’s always been a favorite hobby of mine.

Q: Through your work with public libraries, how do you help others discover a love for reading?

A: With motivating especially children to read, I did outreach with preschools and kindergarten and the younger kids for a long time, and I loved doing that because they’re just excited about anything that you bring to them. They naturally have such a strong desire to please, and it’s pretty easy at that age to motivate them to read and they’re still learning to read. They’re not reading to learn yet. But once they cross that bridge around third grade to reading to learn, you start to see the habits solidify with the kids who become readers on their own and the kids who read because they have to read for school. Trying to get those kids to read that don’t necessarily choose reading as an option when they have free time, that’s definitely more challenging. I think really getting to know kids makes the difference. What TV shows do you like? What games do you like to play? They have interests, even if they haven’t read a book. So just trying to figure out what they enjoy and realizing it’s not a one-size-fits-all, you’re not going to point everyone to the award winners. There’s nonfiction, there’s graphic novels, there’s magazines, anything that they can read counts. Opening their eyes to you are reading, even if you don’t realize that sitting down reading a chapter book is not the only way to read.

Q: As you’ve been coaching, what role does motivation play in executive function work?

A: It’s a huge part because you have to have buy-in from the kids, from the clients. The parents obviously have the buy-in because they’re seeking out support. But to get the kids on board, sometimes they come in, they’re ready and they’re just as motivated. But a lot of times it’s a lot harder to get them on board, too. Establishing trust in the beginning is the most important thing and letting them know that you are there for them and that they can trust you and that you want what’s best for them. Even the first couple of sessions just establishing that relationship is the most important thing, and it’s something that will pay ten-fold later on in your sessions as you continue to work together. It’s just as important to be open and let them know you and see you as a person, especially virtually. It’s a good way for them to to see who you are and know a little bit about your family and your interests. As far as whatever they’re struggling with, it’s really so individualized with the approach we take with each client. Finding out what motivates them is key. With some kids, I found that they’re really motivated by grades, and some kids are not as motivated by grades. They’re more motivated by external motivation versus the internal motivation. A lot of times it’s a team approach working with the parents to say, “I think this might really motivate your child. Are you on board with this being something that we can do?” If there’s an end goal, they have to be a part of that. Then really trying to make it intrinsic. Sometimes you have to start with extrinsic, but then working on making it more intrinsically motivating for them. Even at 13-14 years old, when they see their success, it’s still like a little kid who is learning to walk. You really do see that even though they have the attitudes and can get less intrinsically motivated as they’re older, they’re still intrinsically motivated when they do see the success. It’s just maybe been a while since they’ve seen success, so they don’t know what it feels like as much.

When they see their success, it’s still like a little kid who is learning to walk – they’re still intrinsically motivated, it’s just maybe been awhile since they’ve seen success.

Q: For students who struggle with school and/or academics, how can they reframe their negative experiences and start to create a better outcome for themselves?

A: By that point, they’ve had so much experience and so many associations that it’s harder. The farther they’ve gone through school, the more associations and the harder it is to start with a blank slate. But really reminding them that their past doesn’t follow them, they do get to start over and they can. Not being haunted by past mistakes, whether that was academic or something else school-related that is holding them back. Keep reminding them that they have a blank slate in front of them and they can still change and we can work together to be where you want to be and helping them envision the end goal. If you could in your ideal world, picture yourself at the end of the school year and what school looks like for you, whether it’s grades or organization, whatever it is that your goals are in your ideal world, what does that look like? And starting with that end goal and end vision and then working backwards. If you want to get your locker organized, your desk organized and an A in math, what do you have to do? Focusing on each of those goals and setting achievable milestones or achievable goals that we might even break down into further steps. Sometimes it helps to have really concrete ideas on how to meet your goals. In trying to break down those goals as much as possible, you can see how it is all working towards that end vision that you started with.

Q: In your family, how do you encourage goal setting and how do you think that has helped your own kids?

A: They’re very different kids, all kids are different. So I think that with my oldest, starting junior high was a big jump academically with starting at a new school and being fully remote the year before. For him, he really wanted to do well in his classes, grades have been a motivator for him. So he is in advanced math and he has a lot of tests and quizzes, every week they have at least one quiz or one test. So study skills are something he never really had developed up until this year. Setting goals for him in math involved identifying what concepts he was struggling with beyond what was just assigned to him. The practice of identifying where your own weaknesses are and then realizing you have a resource you can use to help you work on it. I think he started to feel the success and realized how that felt good.

With my daughter, she is in fourth grade. With goal setting for her, it’s a little bit different because with her school still is something that comes relatively easily. But at home, working on cleaning her room and doing chores, making her realize some things are just givens, there’s not going to be a reward. We’ve tried the sticker charts and things like that, and that works for a little while, but not long-term for us. Teaching that with certain things that are just givens, it’s more of a consequence if you don’t do them, not necessarily a reward if you do them is the path that we’ve gone. If we are working on a new skill, we set a longer period of time for her to do it successfully and then we would have a reward that involved spending time together like going to lunch together. Still having a reward, but having it be something where we are spending time together, not necessarily a material thing. Or if we are working on a team approach, if everyone does what they’re supposed to do – does their homework, does their chores – we get family pizza and a movie night. There’s a goal that they work towards and a reward – not necessarily something tangible, but still a reward.

Q: What is one important thing for parents to know about how executive function develops over time in a child’s life?

A: Right now it’s kind of fun because I have a three-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 12-year-old. A pretty wide spectrum of ages. Just realizing the child development aspect. A three-year-old’s brain is only capable of certain things. There’s an executive function experiment with marshmallows that is supposed to test willpower. But that’s also based on background and kids who have not had basic needs met, that experiment is not an expectation they should be able to meet yet because it’s survival, which is what it should be if at that age they haven’t had basic needs met, they aren’t going to wait five minutes to eat the marshmallow. They’ve learned that they should eat what they have when they can. That’s what their background has biologically prepared them for. So just realizing that biologically, the way our brains develop impacts so much. The expectations we have from a three-year-old or a 10-year-old or a 12-year-old, we cannot have the same expectations at all those different ages. Or, even for kids who are the same age, our brains develop so differently, even at the same age. Working with the child you have and making progress from wherever you start. It’s not like you have to say, “my child is 12, they should be able to do this.” You should say, “my child is 12, and they are struggling with this.” Individual improvement is so much more important than blindly saying you want them at this point. Sometimes, just appreciating that if you’re showing improvement in executive functioning, even if it’s not where you think a 12-year-old should be, if they’re improving from where they were, that’s progress.

Even if it’s not where you think a 12-year-old should be, if they’re improving from where they were, that’s progress.

Q: What is your favorite executive function tool or practice that you use in your personal life?

A: I make a lot of lists. Goal setting is what motivates me. A lot of times it’s short term. I want to organize my refrigerator in a particular way – this week that’s my goal. So, I make a list. Clear out leftovers, resupply mayonnaise and other basics, and so on. The practice of tackling small projects makes a difference because looking at the whole house can just be overwhelming. What is a small goal I’m going to set for myself this week? And then break it down into steps. I physically write it down because if I don’t physically write it down, it just it doesn’t enforce it. I have my phone and I use my computer, but for goal setting I use the old-fashioned pen and pencil.

Thank you for joining this conversation with Megan. If you connected with this Q&A, let us know your thoughts below. We would love to hear from you! Interested in working with one of our coaches? Please fill out this contact form so we can schedule a free consultation with you.

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