My Teen Struggles with Executive Function

It was January 2021. Our son Jack’s second term as a freshman in high school had just ended. Two weeks earlier, my husband and I scanned the school’s database to check his grades. We counted more than 20 missing assignments.

A bright, conscientious, and capable teen, Jack had often struggled with organization and procrastination, especially with research and writing assignments.

But this time was different, and the pandemic was to blame. He was doing his freshman year of high school partially from home — where, on alternating weeks, he did his schoolwork on his own time, and, for the most part, without teacher engagement.

The freedom was too much, he told me recently. “When a teacher walks around the classroom, you want to be on task, and you don’t want to fall behind the other students,” he says about that in-person accountability he was missing from his teachers and peers.

My husband and I tried to help, but our efforts fell short. I knew we couldn’t solve this alone. When I’d heard that a long-time teacher and tutor in our town was available to help, I reached out.

If your child is struggling in similar ways, here are five things our son’s coach did that you can try:

  • Create a comprehensive list of assignments. Because he had to visit a different Google Classroom for each subject to find assignments, Jack’s work often fell through the cracks. Without a single view of work due, it was impossible to plan and prioritize.
  • Break down big assignments into small, manageable ones. “A big project can make you feel overwhelmed; sometimes you just don’t know where to start,” Jack’s coach, Kacie Merrill said. She helped Jack get started by prioritizing tasks and setting incremental deadlines for doing research and using graphic organizers to plan his thoughts before writing.
  • Track results and acknowledge good work. Without regular, in-class interactions with teachers, Jack sometimes didn’t know how he performed on a test or with an assignment. Merrill helped him make a habit of looking online at his grades.
  • Open communication lines. We sat down as a team over Zoom at the outset. “This says to your child, ‘We are all in this together.’” Jack shared what he was struggling with and we all shared ideas about how to move forward. Additionally, we kept communication lines open, touching base as needed.
  • Set a routine, but be flexible. Merrill and Jack had standing meetings, but were flexible if Jack needed to reschedule. “Putting the ball in his court helped him feel empowered,” and 9 times out of 10 he opted to keep their meetings, she says.

It’s now the start of our Jack’s sophomore year. The other evening he came downstairs to ask for help with an essay.  When he opened his laptop, I saw that he’d completed his intro paragraph and graphic organizer — with two days before the assignment was due!

I exhaled. He was putting into practice techniques Merrill had taught him.

If you’re a parent feeling frustrated and overwhelmed, here are a few things I’ve learned that might help:

  • Recognize when you need outside help.
  • Invest the time.
  • Don’t strive for perfection.

Excerpted from “My Teen Struggles with Executive Function” in Usable Knowledge from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Read the full article online.

Source: Usable Knowledge, My Teen Struggles with Executive Function, | ©2021 President and Fellows of Harvard College

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