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My Teen Struggles with Executive Function

Here are five things his coach did to help
Teen lounging on couch with books on floor

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. “I could literally do a million other things rather than my assignments,” and admitted that one of them was watching Netflix. “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. Tired from working long days, we nagged rather than advised. Late-night cramming sessions ended in shouting matches. All three of us were frustrated and overwhelmed. 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. 

During her more than 15 years of teaching sixth-grade English, Kassie Merrill noticed that her students consistently struggled in the same areas: task initiation, time management, prioritization, and organization. “If you don't have these [core] skills,” she says, “it might just mean you haven’t been taught them yet,” she says. She started putting executive functioning strategies into practice with her students and seeing positive results.

Merrill met twice a week with our son, over video, using Google Meet, where they could look over his assignments in real time. After a couple of months of working with her, we started to notice a change. His grades were improving, but more important, his work habits were becoming more regular. There were fewer late-night cramming sessions and fewer arguments. 

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

  1. 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. Merrill helped compile a list of all assignments into a Google Doc that they could easily access, share, and update. 
  2. 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,” says Merrill. 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. 
  3. 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. Low marks were an opportunity to learn and to make up work. High marks were just as important to acknowledge. “That kind of positive feedback is an incentive to continue to do good work,” says Merrill.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. I tensed at the thought of those late-night cramming sessions. 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. While I don’t expect this school year to be easy, we now have some of the tools we need to help us through it. 

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. Bringing in a neutral third party defused the tension in our house. Merrill had high expectations but connected with Jack in a nonconfrontational way. And once he got a handle on his workload, he was more willing to sit down and work with us.
  • Invest the time. Even with Merrill’s help, I needed to make the time several times a week to work with Jack to reinforce the skills and routines he was learning. 
  • Don’t strive for perfection. Spending too much time making every assignment perfect is a surefire way to kill the joy of learning.

The Center on the Developing Child (CDC) at Harvard offers many resources about executive function and building core skills, including:

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