Supporting Your Teen's Struggles with Executive Function

Updated: May 11, 2018

“Danny screams at me as soon as I start to ask about his homework and it’s bad for our relationship for me to try to micromanage him.

“I can’t even begin to help Jane with her Algebra or Spanish homework, so what can I do?”

“Shouldn’t Sarah’s teachers be on top of this?”

“Rachel has learning differences, how can I expect her to be in charge of her schedule when she is already overwhelmed?”

“How will David succeed in college if I’m always cleaning up his messes now?”

Missing and late assignments, forgotten deadlines, hours spent on homework with little accomplished….these are all signs that your teen is struggling with executive functioning. Executive functions are cognitive skills that help you get things done. Planning, organization, follow through on multi-step tasks, attention, self-regulation and a whole host of skills that help us achieve our goals fall under this umbrella term.

You are probably already familiar with The Blessing of the Skinned Knee, How to Raise an Adult, and other such writings telling parents to take a step back and let our children make mistakes so that they can develop struggle muscles, build resilience and learn coping skills.

All children start off needing more parental supervision and a hands-on approach to daily tasks. In a world where your child has normally developing executive functions and you are able to resist the temptation to “helicopter,” you can gradually pull back in a natural way as your child grows and becomes more autonomous.

But for those of us with children with ADHD, low working memory, or executive functioning deficits, this pulling back process is a lot more nuanced. In fact, your school may be telling you to roll up your sleeves and step back in. You may be hearing, ‘Make sure Johnny comes to see me tomorrow after school’ or ‘Sarah must turn in her essay by Friday or she will get a zero.’

What we are demanding from secondary school students in terms of executive functioning skills in this digital age is a tall order and is much harder than what we had to do. The web-based school homework portals are extremely complicated. Students need their computers or iPads to do their homework…not only to look up assignments, but also to access electronic textbooks, online quizzes and study materials and even to turn in work, so we can’t simply take them away. Our kids are overscheduled and are feeling more pressure than ever to “do it all.” Social media and electronic communication have made it so that your teens are always “on,” until they finally fall asleep.

So what can you do?

Here are our top 8 ways to best support your middle or high schooler who is struggling with organization and time management in school and in life:

1. Be patient. Executive functions live in the frontal lobe of the brain, which doesn’t finish developing until the early to mid-twenties.

2. Implement a shared family electronic calendaring system. Your teen should see all of her appointments and schedule her own that you can see as well. Your child can only start managing her time if she knows what is on her plate each day.

3. Your teen should make and maintain a detailed task list. This is in addition to the calendar, which houses due dates and events. A weekly task list should address every class every day of the week with specific, step-by-step instructions on what to do. Creating a weekly task list is a very challenging skill that can take months to master, even with the guidance of an adult mentor.

4. Know thy child’s school web portal. Keeping track of task lists and due dates is the first step to creating a study plan for each week. Even if your child runs circles around you on the computer in general, this does not mean she has the attention and organizational skills to navigate the labyrinth of the school portal.

5. Your teen needs to know her teachers’ expectations. Students need to understand what each teachers’ expectations and protocols are for each unique class.

6. Find out what your child’s school can do to help. It takes a village…a team approach is the way to go. Familiarize yourself and your child with all his school has to offer in terms of structure and additional support.

7. Secure school accommodations: If your child has diagnosed attention issues or learning differences, she would likely be approved for some accommodations in school. Make sure you have shared your child’s testing and that any needed accommodations are in place.

8. Consider whether an outside executive function coach is needed. Teachers and administrators are doing all they can to support your child…... you realize you need to take a step back, but your student is still struggling? It may be time to hire an outside executive function coach. An EF coach can work with your child in order to develop the needed organization, time management and study skills to succeed autonomously. The EF coach can also provide oversight and accountability in order for you step out of that role.


Electronic calendar favorites: Google calendar and Cozi

Paper planner favorite: Order out of Chaos

Electronic task list favorites: Wunderlist, My Homework App, Trello

Hayutin & Associates provides trained EF coaches to come to your home.

~Amy Hayutin-Contreras

Partner, Hayutin & Associates

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Hayutin & Associates

Tel: 310.829.7505

Fax: 310.829.7514

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Santa Monica, CA 90404

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