Note: This is part of a series on executive functioning skills in teens. To learn more, check out this article: What Are Executive Function Skills and Why Do Teens Struggle With Them? and then read this post on how parents can help their teens with executive functioning.
Executive function skills are so much a part of us that we don’t even think about them.
They are “habits of mind,” the mental skills we use every day to get things done. At least until we don’t.
We start learning them as toddlers and continue to develop them well into our twenties; some of us struggle with organization and time management throughout our lives. (Check out these resources: 5 Amazing Organizational Apps for Teens)
You might remember learning some of these in middle and high school. Prioritizing tasks and managing where to spend time were addressed when faced with our first research paper (remember searching the card catalog and writing notes on index cards?).
While these things may still be in the curriculum, today’s teachers have to fit them into their lessons along with lectures on internet safety, finding good sources (there are SO MANY unreliable websites), plagiarism, and how to make sure your document has been saved.
Why are executive functioning skills hard for teens?
Teens’ dramatic brain changes can hinder mastering executive function skills.
The adolescent brain is programmed to be impulsive and take risks, making parents wonder, “What is going on? Why did my smart kid do such a dumb thing?” Skills such as decision-making, regulating emotions, and impulse control are developing during this time, and it’s normal for teens to make mistakes.
While this behavior is normal, ignoring executive function deficits can outsize teenagers’ later success in life.
Note: Executive dysfunction could indicate attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Additionally, executive functioning deficiencies could also be a sign your teen is struggling with their mental health, and may be dealing with depression or anxiety. If your teen is struggling with developing their executive function skills, consider talking to your health care provider.
How parents can help teens with executive functioning
The good news? Parents can have a significant impact on helping your teen develop these important skills. (A side bonus is many of these are fun and can also improve your relationships.)
Here are ten simple things you can do at home to improve your teen’s executive functioning:
Talk to them
This seems obvious, but having ongoing discussions with your teen improves task initiation, planning, time management, possibly flexible thinking, and goal-directed persistence.
Help them talk through problems and listen more than talk.
Ask leading questions: What do you think? What are the steps in the process? What supplies do you need? How long do you think X will take? What’s the worst that can happen?
Ask about their goals and guide them in developing a plan to reach them. Your teen may want to try a new sport or activity or get a driver’s license – encourage them to learn what they need to do to make that happen. They may want to make a large purchase — talk through them how they can earn/save the money to do so.
Give them responsibilities
Put them in the driver’s seat. It’s okay if schoolwork is their “job,” but most teens can also handle some extra responsibilities. Think of regular tasks like taking out garbage or gardening, working at a grocery store or other retail outlet, or caring for a pet or siblings.
Give them the assignment, some basic parameters (your basic expectations and a deadline), and let them decide the how and (when appropriate) the when. If they need transportation, let them figure it out (even if it means asking you for a ride).
Let them fail. Natural consequences can be valuable lessons.
But most importantly, let them take the lead when it comes to pursuing goals. Parents can help teens with executive functioning by letting them do things independently. They can call or sign up online with the DMV to set up appointments or look into potential dance or karate studios to take lessons.
The teen years are also a good time for them to start making personal care appointments (if needed, you can sit nearby to help coach them). Letting them do these independently (and recognize that it’s not so scary) can also build their self-confidence and self-esteem.
Provide organization tools
Organization is a challenge for so many teens, so focusing on this area can improve planning, prioritization, time management, organization, and task initiation.
Suggest tools such as planners, sticky notes, and lists, and help your teen establish “homes” for necessary supplies. Consider creating pre-printed lists for routine tasks. Give your teen agency in how these tools are used – let them choose what works best for them and allow (or even encourage) them to ditch those that aren’t effective.
Pointing out what has and hasn’t worked for you and why may be helpful, as long as it is merely a suggestion. Teens struggling to get started may be encouraged by using detailed check lists.
Be the voice in their head
Helping to improve their internal monologue can improve metacognition and task initiation.
Just like when they were small, continue to repeat short, direct instructions (and be prepared for attitude) until tasks become automatic. Creating habits removes the number of decisions they must make, saving that brain energy for more important tasks.
As Peg Dawson, psychologist and author of numerous books on executive skills, including Smart but Scattered and Smart but Scattered Teens, pointed out at a conference for school psychologists,” “People either don’t recognize or don’t believe that it takes a long time before kids are able to self-cue.” She calls it “an incredibly sophisticated metacognitive strategy” and reminds us that, as the last skill to develop, metacognition is complex. Helping teens self-cue is not “coddling” or “enabling” but teaching them a valuable skill, one that may take years to develop fully.
Who knew family game night could improve working memory, emotional regulation, sustained attention, flexible thinking, and time management?
Video games can also be beneficial, as they require sustained attention and quick reactions (parents can help teens practice flexible thinking and time management skills by enforcing screen limits).
Not sure where to start? Check out this list: 40 Awesome Board Games For Teens They’ll Want to Play Again and Again
Go for a hike or hit the gym
Working out improves flexible thinking, focused attention, emotional regulation, and goal-directed persistence)
Studies show that regular exercise boosts working memory and that the part of the brain that controls memory is larger in those who exercise regularly. Exercise also fosters better sleep and moods, and reduces stress and anxiety (all of which can impact cognitive ability).
While regular exercise benefits people of all ages, note that it takes about six months to see the effects.
If your teen doesn’t want to go to the gym or doesn’t enjoy the outdoors, check out this post: The Best Apps For Teens to Exercise At Home
The benefits are plentiful when it comes to mindfulness, but in regard to executive functioning, it improves focused attention, emotional regulation,and sustained attention.
Many executive function skills are hindered by stress and anxiety. Simply put, a calm brain is better able to focus. Basic mindfulness techniques and meditation do more than reduce stress; they can set the stage for your brain to function at optimum levels.
Mindfulness can be practiced anytime, anywhere. It can be a guided meditation session or a simple breathing routine. Even mini breaks (to stretch, hydrate, or simply reset) can be helpful.
There are many great apps to help teens (and their parents) practice mindfulness and meditation. Here are some of our favorites: Six Of The Best Mindfulness Apps For Teens To Help Them Manage Life
Model asking for help
Asking for help improves planning, goal-directed persistence, flexible thinking, and working memory. It can also help with social skills and academic success.
Let your teen be the expert and teach you a new skill. Ask for their help in planning a family vacation or fun activity. Teaching is a time-tested technique to reinforce skills that can also lead to more confident learners.
Encourage them to get more sleep
Teens don’t get enough sleep. Studies show that sleep is essential to cognitive function and lack of sleep impacts most executive function skills.
Simple tech boundaries such as keeping cell phones out of bedrooms in the late evenings and maintaining night-time routines can help promote healthy sleep habits.
Talk to them about physiological changes
You may be worried when you see your kids struggle, but rather than pass that worry on to them, let them know perfection is not the goal.
Remind them that much of what they are going through is due to what is happening in their body; not just hormones and physical changes, but also their brain development. It’s important that teens understand that this is all normal and that development among peers will be uneven.
The good news? A decade from now, the playing field will be leveled.
Parenting teens and tweens is hard, but you don’t have to do it alone. Here are some posts that may help:
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