Executive function challenges and learning: 6 ways to help your high-schooler

By Amanda Morin

At a glance

  • Teens with executive function challenges may struggle to stay organized.

  • Executive function challenges can affect both oral and written communication.

  • It can be hard for some teens to shift from one kind of activity to another.

Between classes, social life, and extracurricular activities, your child’s brain is working overtime in high school. It’s also a time when executive function challenges can create unique learning obstacles. Here are six common challenges and ways you can help.

Learning challenge #1: Trouble switching gears

Your child is getting low grades on tests that alternate between multiple-choice and short-answer questions.

The role of : Kids with executive function challenges can have trouble shifting gears from one way of doing things to another.

How to help: Speak with the teacher about that can help with executive function challenges, such as letting your child take a version of the test that uses only one type of question.

Learning challenge #2: Difficulty planning

Your child has decided to apply for college or trade school. Application deadlines are looming, though, and your child still hasn’t filled any of them out.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids can have trouble figuring out where to start or seeing how a big task can be broken down into smaller tasks.

How to help: Help your child break big or overwhelming tasks into more manageable steps — a technique teachers call “chunking.” For instance, take an essay question on a college application and have your child write out the steps involved on individual notecards: come up with thesis, create outline, write opening paragraph. Your child can then complete them one at a time.

Learning challenge #3: Trouble giving details

Your child designs a great science experiment but is having trouble writing up the report.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids who have trouble with executive function may have a hard time recognizing and describing the details that make up the bigger picture.

How to help: Videotape the science experiment so your child can replay it while writing up the report. Encourage your child to use a , mind map, checklist, or other system to help organize thoughts on paper.

Learning challenge #4: Not monitoring their work

Your child’s creative writing paper is confusing to read. It keeps switching tenses and point of view.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids who have trouble with executive function often don’t check their work or realize when they’re making mistakes.

How to help: Encourage your child to read written work out loud to see if it makes sense. At first, you may need to have your child read the draft to you so you can point out inconsistencies.

Learning challenge #5: Gets overwhelmed easily

Your child starts off the year in a number of advanced placement classes, but drops them after a month because “it’s too much work.”

The role of executive function challenges: Kids who have trouble with executive function can easily become overwhelmed by what looks like a daunting amount of work.

How to help: Encourage your child to use course outlines to help plan and predict assignments. Show your child how to use a daily planner to map out the overall workload. The textbook’s website and other resources recommended by the teacher can also help your child get through the material.

Learning challenge #6: Processes information slowly

Your child is having trouble keeping up with class discussions — and gets angry when it’s hard to get a word in edgewise.

The role of executive function challenges: Kids who have trouble with executive function may process language more slowly than their peers. They may also have a hard time finding the words to say and keeping emotions in check when they get frustrated.

How to help: Practice conversation skills with your child, including how to say things like “Can you give me a minute to think about that?” and “I have something to add — just give me a minute to gather my thoughts.”

Like other learning and attention issues, difficulties with executive function don’t disappear over time. With help, high-schoolers can learn to leverage strengths and advocate for themselves. These are valuable skills they’ll carry into adulthood.

Key takeaways

  • Breaking big jobs into small tasks will help kids stay organized.

  • Planners, checklists, and other task management strategies can help.

  • Organization skills learned now will help your child succeed as an adult.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Jenn Osen-Foss, MAT is an instructional coach, supporting teachers in using differentiated instruction, interventions, and co-planning.