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Adulting and executive function skills: How to help your child thrive after high school

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Sending kids off to the adult world can feel both scary and exciting. How can families best support their kids who learn and think differently? 

In this episode, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek talk with Dr. Karen Wilson, a clinical neuropsychologist who works with a lot of college students. She shares some of the common challenges kids face in the real world — many related to trouble with executive function. Get her expert advice on how families can help their kids manage the demands of adulting. 

Then, the hosts hear from a parent who’s “in it” when it comes to helping kids become adults. Tune in to get tips from Danielle Janson, a mom of twins with ADHD who are in their first year of college. 

Related resources 

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: …the ups and downs...

Gretchen: …of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer, and editor raising two kids with ADHD. A few episodes back, we heard from high school counselor Jennifer Correnti about how to prepare our kids to take the big leap from secondary school to whatever comes next.

Gretchen: Today, we're gathering insights on how things look from the other side of that big leap. Mostly, we'll be focusing on the transition to college, but we'll be talking about other paths, too.

Rachel: Later, we'll hear from Danielle Janson, a mom in Virginia whose twins, Jake and Sara, are just finishing up their first year of college. Both of them have learning and thinking differences that made this transition a little daunting.

Gretchen: But first, we're talking to Dr. Karen Wilson. Karen is a clinical neuropsychologist in Los Angeles.

Rachel: She's also a professor at UCLA and supervises assessment of children and adults with learning, thinking, and social emotional difficulties. And in that capacity, she works with a lot of college students.

Gretchen: We were so delighted to have her share her expertise with us. Dr. Wilson, thank you so much for being with us on "In It."

Dr. Karen Wilson: Thank you so much for having me.

Rachel: Welcome. So, what are some of the most common struggles that you hear about from students at the beginning of their college career?

Dr. Karen Wilson: Yeah, I think the kinds of challenges that I am hearing from young people, but oftentimes it's coming from their parents, the difficulties are frequently related to problems with executive functioning.

I can think of one client of mine who called her parents very upset because she was falling behind in all of her coursework, and she was really fearful of failing her first semester in college. And the parent in turn reached out to me, and as it turns out, when we kind of looked at what was happening, this young woman was having trouble managing the multiple demands of college life. And what that parent realized was that she had actually been functioning as her daughter's frontal lobe all her life.

So, if you think about during this transition to college, this young person who has had her mother wake her up in the morning, help her, you know, navigate to school, has kind of checked in with her daughter. Do you have everything in your backpack? Did you turn in that assignment? All of that feedback and that encouragement was now removed when her daughter was in college and the mother didn't even realize that she had been providing all of this support and scaffolding. Now she has to do her own laundry. She has to manage her own finances, manage her social life, get to places on her own.

And so, navigating all of those added things was really creating a problem for this young woman. She had kind of developed the skills to address her learning and thinking differences, but didn't have to kind of manage more in real life, if that makes sense.

Gretchen: Oh yeah, that does make sense.

Rachel: It does make sense.

Gretchen: Makes me think, well, I don't have one high schooler, but I think about this, and I think about, am I doing too much of the executive function stuff for them? And I feel like it might be this, just that kids are just so overwhelmed at school with so many things that sometimes I personally feel like, well, I better do that because they've got all these other things on their plate. How in the world are they possibly going to take care of their basic needs? I better do that for them.

Dr. Karen Wilson: I see exactly what you're saying, and I think a lot of these families who have young people who've had these learning and thinking differences for some time, they have been there all along to ensure that their child is getting the support that they need to thrive and reach their full potential.

But there is a time when you have to kind of back off. I mean, you don't back off completely all at once in ninth grade, but you do so a little bit at a time. And what that does is it gives young people the opportunity to see that there are some things they can handle on their own.

Rachel: That's good to know.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Dr. Karen Wilson: One of the skills that's really important for students to learn early on are those self-advocacy skills. You know, I've worked with another student who, you know, evaluated when he was in second grade, in fourth grade. And then in high school, I remember getting a call to my office and it was from the student —all along the mother had been making the appointments — and it was from the student who said, "Hi, do you remember me? You evaluated me when I was in sixth grade. I'm now going to be going to this university and I need to get updated testing. I need it by this date. And this is the person you need to send it to."

And those are the calls that I love to get. This student was ready for the transition and the parents had said, you know, "You're an adult now. You need to call Dr. Wilson and make your appointment." And I think that taking some of those responsibilities and also having the self-advocacy skills to be able to say, "This is my profile, this is what I need in order to show up as my best self" is really powerful.

Gretchen: And can I just say that the skill of making a phone call, I feel like that's so underrated, right?

Dr. Karen Wilson: I absolutely agree with you because some students don't know what to say or "What do I say when I get on the phone?" That is another, you know, skill that students have to learn. I mean, you have to call the Learning Disabilities Office and say, you know, "I have a test on Monday. I need accommodations. What paperwork do I need to bring to my professor?" Because that office is not going to send the paperwork automatically to your professor. That student has to ask for what it is that they need.

Gretchen: Yeah. And they're not going to send a text message.

Dr. Karen Wilson: They will not.

Gretchen: They've got to make an old-fashioned phone call and know how to do that.

Dr. Karen Wilson: Absolutely.

Rachel: So, if a student is struggling academically, who should they turn to first? Is this, should it start out as a conversation that they have with their professor before they kind of take it to another space on campus? Or should they go to support services immediately?

Dr. Karen Wilson: It depends on the class, and it also depends on why they're struggling. You know, are they starting only because they don't understand the material or are they struggling because they've got too many classes and they're just overwhelmed with the sheer amount of work that they need to do?

You know, if it's the content that they're not quite grasping, definitely start with the professor, go to the office hours, and get some clarity on what it is that they you don't understand. But if it's, you know, "This is too much. I've got five classes, I can't keep on top of all of the expectations, it feels overwhelming," then by all means, go to the student services office and talk about maybe reducing your course load.

Gretchen: Yeah. And you know, that again, brings up another life skill that I keep thinking about. Talking one on one with a professor, like I remember as a student myself the first time going to office hours thinking, "What is this? " And I was scared. So, I mean, are there ways to prep students to be able to do that?

Dr. Karen Wilson: I think you have to know what you want to ask and what it is you're struggling with. And if you write it down, that is often helpful. What is it you don't understand? Bring your notebook. Bring your textbook. If you're having trouble, you know, taking notes, bring your notes and show what you've been doing just so you're prepared for that conversation.

Gretchen: Yeah, I guess preparation is key.

Dr. Karen Wilson: Yes.

Gretchen: And I feel like maybe having your kid practice that a little bit at the high school level, right? Like, get a little practice, going to your teacher and having those lists and talking about some things that you need to cover.

Dr. Karen Wilson: Practice is so key. I'm so glad you said that because high school is a great place for students to get that practice in developing those skills. And for them to keep in mind that there's oftentimes, and there will be, a generational gap between the student and the professor.

So, what has to work for communication with your peers is not going to work with a professor. They've spent so much time, this generation, communicating using technology, and they haven't had the opportunity to interact in real life with another person, advocate for their needs, you know, express what it is that they know, what they're struggling with. And that is a skill that they will have to practice before they make that transition because your professors are not going to be responding to a DM.

Rachel: So, how does medication fit into this picture? You know, of all of what we're talking about, are there special challenges for students in terms of staying on top of their meds now that they're out on their own? Tell us a little bit about that.

Dr. Karen Wilson: It can be a challenge. And again, it depends on the young person and how much support they've been receiving at home, right? If you have a parent who's put your medication beside your breakfast every morning, that's going to be a very different and more challenging situation to manage all of that on your own versus the student who's already been managing and been responsible for taking their own medication through high school. And if you have been reminded by a parent, now's the time to set up reminders for yourself, whether that be an app or on your phone, some strategy that will help you remember now.

The other thing is when you need a refill, when you run out of medication, when you're getting close to the end of your prescription, you've got two pills left in the bottle. Can that be a cue for you to request your own medication refill? And so, you know, a parent who might be listening can practice that with their child and say, you know, "For the next two months, you're going to manage your own medication." Obviously, they're going to oversee it and make sure things are getting done. But you'll be able to see where there are gaps. And, you know, if you see the empty bottle that's been sitting there for two days and your child hasn't said, you know, "I need a refill," then you know where the support is going to be needed moving forward.

Gretchen: What are some things that parents, or maybe the young adults going, should maybe be more concerned about than they actually are at the time?

Dr. Karen Wilson: Yes. You know, emerging adulthood, regardless of whether you have learning and thinking differences, is a vulnerable time from a social and emotional point.

Gretchen: Oh, yeah.

Dr. Karen Wilson: And what I mean by that is that if students are going to develop anxiety or depression, this is a critical time when oftentimes that does begin to manifest for the first time. And so, making sure that a student has the social and emotional support as they're making this transition is really important.

And so, even before they go off, you know, that young person can be excited about making the transition, having that conversation, saying, you know, "I know you're really excited, but sometimes, you know, students who are making this transition can feel lonely, can get depressed, can get really anxious. If you start to feel those things, I want you to reach out to me so that we can make sure you get the support that you need."

Gretchen: Well, let's talk a little bit about something different. We've been talking a lot about the challenges for kids who go to college. But what about those who take a different path, whether it's they go to work or they take a gap year or the military or something else? What are you hearing from those kids or parents about things they might be struggling with?

Dr. Karen Wilson: I think they're struggling with a lot of the same things, but just in different ways. They may not have the college demands of managing classes, but if they've decided to get a job right out of high school, they also need to be at work on time. They have to finish their responsibilities, they have to notify individuals if they're not going to be there.

They also are also facing the same vulnerable time where there are higher rates of depression, higher rates of anxiety. And they're, we already know that there's kind of this loneliness epidemic for all young people. And so, if you've got friends who you were really close to when you were in high school and now, they're off attending college, you know, across the country, then that can increase the loneliness that an individual might be experiencing. And loneliness, we know, puts you at greater risk for depression. And so that can also be something to keep an eye on.

Gretchen: And I imagine if kids are struggling with executive function things like getting to work on time, right? Or getting a task done on time at work. That's a little different than if you turn in a paper late and you get a bad grade. The repercussions could be like you don't have a job anymore or like, it affects other people in the workplace. And so that, I imagine that might be tough to handle.

Dr. Karen Wilson: Absolutely. And then obviously, that has an impact on self-concept, how you feel about yourself. "Can I do this? Can I get another job? Can I get any job if I can't handle this one?" And so, there can be a lot of self-talk that happens as a result of those challenges.

But it's also an opportunity to, again, develop and practice those skills in a work environment, right? And may not be your career job right out of high school, but you can figure out what you're strong at, what your weaknesses are, and what kind of job you do not want in your future.

Rachel: Yeah, that's true. Yeah. First, jobs are sometimes really good for that. So, we've talked a lot about some of the things that can trip kids up when they're embarking on this new phase of life. What can you tell us about the kids who have really blossomed? Can you think of an example and tell us what they're getting right?

Dr. Karen Wilson: I have a lot of examples, and I would say that in general, the students who have those great outcomes and thrive in a college environment or thrive in their first job outside of high school are those that understand their learning and thinking differences, can self-advocate for what it is that they need, and who have the social and emotional support as they make that transition.

So, they have a good group of friends that they can check in with. They know that they have the support of an adult in their life, whether that's a parent, a mentor for students who are transitioning to college, you know, many of them who've gone on to graduate and again, thrive in life are those that can in that first year continue to have a tutor or continue to work with an executive functioning coach or an educational therapist as they made that transition to kind of help them navigate that transition period.

And then the other thing is really those students have really thrived, as are those students who've really been able to kind of see what it is that they need and to have put in place in their living environment to support them and help them succeed.

One of those is making sure that you're getting enough sleep because, you know, college we talked about all of the distractions and consistent sleep is essential and even more important for students with thinking and learning differences so that they can. Thus, their attention system, their executive functioning system. We know that students who don't get enough sleep are at greater risk for emotional struggles and social difficulties. So, those students who have said, you know, "I need this amount of sleep, I know what you're doing, but I have a class at 8 a.m. I need to get some sleep."

So, those students who again, can self-advocate with their roommates about what it is that they need to do exceedingly well. And then also those students who are, who get involved in extracurricular activities, you know, not overscheduled, but get involved with clubs and feel a sense of belonging with their university do extremely well. All of those things in place are setting you up for success.

Rachel: Yeah, and I think a lot of that can totally apply, you know, in other settings as well. So, if you are taking a gap year or get a job right out of school, but you want to maybe like volunteer at an animal shelter or get involved with a food co-op or there's like all these different ways to find that sense of belonging. So, I think those are great ideas and hopefully recipes for success. Well, is there anything we didn't cover that you want to mention, Karen?

Dr. Karen Wilson: You know, one thing I guess I would say, I mean, we've covered so much and I think one of the things I would say is that, you know, students who have a learning and thinking differences are incredibly resilient. And we can give them the opportunity to see that they have all of the innate skills that they need in order to achieve what it is that they want to achieve. Many will continue to need additional parental and societal support, but once they have that and we can pull back a little, they can really soar.

Gretchen: Well, thank you for being on the show with us today.

Rachel: Thank you so much. It was so great to speak with you.

Dr. Karen Wilson: Oh good. I hope it was helpful.

Rachel: Very helpful.

Gretchen: Very helpful. Dr. Wilson shared so much good advice.

Rachel: She did. I have to be honest, though, I know it's still a few years off, but I have such a hard time imagining my kids managing all the things in college, which is why I was so grateful when a good friend of mine, Danielle Janson, agreed to talk to us about what it's been like for her.

Gretchen: This year, Danielle sent not one but two kids off to college.

Rachel: Yep, they're twins. Their names are Jake and Sarah. And here's how Danielle describes them in a nutshell.

Danielle: They are about to complete their freshman year of college. They go to two separate colleges, both very different kids. My daughter has always been a theater kid singing, dancing, all that. And my son is a total sports kid. Both have diagnoses of ADHD along with anxiety, and my daughter also deals with some depression.

Gretchen: We asked Danielle if she remembers what she was the most worried about before they left for school.

Danielle: Dealing with professors and so many different personalities and new people. That was a fear. Definitely with my daughter's depression and anxiety, sending her away to college. Like does she have a support system up there and how are we going to have all those things in place for her?

Rachel: Those were some of her big-picture concerns. And then there were the worries about how Jake and Sara would handle day-to-day life.

Danielle: You know, you always fear medications. Are they going to take them? Are they going to take them on time? Are they going to remember to go get the refills? Also waking up in the morning.

Gretchen: Some of these challenges were things they could work on before school started. And they did. Both kids took on the responsibility of managing their meds for a few months before they left.

Rachel: And they both reached out to their universities to determine what accommodations they would be entitled to once they got there.

Gretchen: Once the school year started, there were a few bumps in the road. Both kids had to figure out how to manage anxiety when faced with new experiences like socializing in a big crowd or making presentations in front of a large class. But they knew to ask for help and they got through it.

Rachel: As for academics, they both proved capable of advocating for themselves when they needed to. Though for Jake, at first, it took some parental nudging.

Danielle: For example, he had a class. He was taking music and it was a tough class and he just really "Jake just goes talk to the professor." So, he did, and the professor sat down with him is like, "Let me see how you're studying, and let me see how you're taking notes." And the professor pointed out like, "Hey, Jake, all this information is on the slide. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. Add notes that are what I'm lecturing about that's not on the slide."

Gretchen: Sarah also showed herself to be an excellent self-advocate.

Danielle: For example, she had a professor this semester who's kind of old school and first day of class, he said, "Hey, no computers, no iPads, no phones, nothing. I want to see none of it." So, Sara just simply met with him after class and said, "Hey, I have accommodations, I need to use an iPad to take notes." And he was like, "Great, thank you so much for telling me you have permission to use it."

Rachel: Danielle's got a lot of pro tips after her kids first year of college. Jake learned a little late, unfortunately, that at his school, kids with learning and thinking differences are entitled to early registration so they can get into classes that best meet their accommodations. Apparently, this privilege is common at other schools, too.

Gretchen: Also common, a free note-taking service for students who have a hard time listening and taking notes at the same time. The note-takers are fellow students, they never know who they're taking notes for, and they get paid to do the work. So, it's a win-win.

Rachel: You know, Gretchen, with all these preparation strategies, sometimes it's hard to remember the big picture, like why we're sending our kids off to fend for themselves in college or wherever they choose to go. I asked Danielle about that, and I think she offers some really good perspective. What are you hoping they get out of this experience?

Danielle: Well, I think we're just hoping that they learn how to be comfortable in their own skin and to just go to the beat of their own drum and know that they can do things in their own time and at their own pace. You know, to develop like a sense of self-worth and a professional life and, you know, just see all the things that they have within them to offer to this world, you know? And mine and my husband's hope for them is just as we've always said, like "We just want productive members of society. That's all we ask for."

Gretchen: Yeah, that seems like a pretty healthy outlook. Well, Danielle, you've given us such good advice for families getting ready to send their kids off to college. Thank you so much for all of it.

Rachel: Thank you so much. This was really great.

Danielle: Thank you for having me.

Gretchen: Danielle gave us so much great information. One other tip she gave was about ADHD medication, which we know can be a hot commodity on campus where some kids may be using it recreationally.

Rachel: Yeah, I thought this was a really good tip. So, what she told us was that she and her husband actually sent both kids to school with a safe to keep their medications locked up and just keep them safe.

Gretchen: That is such a great tip. And in fact, that makes me think that our listeners probably have some great tips. So, if you're someone who's recently pushed your kid out of the nest, whether to college or job or whatnot, we'd love to hear from you. If you've got some great tips to share, please feel free to email us at init@understood.org.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Eric co-wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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