The Adolescent Brain and Executive Functioning: A Work in Progress

Sharon Hersch, LDTC, Upper School Learning Specialist
Sharon Hersch, LDTC
Upper School Learning Specialist

As any parent of a tween or teen knows, time can be an invisible concept in the adolescent years. Trust me, mom, I have plenty of time; I'll do it later; and In a minute might sound familiar. However, all too often, later usually never comes, and in a minute may come too late. Watching your child miss deadlines or wait until Sunday night to start projects or assignments due on Monday is beyond stressful and creates an atmosphere of constant tension in the family.

Many parents and teachers can find it puzzling when a student, who demonstrates outstanding abilities and is capable of mastering higher level material, struggles with organization and time management. While adults know the tremendous benefits of good time management skills (reduced anxiety when projects are due in school, learning responsibility and gaining independence), many of our children are unable to put these skills into practice. We are now learning that children aren’t born with these skills — they are born with the potential to develop them. The full range of abilities continues to grow and mature through the teen years and into early adulthood.

Scientists refer to brain processes required for "getting things done" as executive functioning and self-regulation. These cognitive skills allow us to set goals; plan ahead; finish a project; prioritize tasks; and organize time, materials, and information. With high-tech imaging, researchers have discovered that despite their adult appearance, adolescent brains have not matured. Neuroscientist Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health and neurologist Paul Thompson of the University of California, found that adolescents undergo dramatic changes in the frontal lobe or prefrontal cortex –– the part of the brain critical to judgement, reason and planning (Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience 2018). The brain develops in a back-to-front pattern. Hence, the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to develop.

When students move from elementary to middle school, and from middle school to high school, the need for executive function skills greatly increases as the workload gets larger with additional subjects and increased amounts of homework. As students transition to older grades, they are expected to increase their independence; juggle academics from multiple teachers, athletic practices and community service; and manage their social lives. It is at these times that the presumably learned executive skills, which may have been effective in their previous environment, might not be sufficient to manage the increased demands of their next environment.

Leslie Josel, time management expert and author of What's the Deal With Teens and Time Management? says, "Given the fact that students often lack the tools to manage their time, maybe it's a little unrealistic for parents to expect them to instinctively know how to."

Josel suggests, "Adults need to shift our mindset. Instead of thinking my teen should be able to do this, we should alter our thoughts to my teen isn't wired to do this naturally and needs to be taught.” (p.13)  Josel is not suggesting or encouraging parents to micromanage their kid’s schedules or do their homework. "Parents may initially serve as their child’s ‘external’ frontal lobe, but the objective should be for adolescents to internalize the skills and strategies to develop their own executive skills, so they can function independently on their academic work and social relationships." (p14)  Teaching these skills takes time, patience and a lot of effort. We need to listen to our kids' input and ideas about what they think works, or doesn't work for them, and help them estimate how long things will take so they can begin to get a better sense of the meaning of time. Most importantly, we need to model good time management for our kids.

Here are a few strategies to help foster executive function in your children:

1. Take time every Sunday to help your child map out their week. Help them prioritize tasks according to importance and due dates, and set up deadlines for long-term projects and papers.

2. Set them up with the tools they need:
  • Hang analog instead of digital clocks in any room your child spends time (This lets kids see time move.)
  • Print out a 3-month calendar.
  • Use a family wall calendar.
  • Insist they use a paper planner to write all assignments, activities and appointments. Using your phone makes you go from app to app. Research suggests that writing things down by hand helps you retain information.
3. Help them plan free time into their schedule. Socialization and relaxation are important for good mental health.

4. Visit the school website and each teacher's individual course page. Look over the syllabus and    what resources are posted. Most teachers have sample essays, helpful websites, long term assignments, vocabulary lists, and test dates online. If you are aware of what is and isn't posted, you can direct your child where to find help. It'll also avoid wasting time looking for things that are easily available.

5.. Model good time management. Show your child what strategies work for you.  

Any effort you extend now towards helping your tween or teen learn time management skills will bring more time, less stress and less chaos for the whole family.

American Psychological Association. Talking to teens about Accessed August 10, 2018.
Landry, S. H., Miller-Loncar, C. L., Smith, K. E., & Swank, P. R. (2002). The role of early parenting in children’s executive processes. Developmental Neuropsychology, 21,15-41.
Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function
Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (in press). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary ”executive skills" approach to helping kids reach their potential. New York: The Guilford Press.