By Jim Paterson
There’s a lot of research about what causes lapses in executive function in teens – everything from the time they’ve logged in front of screens to antibiotics taken by their pregnant moms.
But no matter what the cause, the gap is frustrating for parents.
There’s that math test that seems to come out of nowhere or that history paper that was never finished. And there is no sign of urgency or, sometimes, any concern at all.
So what’s going on in their brain? Is it ADD/ADHD (attention deficit disorder sometimes with by hyperactivity), or just normal teen development. And what can you do to help?
While a few students in each school classroom probably have a serious attention disability and need special care, there are perhaps more than half the students who just can’t get started – can’t stay motivated, organized or focused and just you hear they might lack “executive function”, a phrase buzzing around education and teen development circles.
“It’s not all-or-nothing, like pregnancy, where one either is pregnant or not,” says Thomas Brown, the professor heading Yale’s noted Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders and one of the top experts on ADHD and executive function. ‘It’s more like depression. Everyone experiences a low mood from time-to-time, but only those significantly impaired over longer periods are diagnosed as depressed. ADHD might be the extreme end of the impairments in executive function.
What is EF
Brown compares executive function to the conductor of an orchestra. “Even great ones are not likely to produce a very good symphony if they don’t have a someone to coordinate and integrate the musicians,” he says.
And that executive function maestro/boss ideally coordinates brain activity to produce these results, Brown says:
- Activation: Organizing, prioritizing and activating to work.
- Focus: Focusing, sustaining, and shifting attention to tasks.
- Effort: Regulating alertness, sustaining effort, and processing speed.
- Emotion: Managing frustration and regulating emotions.
- Memory: Utilizing working memory and accessing recall.
- Action: Monitoring and self-regulating action.
It takes time
So, are any of these skills lacking in your teen? Probably.
The latest thinking about brain development suggests these skills blossom later in teen years when brain cells and cell networks grow and are pruned for efficiency. So it could be that your adolescent who is disorganized, can’t get started on a project or lacks an ability to regulate emotions, may just need time to mature.
“Executive function impairments usually are outgrown when the person reaches their late teens or early 20s,” Brown says.
He and others say there are ways parents can help adolescents adjust to the deficiency and develop those skills:
- Establish routines — for everything from homework time to meal and bedtime, with time limits and structured breaks.
- Write it down — using a planner or to-do lists. Establish big and small goals.
- Plan transitions — from big ones like moving from middle school to high school to smaller ones like moving from video games to homework. Make them aware of them.
- Use rewards — small ones for simple steps to larger ones for major changes over time.
- Investigate learning styles — and help your student find theirs and have opportunities to use it.
- Explain it all — give examples and model it — the football coach with the long play list on the sidelines, the music producer with a detailed arrangement or your shopping list or calendar from work.
- Keep them moving — exercise helps
A more serious issue
Meanwhile, Brown says students who have ADD/ADHD, a genetic and often inherited developmental problem, will stand out. “If a kid just has the ability but extreme inconsistency and is severely distracted or disorganized there is a more serious problem.”
Often teachers or guidance counselors can spot a serious problem. Schools can help with structure and support and formal educational plans that stay in place to provide accommodations consistently through high school. And a therapist or even a pediatrician can diagnosis ADD/ADHD.
Brown says it will require persistence and patience by parents and educators because while it’s the age when these issues arise — it’s also the time to tackle them
Thomas Brown’s newest book is “Smart but Stuck”. (www.drthomasebrown.com)
Two other good sources are understood.org (www.understood.org) and the National Resource Center on ADHD (www.help4adhd.org/)
Jim Paterson is a writer and consultant specializing in adolescent behavior and academic achievement.