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Executive Function Dysfunction?

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While our title may suggest an article on corporate boardrooms, we are referring to the term as it applies to a student's capacity to plan, organize, anticipate and execute their school assignments in a timely and effective manner.

Or a not so effective manner, as is more often the case.

Because for many teenagers, their ability to manage their time, much less their academic, household or family responsibilities, can leave their parents at turns incredulous, mystified, frustrated or angry, if not dumbfounded.

In an effort to head off academic troubles, we have seen many an earnest parent engage their teens in supportive pep-talks about the importance of their child's current or upcoming school work, only to discover later -- often from after-the-fact grade reports -- that despite their child's confident assurances and seemingly clear-eyed assessments of their workload, that many of their homework assignments nevertheless went missing, their quiz and test scores went south and their GPA tanked.

So much for relying on, or trusting in a child to know what it can take many years to learn.

Yet mom and dads, feeling as if they have been misinformed, if not misled, may not only impose all sorts of consequences for their child's academic misadventures, they may also well wonder if their child is chronically lazy, apathetic, unmotivated or lacking any sense of what their under-achieving grades may lead to.

In a phrase, do they even care about their futures?!

Although it may seem to most parents facing such a moment as counter-intuitive, chances are their teenagers do indeed care about their future. At least how they imagine them, and they really would like to see the good grades and happy results their parents so dearly crave.

What's missing, or still significantly under-developed, is an ability to realistically foresee what it will take to complete the given tasks in terms of time and effort, or the capacity to practically plan and execute the necessary steps in or to finish on time.

And that's because a teenager's ability to assess, anticipate, organize or execute his or her homework assignments, much less calibrate their efforts to the demands or deadlines of a longer term research paper or project, are only just beginning to develop.

In a teen's mind, he or she may be diligently trying to adequately address their school's and family's concerns and even feel they are doing a very good job at it, only to be rudely shocked by their own failures to complete assignments, or even keep track of all their assignments.

And that's what leads to so many struggles between teens and their parents. Because from a mom or dad's point of view, their teen should have known better, their teen should have worked harder and their teen should have made better choices as to how they spent their time in the days leading up to a given deadline -- which may likely all be true, at least from a grown-up's point of view.

From a teen's perspective, however, they very likely thought they were on top of their workload, and that they would finish in plenty of time. They also can come away from meeting with parents and teachers with a very different understanding from what the adults intended. They can just process it very differently.

In essence, they don't have the tools yet make to always make sense of what's being asked of them, or to complete the tasks they do understand on their own -- even if they think they can. And they really do think they can.

So how can a parent help?

Rather than get into a regular wrangle if your teen demonstrates a lack of executive functioning, seek ways to support their efforts in ways that don't continually force you into the role of the homework police. For example, a homework club, a study hall hour after school or the help of an older or college student or tutor can assist with the organizing that may allow you to reposition into a supportive role, rather than relegating you to a perpetually adversarial role.

Daily planners or the weekly reports some school's offer requiring your child's teachers to confirm all assignments have been completed can also be helpful tools. It's worth asking in what ways your child's school may be able to help you and his or her teachers to recognize signs that your child may be falling behind before it comes to bad grades and more lasting consequences.

The important thing is to recognize the problem for what is it -- not as a disciplinary issue, misidentifying your teen as simply lazy or undisciplined -- but that he or she is just developing the skills necessary to meet what's being demanded of him or her. It would be akin to demanding your child join you for a bike ride when they are just discovering where the pedals are, and then getting angry at them for failing at it.

In essence, parents would do well to understand that teenagers develop execution function capacities at different times and in individual ways. More often than not, they will need help in doing so, even when they think they don't. And they often believe they don't need help.

So while there are always some students who may have few troubles when it comes to executive functioning tasks, the majority will have at least some difficulties meeting their obligations, but only because planning, organizing and completing a project are skills that usually need time to mature.

Your child will likely need your help, support and guidance, not misplaced recriminations and threats that, more often than not, simply miss the mark. The latter can lead to a teen feeling misunderstood, deeply frustrated and falsely accused, and bring moms and dads to their wits' end.

To be sure, a little understanding can go a long way.

For more, we have just completed our new Parenting Guides: "STOP YELLING, START LISTENING -- Understanding Your Middle School Child", and "HOW TO BE THE LOVING, WISE PARENT YOU WANT TO BE...even with your TEENAGER!", available now at our site, "TheDancingParent.com", or on iPad, Kindle, or Nook or in paperback. "Sage advice for frustrated parents" -- Kirkus Reviews