How are Executive Function Skills Evaluated in High School Students?
If you are concerned about your high school-aged child’s Executive Function skills, a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation can help shed light into what is going on and how to help. The purpose of the evaluation is to identify your child’s unique pattern of strengths and weaknesses in the areas of cognitive functioning, information processing, memory, learning, executive functioning, academic achievement, and social-emotional functioning. When specifically evaluating Executive Function, it is best practice to have a psychologist conduct parent and teacher interviews, behavior observations, behavior rating scales, along with formal standardized assessment. This combination of information will illuminate specific Executive Function weaknesses (i.e., task initiation, sustained attention, cognitive flexibility) and real-life challenges likely affected by the deficits (i.e., problems with following directions, organizational skills, handling long-term assignments, homework completion). The collective goal of gathering all of this information is to determine how it manifests in real life in both the home and school environments, and then, most importantly, where and how we can intervene. Of note, the evaluation should not only highlight specific Executive Function weaknesses but also report on cognitive strengths that can be used to help compensate for the weaknesses. For example, if a child has strong visual-spatial abilities, then it will be critical to employ an intervention with a lot of visual aids and supports.
Special Education evaluations
Another way to have your high school child evaluated is through your public school system. School-aged children can be referred for a special education evaluation for many reasons, either by a parent or by a staff member. Referred students are typically struggling for a period of time, despite receiving intervention in many forms, such as small group or one-to-one help, and may not be making consistent or adequate progress. Concerns may be related to the student’s academics, behavior or social-emotional adjustment or functioning, communication abilities, motor skills, or a combination of these areas. Depending on your state, and whether your school district is using Response to Intervention (RTI), which is a tiered system of support, students may go through a series of interventions before being referred for a special education evaluation.
One example of a special education referral may be for a high school child who has been struggling with writing and is not making progress on writing assessments given by his teacher, despite participation in a small intensive writing group and one to one time with the teacher or a written language specialist.
The evaluation, either parent requested or staff referred, must be completed within the federal or state established timeline. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) federal law states a 60-day timeline for the completion of initial evaluations, but states may determine their own timeline. The federal or state law also dictates the timeline in which the Team must come together to review the evaluations. In Massachusetts, for example, the Team must meet within 45 days of that signature date to determine eligibility, based on formal assessments, observations, review of school records and educational history, as well as data and information brought to the team by the classroom teacher, parents, and any other individual who may work with the student (e.g. a reading specialist, counselor, etc).
While an evaluation can often uncover useful information that aids in proper educational decision making, some states may require medical documentation or diagnosis by your child’s physician in order to receive individualized and unique instructional supports and accommodations within the classroom. The sharing of testing results with your child’s doctor may be beneficial in order to gain the most appropriate supports when your child is struggling in school. For information related to Federal Guidelines, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Your state’s specific regulations for special education eligibility are typically easy to locate via a google search.
How Executive Function Coaches Help High School Students
Executive Function coaches work with high school students to:
- Learn and practice methods to cope with strong emotions and stress
- Learn and apply strategies to stay on task and maintain attention
- Learn how to get work started and persist with challenging work
- Develop personalized systems to organize materials and work areas
- Develop systems to start and complete writing assignments
- Learn how to break assignments into smaller parts and plan when to do work
- Develop self-reflection skills to help students take ownership of new habits
- Identify and use technology that improves their productivity
- Learn how to study and take tests effectively
- Gain insight about what motivates them, and use that knowledge to be productive
- Learn how to advocate for themselves with teachers
- Prepare for a successful transition to college
Case Study: Nate, a 9th grade student with demanding classes and weak study skills
Nate* was a bright and disorganized boy who never had to work hard in school until freshman year. Because middle school had been easy for him, he never learned how to study effectively and stay organized. Now that he was taking honors-level classes as a freshman, he was unprepared to manage the demands of high school expectations.
Nate was a disorganized and easy-going student who did his work at the last minute – or sometimes not at all. He never had to study in elementary or middle school and did not develop good work habits as a result. He was enrolled in challenging courses, but his parents were concerned that he was unprepared for the work involved. His older sister had required very little support or monitoring in high school – and his parents knew Nate would not respond well to them overseeing his schoolwork. Nate’s parents also worried that he could be vulnerable to risky behaviors, given that he was depressed because of a physical condition prevented him from playing sports and was unwilling to talk about his emotions.
Nate’s parents are both busy professionals who were very eager to engage the support that was necessary for him to keep pace at school. Up to this point, Nate had never needed any academic support. His parents had a largely hands-off approach to Nate’s school life. His mother identified herself as having similar organizational difficulties as Nate, but had learned to compensate over time and hoped he could find methods that would work for him.
How Executive Function Coaching Helped Nate
An Intake Meeting Provides a Roadmap: The intake specialist met with Nate and his parents, identified Nate’s Executive Function challenges, and made a plan for his coaching support.
Agreed on Goals and Priorities: Nate’s initial goals included better organization of his space and belongings, strategies for planning and prioritizing his homework, and learning how to better manage his time.
Nate’s Progress with Coaching
Coaching Approach: The coach’s approach changed as Nate matured over the four years he received coaching. Humor was important in making a connection with him. Nate needed limits and directions presented in a friendly and positive way. As he got older, he was less receptive to direction regarding his schoolwork, but very receptive to the support in the college application process.
Established means of support: The coach, after noting Nate’s behaviors and habits, recommended that Nate receive a full neuropsychological evaluation. As a result, Nate was diagnosed with ADHD-inattentive type. Nate’s district put him on a 504 plan at school. His parents were relieved to have a name for his challenges. Nate chose not to consider any medication for his ADHD. This choice made coaching particularly important for Nate, as developing good habits became central to managing his ADHD. During Nate’s freshman year, Nate met with his coach two times a week for an hour and a half each session. By junior year, the coach saw him once a week for one-hour sessions.
Six-Month Progress Update: After six months, Nate was using and maintaining consistent organization strategies such as color-coded notebooks and folders for his classes. He sometimes used a written planner to write down his assignments, although at first he had been insistent that he did not need to. When he couldn’t remember assignment details, he contacted friends in his classes to find out what was required. When Nate missed an assignment, it wasn’t because he wasn’t aware of it; it was a result of making choices with how he used his time. His coach continued to help Nate understand the repercussions of those choices through reflection exercises aimed at building his self-awareness.
Long-Term Outcome: Nate stayed with his coach until he graduated from high school. During his junior and senior years of high school, Nate was successful in resisting a number of temptations that could hinder his progress. Senior year was devoted to organizing Nate for the college application process. During his last year in high school, Nate started a job that consumed a great deal of his time but through discussions with his coach, understood it was best to to scale back his hours so that he could better manage his schoolwork. Through his job, Nate and his coach noted that he gained confidence and maturity. While Nate was not accepted to his first choice college , he was accepted to a small, competitive college in South Carolina and was very pleased with the outcome. As a college student, Nate is able to successfully find and use resources as needed to be independent and successful.
*Name and photo changed to protect confidentiality
Photo by JodyHongFilms on Unsplash
Case Study: Anna, a 10th grade student with time management difficulties
Anna* had attention challenges that interfered with her work habits and led to late nights and poor sleep.
Anna was very engaged with her schoolwork but had difficulty sustaining her attention for lengthy tasks. It was also hard for her to get started with her work, manage her time effectively, and advocate for her needs with teachers. Additionally, Anna struggled to get sufficient sleep each night, which caused tension with her parents and diminished her ability to focus on her work. She worked hard to balance her social and academic responsibilities but found that her grades were not reflective of her capabilities. Her brother excelled in school, and she was frustrated at being unable to achieve a similar level of success.
Anna’s parents both worked full time, so their involvement was infrequent, but they prioritized making time to focus on and support her success in school. Their expectations for Anna were high, and they remained engaged in her academic and social life, but were often not home during the afternoons or early evenings to provide direct support for her.
How Executive Function Coaching Helped Anna
An Intake Meeting Provides a Roadmap: Anna’s parents were present and involved at the intake. They highlighted Anna’s terrific personality, creativity and love for life. They also explained that she has excellent friendships and enjoys her teachers. Despite these wonderful attributes, her parents expressed concerns about her inability to complete homework assignments and the fact that her grades were not what they felt they could be. During the meeting, the intake specialist helped Anna and her parents to understand these struggles through the framework of Executive Functioning. Together Anna, her parents, and the intake specialist agreed on the following coaching priorities: time management, task initiation, sustained attention, goal-directed persistence, organization, study skills/test preparation, and planning and prioritizing. Anna’s parents also expressed their desire for her coach to assist her in advocating for her needs, such as when she might not understand something in class.
Established Means of Support: Anna’s coach was able to work with Anna at her home after school for 1.5 – 2 hour each week. Given both Anna’s personality and areas of difficulty, she was matched with an energetic and enthusiastic coach who had experience assisting students with planning, time management, organization, and test-preparation skills.
Anna’s Progress with Coaching
Coaching Approach: During initial meetings, Anna’s coach worked on normalizing her experience, helping Anna to see that her areas of difficulty were a challenge for many students. In doing so, the coach often shared her own anecdotes and how she had to work on developing her own skill set. This personal sharing established a positive rapport, and it shifted the attention away from the comparison Anna was making between herself and her brother. The coach then worked on identifying the issues that were most important to Anna to help her make progress that she would value, and thus get her some small wins at the start. Anna’s most significant issue was lack of sleep resulting from not planning enough time for her homework. Using Anna’s love of her iPhone as an advantage, the coach helped Anna explore and test out a few apps which would help her create a nightly plan for work and reminder her to return to her work if she was distracted. In order to encourage Anna to utilize these apps as part of her new daily routine, the coach checked in via text messages to gently remind and support her through this process of acquiring a new way of managing her time and work. Once Anna consistently used – and benefitted from – the phone apps, she became engaged in the process of researching other ways she could support areas of difficulty. She found an online studying tool and a sleep tracking tool on her own. Anna’s coach helped her to see that identifying her own areas of difficulty and seeking out apps to help her out was a form of self-advocacy, and that inspired Anna to eventually try asking her teachers for help, which had always felt very uncomfortable for her.
Six-Month Progress Update: After a half-year of coaching, Anna consistently scheduled her homework in the afternoon, included time-bound breaks (such as watching a single TV episode) and was getting sufficient sleep on four out of five school nights. She was consistently using her test preparation app, though she was inconsistent with meeting with her teachers for assistance with challenging material. Anna was continuing to manage her attention through both strategies and medication. Her developing mindfulness of when she was engaged (and what helped that) and when she was disengaged (and what distracted her) allowed her to make better choices about when, where, and with which materials she completed her homework.
Long-Term Outcome: When Anna graduated from coaching, her coach wrote the following note to her parents: “As we wrap up our coaching work together, Olivia notes that that one of her remaining weaknesses is feeling overwhelmed about getting her work done, but that she feels confident about her series of go-to approaches to managing that.” One important element in the student/coach reflection was Olivia’s acknowledgment that she’s made a significant amount of progress and yet realizes she’s not “perfect” at sustaining her attention or getting started on her homework. Perfection, the coach told her, was never the goal; rather, they discussed how critical it is to think of this as a lifelong, mindful practice of checking in with her attention, selecting the tools and techniques that she finds the most helpful, and then encouraging herself to use them. She did such a fantastic job of developing this awareness and self-management that this mindful practice is a habit for her now. In addition, Anna has also learned to seek out tools independently to support herself in areas that were not discussed during coaching. The ability for Anna to locate a tool or change her approach will serve her well as she takes on new challenges in the future.
What Can Parents Do to Help Their High School Students Develop Executive Function Skills?
When the morning rush is too stressful
A student’s tendency to use the snooze button isn’t the main issue; there’s a lack of planning on their part that makes the morning routine more frantic than it needs to be. If it’s wardrobe indecision that’s driving the morning crush, we might even suggest enlisting the help of Snapchat for this (bear with us, here). Each night, the student could pick out three potential outfits and Snap them to friends. Whichever gets the votes goes right to the on-deck area for the morning. Students can also set up daily alerts for 8:30pm the night before that walk them through a check-list of items they need to pack up: lunch, homework folder, planner, textbooks, and gym clothes. This way, they can get to school with homework in hand and a lot less stress.
When classes feel too boring
Although it’s tough to maintain your attention when a subject that you find uninteresting is presented in a dull manner, learning to do so is part of developing Executive Function skills. Students can’t change a teacher’s voice or teaching style or the subject, but they can change what they do when they listen to it. That might start with posture. Sitting upright rather than slouched over can help students get more oxygen into their lungs to feel more alert. So might the way they take notes — by finding a method that works for them (jotting down key words, diagramming concepts, connecting chemistry to other aspects of her life). Other students have success by challenging themselves to participate in class a given number of times or by popping a strong tasting mint to boost alertness.
When procrastination is a problem
Students’ tendency to put off their homework until the last possible minute is understandable. The amount of energy and attention students need to focus on classes all day leaves them with little gas in the tank to begin a homework session. Add in distractions from friends texting and a younger brother watching cartoons in the next room and students’ task initiation skills are put to the ultimate test. A student could start by setting up a to-do list for the evening. If the distractions are the real barrier to getting started, they can try reducing their effect. They might try the Forest app on their phone to “plant” a tree on their phone so that while they works, it grows. If they touch their phone, the tree dies. If the distractions come through on the computer, installing Freedom might do the trick as this widget can block the user’s access to tempting websites for a set amount of time. And, of course, they need to be mindful to relocate away from sources of distraction like siblings watching TV or overexcited pets who want attention.
Strategies to beat test anxiety
- Write it down. During the test, write out your reasoning, even if you don’t know the exact answer. Get partial credit where you can. If the wording for a question is ambiguous, write down how you interpreted it in order to answer the question.
- Use imagery. If you can’t remember a fact during a test, close your eyes and picture where that information is in your notes or in your book. Was it highlighted? Did you doodle something right next to that piece of information? Was it near a graph or table in the textbook? Sometimes picturing the context in which you saw the information can help you recall it.
- Get psyched, stay psyched. Coach yourself before and during the test. Say positive messages like: “I know the material and will remember it easily.” Henry Ford said, “If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t. Either way, you are right.” Unleash the power of your mind to keep you focused on what you want to accomplish, and not what you fear if you don’t do well.
- Keep your perspective…it is not all or nothing. One single test will not decide your future. Think of tests as a snapshot of a student’s ability to show what he or she knows on a particular day and time, given competing priorities and other factors that can help or hinder performance. That grade is not a reflection of how “smart” you are, but rather how well you prepared and maintained your focus during the test.
- Show all work. Avoid strictly mental calculations when doing math. This allows your teacher to get a glimpse into your problem-solving process and pinpoint where you may be going off the rails. It can also help to not only avoid simple errors, but to get partial credit when one small error early on throws off your answer.
- Stay physically and mentally healthy – rest, eat well and exercise. It sounds simple, but so many students neglect the very things that keep brains functioning at peak performance. You wouldn’t try driving a car with an empty gas tank, would you? How can you expect to execute the sharp mental turns necessary for a calculus test on 2 hours of sleep and half a Pop-Tart?
- Get tricky: use mnemonics for recalling material. Creating funny memory tricks can help a student easily access the material when it comes time to take an exam. Need to recall a list of words for a test? Whether it’s planets, states, or presidents, this handy little mnemonic generator will create a suitably ridiculous sentence based on the first letter of each word you type into the text box
- Uncover your error patterns. Scrutinize your previous tests. What went wrong? Do you always mix up timelines? Practice writing out key events in order. Were some unexpected questions on material from a handout or Powerpoint? Make sure you track down and review those handouts in addition to the textbook.
- Hunt for clues. Dig through your notes and on your class website. Did your English teacher mention The American Dream every day for a month? Chances are this will feature prominently in the exam; be able to describe it in great detail, with examples from your readings. Justify what you spend time reviewing. “Well, I have this underlined in my notes, so I can tell Ms. Jordan really wants us to know tectonic plates for this test.”
- Study in a small group. Don’t be content to “look at notes” to prepare. Active studying requires quizzing yourself — better yet, in a small group of classmates, quiz each other on essential terms, formulae, themes, etc. Even the ability to create questions for your study group peers will show what you know about the important ideas for the test.
Organizing school supplies
- Use a 5 subject notebook and binders with tabs to consolidate course notes when allowed.
- Color code supplies by subject. For example, make the composition book, folder, and binder for class X all red. Textbooks can also be color coded using book sock covers. Color coding makes supplies easy to track and sort. It’s an especially helpful strategy when there’s an extensive supply list or your child is using a locker and transitioning between classrooms.
- Label all binders, notebooks, and folders with their respective subject. Add the student’s name and homeroom to the inside flap of everything so it can be returned if it’s ever lost.
Organizing the backpack
- Prepare the backpack the night before and station it by the front door for school the next morning to minimize frantic morning searches.
- Sort through and clean out the backpack and its contents at least once a week. This will prevent loose papers and old snacks from collecting and provide you the heads up when you need to replenish supplies of pens or paper (before it becomes an emergency).
- Use a weekly homework planner and update it consistently. Highlight important due dates in a noticeable color, and cross off assignments as they are completed. An important tip for making planners work well for a student is to write “no homework” when nothing is due the next day rather than leave a subject blank. Why? It’s a great double-check strategy – when students actively note “no homework” days, they are both reminding themselves that they checked and teaching themselves that a blank space in their planner needs further investigation.
- Use a paper clip, binder clip, or personalized bookmark to mark the page or week inside the planner so it’s easy to flip to in a hurry.
- Have an expandable 7-pocket file folder or accordion folder divided by subject for all homework. Keeping all homework in one folder divided by subject makes it easier to remember and carry between classes or to and from school.
Maintain organization consistently
Students who are organized are equipped to perform better in school. And just as you need to maintain your house (or your health) with regular attention, students also need to maintain their organizational systems on a regular basis.
Encourage your high school student to reflect and set their own goals
High school students are building greater self-awareness as they gain an understanding of who they are as learners. This ability, known as metacognition, is an important Executive Function skill for lifelong success. Parents can encourage self-awareness by helping their students consider carefully about what they’d like to accomplish for any given time period. Goal-setting does not need to be only for January 1st or the start of a new school year! Here are 6 steps to effective goal-setting with your high school student.
1) Take Ownership: Offer to brainstorm with your high schooler some of the challenges they face. Remember, to see results, your child’s goal needs to emerge from them truly wanting to improve something about their life. (In other words, just because you may want them to finish their homework by 8:00pm doesn’t necessarily mean they want that as their goal.)
2) Keep It Simple: Focus on one goal area at a time. Even though we may have several things we want to improve, if we get overwhelmed by trying to accomplish too much, we will be right back where we started. So what is it that your child believes they could benefit from most?
- Being more organized?
- Managing your time better?
- Staying focused in class?
- Planning ahead?
- Managing frustration?
3) Make It SMART: When we think of SMART goals, we think of goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. SMART goals provide the roadmap to how you’ll work toward your objectives. SMART goals can often start with a fuzzier big-picture goal. Below, you’ll see some examples of how to turn “fuzzy” goals into something sharp that invites real action.
- BIG PICTURE GOAL: I want to be more organized. While an admirable goal, do you notice there’s no “how” here? There’s no way to judge whether you’re working toward the goal when you keep at this vague level.
- SMART GOAL: I will stay organized by filing important papers into different colored folders for each subject and recycling unneeded papers at the end of each school day, leaving no loose papers in my locker or backpack.
- BIG PICTURE GOAL: I want to manage my time better and get my school work done.
- SMART GOAL: In order to better manage my time, I will start homework as soon as I arrive home at 4pm and avoid my phone and TV until 6pm or until all homework is complete.
- BIG PICTURE GOAL: I want to stay focused in class and ignore distractions.
- SMART GOAL: During class times, I will ignore distractions by keeping my cell phone in my backpack, sitting in the front of the room, and taking detailed notes in a notebook designated for each class.
- BIG PICTURE GOAL: I want to stop procrastinating.
- SMART GOAL: As homework, the day a project or assignment is given, I will break the project into steps and create personal deadlines leading up to the due date in order to plan ahead and avoid procrastination.
4) Track your progress: SMART goals are measurable, so each week encourage your student reflect on their progress. Ask your high schooler:
- Have you stuck to your goal? If not, what is holding you back?
- Is it a realistic goal for you or is there something you need to change to make it more attainable?
- What specifically will you do next week to make sure you come closer to success?
5) Celebrate your accomplishments: Each week as you and your child reflect on progress, be proud of the small things they are accomplishing. They may not have all the pieces in place yet, but take the time to recognize those attempts forward.
6) Continue owning that new habit: This is not just a goal; this is your child’s new self! They have accomplished what they thought they couldn’t! Encourage your child to keep it up, create new goals, and continue to improve their life.
Build self-advocacy skills to prepare for a successful transition to college
Students in high school need to be able to advocate for themselves. Though these skills tend to be more difficult for students with ADHD and Executive Function challenges, fortunately, all of them are teachable. Particularly for tests, papers and projects, the following self-monitoring and self-advocacy skills are critical:
- The student checks the due date in the instructions and confirms it with the teacher to recognize the relative urgency of a matter, so he/she tackles the project in a timely way.
- The student paraphrases instructions to be sure that he/she understands them and knows what all of the different parts of the assignment are.
- When frustrated or upset, the student suspends disbelief and tries assuming that the teacher wants all students to succeed if they work hard, including her/him.
- Both in class and at home, the student determines any points of confusion and makes notes for questions to bring to the teacher for clarification.
- The student communicates with the teacher (by email if possible) to set a time for help on specific questions.
- In a meeting with the teacher, the student has a reliable method to record (notes, recording pen/app for example) any new information.
- The student asks follow-up questions when the explanations aren’t making sense to her/him.
- The student constructs a timeline and gets support from someone (a parent, the teacher, or a professional Executive Function/ADHD coach) to ensure follow-through.
- The student shows the teacher progress at least once or twice (more for bigger projects) for quality control.
While no single tactic guarantees success, these approaches give students the best chance possible to build a relationship with the teacher, understand the assignment, and to stay ahead of deadlines. These steps will also help them advocate for themselves for years to come, so they can manage themselves effectively in high school and, beyond that, in college.