Improving executive function in middle and high school students

By Jessica Watson
March 14, 2023

During our recent webinar “Elevating executive function: Skills for life and learning” we had an overwhelming number of questions about how to support executive function in middle and high school students. We’ve pulled together some of our top executive function experts to answer this question. Dr. Sheila Murphy and Jennifer Onoyeyan offered up some great ideas for improving executive function in middle and high school students so bookmark this page! You’re going to want to come back to it.

Q & A: Improving executive function in middle and high school students

How can middle and high schoolers improve task management?

To improve a skill like task management, figure out specifically where the student is getting stuck.  Is it in starting? Making a plan? Taking action? Monitoring or self reflection?  Once you figure out where the problem lies it is easier to figure out where to support them.

One option to help with managing tasks is using the Let’s Begin Board. We’ve included an example below along with instructions on how to use it for different ages.

What are some options for improving EF that my kids to try on their own?

Enrolling in classes like speech and debate are great options to improve several different areas of executive function in middle and high school students. Your kids won’t even realize they are exercising their EF skills!

Access to timers, especially timers that visually show the passage of time can also help kids work on their own. Timers eliminate the “how much longer?” question and can lead to better focus and understanding of how long tasks actually take to complete.

How can I help while also encouraging independence?

Giving older kids in high school more autonomy– space to think and come up with their own solution– would help best. Parents can then guide them to the smallest unit point possible. 

For example: Your student says “I just need to study more.” Parents can guide with questions like “How are you going to study and what does ‘study more’ mean? Let’s give it a number or quantify it.” This way “I just need to study more.” turns into —-> “I will add one hour of reading my science notes to every Thursday.”

What are some non-school activities that help executive function in middle and high school students?

Playing chess is amazing for activating all executive functioning skills. Any type of strategy game can be helpful.
Drama clubs, theater programs and improvisation classes are great after school activities for improving executive function.

Can my high schooler make improvements even if they have been masking for years?

You definitely can help high school students with this. It’s never too late! Starting with metacognition (here is an excellent video explaining what metacognition is) and self-awareness is a great way to dig under the “mask” that these teens often put up.

We hope you found these answers to parent and educator questions helpful. If you have other questions leave them in the comments or join our Facebook group for parents and caregivers of different learners.

To view the full webinar from which these questions arose, watch here:

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