While we want our teens to move toward self-regulation and independence, it’s important to remember that executive function is not always at a consistent level in the maturing human. Teens are in a constant state of growth and development, and sometimes certain areas will fall back while others surge ahead. The child who efficiently managed advanced classes and two sports last month may fail two tests and forget to get ready for practice this month. The ability to manage self, schedule, assignments, and health all fall under the realm of executive function. Since birth, every orderly, patterned, or routine thing you have implemented in your child’s life has built their executive function and self-regulation.
We want our children to succeed in the wider world they are entering. It is our job as parents and educators to encourage them toward self-regulation in multiple areas. One of the best ways to train our teens in this way is to encourage them to take responsibility for their own scheduling and goal setting. Doing these things at home with you as a safety net is the best possible training your child could experience. When your children are young, you can encourage the development of executive function by simply discussing what you do to keep the family routine flowing. This process trains their mind towards order, even if the planning doesn’t always work out in practice. You’re showing them how to think things through ahead of time.
As your child enters their preteen years, bring them to sit with you as you arrange their specific schedule and goals for a school year. Encourage their input, and discuss their strengths and how to capitalize on those to meet educational goals. Older students can begin working on their own to set goals and checkpoints for an academic year with your supervision or review to ensure that their plans are feasible and progressing well.
Getting Started With Goal Setting
Work with your teen to make a list of goals, and divide that list into primary goals and secondary goals. Then, prepare a list of their school subjects, extra-curricular activities, family events, and work schedule as applicable. Allow your teen to plan out 4-6 weeks of their school year with specific goals, then let them work toward those goals using their own methods. If they seem lost or overwhelmed, give encouraging options and information to help them work out steps toward meeting their goals. But don’t take over with your own goals and steps just yet! The best time in their lives for them to “fail” at their goals is when the stakes are low, and you are there to educate and support them as they try again.
Setting short-term goals and experiencing how they fit into their daily reality is a better learning experience for teens than planning an entire year. Once a set of goals has been met or almost met, remind them it’s time to set their new goals and pay attention to any changes that need to be made based on how they felt working toward the past goals. As your training continues, you will see what supports your child’s needs and what tools work best for each child to maintain organization. Remind your teen that goal-setting is a lifelong skill and that there are thousands of ideas, resources, and tools available to help them succeed at managing their schedule and goals. It takes some time and practice, but you can do this!