The Development of Executive Function Skills: Whose Job Is It?

Last week, I attended a morning parent meeting at my child’s school. The topic was student clubs. There were a few students present, representing their clubs. It was all very nice and the kids did a fine job. But then the meeting got weird. A few parents started to offer help to the students for their clubs. “We have skills that you could use.” “We could make presentations and give advice.” “We can donate money.” “Why don’t you just have bake sales every week. We can bake the goods for you.” I kid you not. The Nutrition Mission kids slid down in their chairs. Did I mention that this was high school?

From then on, it got only worse. I don’t know how, but eventually these same moms began complaining that their kids were not getting enough time or support to prepare for exams. “Why aren’t they getting study guides?” “Why are the teachers teaching new material up until exam week?” “Why don’t they get at least a week just for review?” “Who is teaching them how and when to study?”

Did anyone else see a pattern? Whose job is it to teach these skills? Executive function skills allow you to manage anything and everything. If, by high school, parents are still stepping in to manage their child’s activities, then how are they ever going to be ready for adulthood? If, by high school, the child cannot manage his time, study according to his own learning style, and advocate for himself, then it’s time to question why.

I spent years in the trenches as a middle and high school teacher. In the classroom, just like at home, we scaffold skills. Parenting involves scaffolding too: first you tie your child’s shoes for him, then you help him tie his shoes, then you watch him tie his shoes, then you let him tie his own shoes when you’re not around. There may be some knots, some tears, some demands for velcro. But that’s better than a teen that still can’t tie his shoes. From elementary through to high school, we are teaching study skills, planning, time management strategies, organizing, and so much more than just curriculum content. As the students get older, we pull back and let them discover and practice more on their own. We encourage self advocacy. Teachers LOVE students that come for extra help outside of class time. They see that a student is interested and invested in their own education and will bend over backwards to further explain a concept, proofread an assignment or give extra tips for an upcoming assessment. Students that rely on parents, tutors and homework helpers might never get the chance to try on their own, maybe fail, or even learn.

So whose job is it to teach executive function skills? We are all responsible for teaching, demonstrating, helping, observing and letting go. Children are going to make mistakes and that is ok. That is how they learn. That is how they grow up to be independent and resilient individuals. Of course, there are many children with special needs too. Luckily some schools have learning specialists that support these with accommodations in and out of the classroom. Even so, they might need outside professional support, especially if their executive function skills are lagging developmentally because of ADHD or EF Deficit. Schools recognize that neurodiversity provides increased opportunity for creativity in collaboration, so let’s help all students thrive.

As an executive function coach, I have had many parents call me in a panic as their child nears high school graduation. “Fix my kid!” “How is she ever going to survive?” “I’ve been doing it all for him because he can’t do it for himself.” These cases require parent coaching in addition to student coaching. For now, here’s my advice: Let the kids bake their own cupcakes. They might get batter on the kitchen ceiling. They might burn the first batch. They might get frosting in their hair. They might even decide to prepare a yummy healthy snack instead.