Signs of Executive Functioning Challenges in Teens

Parent Guide
For Parents & Students
5 minute

In the last five years, you may have heard the phrase, "executive functioning" thrown around in schools and on the Internet and wondered what it means exactly. Executive functioning is a set of mental processes and skills that we all use to accomplish everyday tasks, both simple and complex. These skills are crucial for students to become efficient learners and develop what is commonly referred to as "learning to learn" skills.

While executive functioning is perhaps one of the most important skills students can possess, it is rarely taught after the elementary grades and the absence of these skills can manifest itself in behaviors that ‘seem’ like insubordination, apathy, anger, and avoidance.  It is easy for executive function issues to go unnoticed and they can show up when work becomes more difficult and self-management is expected.  This is why many high school students, while they start strong, can hit the wall when the expectation to do multiple tasks on their own become too difficult.  Here are a few behaviors that can present in students, pointing to the possible need for these skills to be taught, practiced, and incorporated into their lives.

Procrastination and Avoidance

One of the most noticeable signs you might see is procrastination and avoidance of homework, projects, and even going to school. This could be a result of struggles with time management, but it also could be tied to avoiding stress and overwhelm around completing tasks. This may sometimes be misunderstood as being lazy or uncaring. This is the number one behavior that is reported by parents and teachers as an issue and if left unchecked, can manifest into poor grades and a habit formed that can interfere with progress well into adulthood.

Missing Assignments

Another common sign of a possible issue is missing assignments. Assignments might become lost before they get home,siimply go undone, or it is not even uncommon to see students complete an assignment but never turn it in. Have your teen sit down with you and go through their agenda or online learning management system to gain an understanding of how many assignments are turned in, missing, late, etc.  Many schools have excellent learning management systems where teachers post assignments and share grades and comments.  As a parent it is helpful to log into these tools so you can see if there is a pattern emerging or if it is a one off missed assignment.


Another way you might see these struggles manifest is through disorganization. You might notice cluttered work spaces, bedrooms, disorganized binders, etc. Additionally, your teen might be struggling to manage binders, agendas, text books, and other materials needed for class or homework. While many teens will tell themselves and the adults concerned about their lack of organization that there is order in this chaos, it is rarely the case.  When there is an organization strategy, and it is demonstrated and practiced, this can lead to an increase in confidence and pride in their belongings.

Poor Performance on Tests and Assignments

Ultimately, procrastination, missing work, and disorganization, coupled with a teen who may not have an understanding of proper study habits, will result in poor performances on tests and assignments. It is important to understand that this performance may not be a sign of a lack of understanding, but rather many factors combined which are working against your teen.  Poor grades may look like the student is not understanding the material.  While poor performance on assessments could look like there is a lack of understanding, it could also be a sign that your student might not know how to effectively study or demonstrate their understanding.

Anxiety and/or Apathy

In addition to school performance, you may see increased anxiety and/or apathy around school and task related things. Your teen might perceive what we would consider small things as huge problems, or just stop caring about school or other activities in any way. This manifests itself in an increase in sick days, coming to school late, and skipping classes.

Behavioral  and Relationship Changes

You may also see behavioral changes, such as not wanting parents to be involved in school, becoming angry when parents inquire about grades and missing assignments, and spending a lot of time on their devices. Further, children may begin to make excuses for their performance at school by trying to convince their parents and teachers that everything is ok. There could even be instances where the teen will blame their struggles on the teacher, citing poor teaching and lack of a relationship between the teacher and the student.  Further, there may be a change in friendship circles and spending a lot of time keeping up with friends and social media, rather than focusing on school work.

Finally, the results of these challenges may begin to make an impact on your relationship with your child. As cited above, it can affect the positive working relationship with their teacher and other important adults in their lives. If you suspect there is blame shifting off of the student and onto others, you might want to inquire as to what is happening. Young adults don’t have a fully formed prefrontal cortex and this is where many of our rational decision making comes from.  Because it isn’t fully developed, teens can sometimes have skewed perceptions. Asking for what feels like a simple task completion could elicit emotionally charged responses and agitation from your child. Parents who are well-intentioned will try to prompt and help their teen with these challenges which can oftentimes create tension and agitation in the relationship.

Share this post
Parent Guide

Free consultation, get fast help for your growth plan

Talk to someone who cares. We'll listen to what's going on with your child, discuss their needs, answer your questions, and start to develop a plan for growth.

Related articles

Read All

Join our community

Get access to office hours with thought leaders, resources for working through learning differences, and more.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

I am a...
Your State