Executive Functioning Red Flags

There are a lot of red flags that can arise when a student is in high school or while they’re completing their college applications that may signify a student struggling with the executive functions. Some of these are fairly obvious and others are not so simple to spot. The goal is to identify students struggling, raise the parents’ awareness, give them information, and ultimately help the student. So what are some indicators that a student may struggle in college?

The Obvious

  • Missing homework – The most obvious sign. As you work with students and you notice that their grades are slipping or there is concern around their senior year performance, this is a clear indicator that there may be some executive function struggles. When students are backlogged on math assignments, papers, or maybe even have some tests to reschedule due to absences, it’s a sign that they may need some future support managing their time and managing themselves.
  • Trouble initiating work – This most often rears its ugly head with bigger assignments. This is especially common with writing assignments, even high stakes assignments such as college application essays. Student with initiation issues will face the same challenge in college. They will need support getting started and setting daily and weekly goals for themselves. This is a red flag that should be identified.
  • Falling behind and easily stressed out – Even gifted students can struggle to keep up with a full schedule of classes, causing them stress. Imagine the student who takes 3, 4, or 5 AP classes and is starting to feel swamped and overwhelmed. This student is unaware of how to regulate themselves and how to ask for help. Students in this situation will need support managing and planning out their tasks once they hit a collegecampus.
  • Screen time – In this day and age, screens are unavoidable for students. This in and of itself is okay. However, when it creates dysfunction in a students life (think: work not getting done, late to things, skipping things, etc.), it is an issue. Students who cannot regulate and manage their tech use may need some form of support as they head off to college to make sure they are using screens to enhance their education instead.

The Not So Obvious

  • Lying or manipulating – When a student starts lying about work or grades, it typically means that they are having a tough time. Online grade reports can be easily manipulated by students. There are a few common lies students use. The most common: the student will claim an assignment that is marked missing has been turned in, but the teacher has yet to update the gradebook. Another common claim students make is that they are exempt from completing an assignment because they were absent that day in class. These can be effective lies because they’re believable—teachers do occasionally fall behind in updating their gradebooks and, at times, exempt students from assignments. That said, when students are in survival mode, lying and manipulating in these ways can be employed for self-preservation purposes.
  • Perfectionism – Some students can be perfectionistic to the point that it leads to stagnation. Perfectionism is a skill gap between how a student wants to perform, and what they’re capable of doing. Their work is not meeting the standards they hold for themselves. A perfectionistic student could struggle in college to complete work and keep up with the weekly work needed to succeed.
  • “Stuckness” – Similar to perfectionism, this is a general inability to get going. This student has a hard time doing anything beyond what they’re being forced to do. They may show up to band and play practice, but they do not use any of the 3 waking hours at home on schoolwork. They have a difficult time utilizing their time in an effective way and this makes it difficult to be academically independent.

Parents, teachers, tutors, or anyone else working with a student should be on the lookout for these red flags. If the end goal is for students to be independent, successful, and happy at the college choice that they have made, then we should be looking for possible challenges that they will face and searching for the modes of support they should receive.

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