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In this Episode
Executive Functioning skills are our mental control skills help us to focus attention, plan, organize, follow through, and manage our behavior.
These real life skills are not taught in school but are expected and are key to success.
In this episode we're talking to Natalie Borrell and Alison Grant, Academic Life Coaches at Life Success for Teens. We explore how Executive Function challenges affect teens and their parents, and what's really going on behind procrastination.
Natalie and Alison give advice on managing Executive Function challenges, procrastination, and ADHD.
In this week's episode, you'll learn:
- Executive Function challenges in teens
- How a teen's Executive Function challenges affect self-esteem, behavior, and their parents
- Procrastination: what's going on and strategies to help
- Advice for parents and teens with ADHD
"The students we’ve worked with are bright and as teens they look pretty grown-up. So it’s really easy for their challenges with organization or getting work in on time to be misunderstood."
- Jill Stowell
Natalie Borrell and Alison Grant, Founder and Coach of Life Success For Teens
- Life Success for Teens
- Life Success for Teens on Facebook
- Life Success for Teens on Instagram
- "7 Ways to Stop Procrastinating" - Free Download from Natalie Borrell
- Executive Function Information Page
- Stowell Learning Center's Learning Skills Continuum
- Take the Stone Out of the Shoe - Chapter 11: Executive Function and Organization
- At Wit's End - Chapter 19: Executive Function (and the teenage brain)
LD Expert Podcast - Episode #56
Executive Function, Procrastination, and Strategies - Natalie Borrell and Alison Grant
Jill Stowell: Do you feel like all you do is nag your teen? Are you afraid that your teen isn’t going to make it in the real world? Do you hate seeing your teen or college student’s self-esteem take a hit day after day because they want to do better in school but they just don’t know how?
Welcome to the LD Expert Podcast, your place for answers and solutions for dyslexia and learning differences.
Jill Stowell: Struggles in school can impact every other aspect of a student’s life, causing them to feel anxious or depressed or less than. Today, we are discussing executive functioning, our mental control skills that help us focus attention, plan, organize, follow through and manage our behavior. These are real life skills that aren’t generally taught in school but are expected and are key to success.
I’m your host Jill Stowell, founder and executive director of Stowell Learning Centers and author of Take the Stone Out of the Shoe: A Must-Have Guide to Understanding, Supporting and Correcting Dyslexia, Learning and Attention Challenges.
At Stowell Learning Centers, we work with children and families just like yours, helping parents understand what’s going on when bright students struggle in school and what can be done to change that permanently and we understand that having a child with dyslexia, learning or attention challenges can be very lonely for a parent.
You feel like you’re the only one whose child is struggling and you don’t know who to talk to. This podcast is for you. We’re here to equip you with knowledge and practical tools for understanding and helping your child.
If this episode brings up any questions for you or you would like to speak with someone about your child or teen, go to stowellcenter.com and give us a call.
In this series, we’ve been talking about the impact of underlying processing and neurodevelopmental skills on behavior, anxiety, learning and attention. For those of you who are new to the podcast, we base our work on what we call the Learning Skills Continuum, which you can visualize as being like a ladder. Academic and school skills are up at the top of the ladder and the rungs on the ladder are underlying skills that need to be solidly in place in order for students to work comfortably and at their potential at the top.
On the bottom rung of the ladder, we have core learning skills which are the foundational sensory motor or body control skills. A little higher on the ladder and in the brain are processing skills. These are critical skills such as memory, attention, auditory and visual processing, language processing and processing speed.
The next level up is executive function or high-level thinking skills that allow us to plan, organize, get things done and manage our own attention and behavior. Weaknesses in any of these underlying skills can cause smart students of any age to struggle, which impacts attention and self-esteem.
Today we’re going to focus on executive function with two wonderful practitioners, Natalie Borrell and Alison Grant, who are going to give you insights and strategies for your struggling teens.
In addition to her role as a school psychologist in a public high school, Natalie is a certified academic life coach and the founder of Life Success for Teens. Alison is the Director of Curriculum and a teacher at a public high school and a certified life coach with Life Success for Teens. Welcome Natalie and Alison.
Alison Grant: Thank you.
Natalie Borrell: Thank you. We’re excited to be here.
Jill Stowell: Well, I’m excited to have you both. Academic life coaching, I think that might be a new term for some of the people in our audience. Could you tell us a little bit about who you serve and what you do in that arena?
Natalie Borrell: Yeah, absolutely. So academic life coaching is kind of exactly what it sounds like. Half of what we do is academic in nature, meaning we help teenagers with the skills it takes to be successful in school. So things you might think of like study skills or managing your time, organization, etc.
Then the other half of what we do is more what we would call life coaching in style and that is more things like building your confidence, managing stress and anxiety and planning your future. So it’s kind of a combination of the two. So we’ve combined the two into the academic life coaching.
Jill Stowell: Which really truly, those aren’t mutually exclusive, you know. I mean school is a big part of their life and all those social time things around school. So that’s I think a fantastic combination.
Natalie Borrell: Yeah, thank you. We often say it’s the same type of skill set that it does take to be successful inside a school setting, that it actually takes to be successful in life in the real world. It’s just a different space.
Jill Stowell: Right, exactly and really that’s what executive function is and we’re trying to kind of focus on executive function today. So what are some of the executive function challenges, the key challenges that you see with your teens that you work with?
Alison Grant: I think one of the things that we notice the most is time management and organization. They really struggle and because they’re so closely-related, our students struggle with managing their time and being able to identify how long a task is going to take. But at the same time, that task takes even longer when you’re not organized and you don’t know exactly what comes next. So both of those are two of many other skills that you need that they struggle with.
Jill Stowell: And so thinking about that, those are definitely big skills and a lot of students struggle there. How might that look to a parent? Because we can look at it and say, “Oh, they’re really struggling with time management and organization.” But how does that look to the parent at home?
Natalie Borrell: Yeah, I think they look a lot of different ways. But some of the things that we hear most often from the parents that we work with are feelings of frustration for not only the teenager themselves but for the parent who’s trying to help navigate them through these challenges. So it’s a feeling of frustration and sometimes for the teenager, that is a feeling of I should be able to do this or manage all of this, but I don’t know how or it's just asking too much of me right now.
So I feel like that feeling of frustration is something that we see often. It also might look like overwhelm or shutting down or what appears to be low motivation and sometimes what’s underneath all of that is either emotions that have not been addressed or a skill set that has not been fine-tuned that then presents like not wanting to do things or not feeling motivated or not feeling confident. But really there’s something underneath that’s going on that has to be kind of addressed and fine-tuned first in order to support that.
Jill Stowell: Yeah, absolutely. I love that, that you point that out, that it’s really a skills problem. But in teens, it definitely can come across sometimes as lack of motivation or they don’t care or attitude and I just think it’s always important to look underneath. You have experience with teens both privately and in the school setting. How do you see that executive function challenges impact a teen’s self-esteem and behavior at school?
Natalie Borrell: Go ahead. We both want to answer all your questions. Go ahead.
Alison Grant: I think oftentimes it looks like they’re very defeated in the school setting. Again going back to that low motivation or that they feel like they – and it looks like they’re not willing to try. But in reality, it’s maybe a skill that’s missing. It’s the how-to. It’s the first of a hundred steps and that ocean of steps is overwhelming. So identifying the first step can be a huge part to building self-esteem and giving them the steps and eventually pulling them away allows them to build their confidence through doing it each time a little bit more – less and less with the adult’s assistance. As they learn that skill set, their confidence then builds and they have higher self-esteem.
Jill Stowell: Definitely. Natalie, did you have something you wanted to tag into that also about how it looks at school?
Natalie Borrell: Yeah. I think the other thing that I see quite often is avoidance or what appears to be avoidance of tasks. So if you have a student with a lot of assignments missing, it can be very easy for the adults in their life, including the teacher and the parent, to say, “Why aren’t you doing this? It seems so simple. Like here’s your assignment. Here’s when it’s due. Turn it in. You’re capable. You can do this.”
But underneath all of that are these other emotions and feelings and can kind of describe it like an onion, like all these different layers of things that are happening that it’s not so simple to that teenager and what looks like avoiding or procrastinating is really something else.
Jill Stowell: Right, right. Because the students we’ve worked with are bright and as teens they look pretty grown-up. So it’s really easy for their challenges with organization or getting work in on time to be misunderstood. What would you like for every high school teacher to understand?
Natalie Borrell: I think that high school teachers right now – and I am not one. But I’m going to speak for them. High school teachers right now have so many of their own thoughts, their own requirements that they have to do in school. Like the challenges of being a teacher now in 2023 are different and more than they have been in the past.
So it can be very easy to just try to keep your head above water as a teacher and do what you have to do to get through your lessons and teach these students and motivate them and be a good listener. It’s a lot.
So I think my message to teachers would be to just when you can, take a breath and also to kind of try to take a bird’s eye view of what might be happening with the teenager and remember that just like you, they have their own world happening outside of school and that there might be something underlying what you’re seeing in the classroom and if you don’t have the bandwidth to manage it or handle it yourself or you don’t have the skillset, that is totally OK because there are other people in the school that may be able to or have a different skillset or schedule that can swoop in and help because I think that teachers take on a lot themselves and feel like you have to be all things to every kid and that’s really heavy.
So take a breath. Take a bird’s eye view. Remember there’s something else going on with that teenager just like yourself and then seek out other people who can give the support that you yourself aren’t able.
Jill Stowell: Yeah. I think that’s great advice. I think we’ve all been there. I was a teacher also not in 2023. Boy, this has been a tough time, really tough time for teachers to navigate all of the changes and things that are happening now. So I think that’s really good advice.
In my experience, kids really want to do well. It’s embarrassing to fail and it feels bad to disappoint your parents, so they really don’t want to do that. But when you’re expected to do things that you know you should be able to do but you just can’t, it’s really frustrating as you said and we know that this is a skills problem. But teens can get into some pretty negative self-talk or self-sabotage because they’re afraid to try or too embarrassed to ask for help. I’m sure you run into that as well.
Alison Grant: Yeah, and I think one of the things that we often talk about to our clients is how to shift that negative self-talk and taking a pause oftentimes and just being aware that it’s even happening is the first step of addressing it.
We talk a lot about confidence in what we do and a lot of our clients don’t realize that they’re even having negative self-talk because it’s so prevalent and so strong that it has just become their normal voice. So taking a pause and stepping back and being aware that it’s happening can really kind of zoom out and be much more aware of the problem.
I would say the next step to that process is then neutralizing the situation and if you’re not ready to say something positive about it, because maybe you’re just not there mentally but maybe coming up with a neutral statement like, “OK, I can address this,” or “I will address this.”
So it’s not saying I’m going to be a superstar at it. It’s just neutralizing that negative statement and then at the point where they get comfortable with that neutral place, then trying to come up with a positive statement and practicing that. It’s not a one-and-done type of thing. It certainly is something that has to be exercised on a regular basis to be able to utilize the tools to pause, address the negative self-talk, neutralize it and then come up with something positive because our long-term goal is for them to have a positive self-talk.
Jill Stowell: Right.
Alison Grant: And that can only come when we address the negative self-talk first and be able to embrace and be aware that it’s actually happening.
Jill Stowell: I love what you said about it’s not a one-and-done. You have to exercise it. You got to practice and that’s really the case with all of these skills. I mean just because we say something as a parent or a teacher or therapist to a student one time isn’t going to do it because everything is ingrained as a habit. We have to work through the awareness and progressive changes. So I love that.
You know, I think many parents, especially parents of teens, feel like they are in this endless cycle of nagging because their kids procrastinate so much. What is really going on with procrastination?
Natalie Borrell: I think a lot of things could be happening. If your teen or you yourself are procrastinating, it could be, one, you don’t totally understand what is being asked of you. I see that often with teenagers who procrastinate on things like big projects or studying for a test. They’re not very good at doing things now that their future self is going to be happy about because it’s always like, well that thing is in the future. That test is on Friday or that project is not due for two weeks, so my future self can deal with that. Right now I don’t have to.
Sometimes it’s – that project feels so overwhelming or vague or heavy. That to even look at the directions and try to understand what I’m supposed to do again even though my teacher just explained it probably two different ways.
It feels like too much and so that procrastination is really like an avoidance. Sometimes it’s – that project feels like something that I don’t feel like I’m capable of and so I’m going to avoid it because it feels better in the moment to just avoid it and not have to feel those feelings of incompetence or comparing yourself to everybody else that just seems to get it and you don’t.
So it could be avoidance as well or just kind of putting things off. Those are a few that come to my mind. There’s probably more.
Jill Stowell: And we always – you think of avoidance as being such a negative thing. But as you pointed out, there are real legitimate reasons for that and we do it to protect ourselves.
Natalie Borrell: And I will say another one that comes to mind too is even if you can start a task or you’re working on your homework or you’re working on a project, distractions are huge and plentiful and all around us. Not just phones but, you know, your thoughts. Also like people walking by, your phone dinging, whatever it may be.
Sometimes the distraction piece like really throws us off and we get off track from what it was that we’re doing and that can look like procrastination too because you’ve started something and kind of worked on it so many times but you’re not making a lot of progress or completing the task.
Alison Grant: Something that I noticed with overachievers oftentimes is they work well under pressure and because they work well under pressure, they can avoid it because they know that even though they don’t love the feeling that they get from doing it, that they do so well and they produce so well, that they go ahead and procrastinate because they’re going to – they know that that end product is going to be good.
So that can be a real – a struggle to be able to balance and plan ahead and start ahead because if every single time you get the product you want, why would you change it? Well, the stress and anxiety, you know – but that’s a hard one for a lot of overachieving students.
Jill Stowell: Right.
Natalie Borrell: It feels like an adrenaline – they’ve got an adrenaline rush. I can speak from experience on this. Alison knows I’m a last minute person. But you know what? That’s when I produce my best results. Like I do well under pressure and that might be OK for a teenager depending on their circumstances but it also might not be OK. I mean as an adult, I know how to make myself do something and not procrastinate at the last minute. It’s a choice that I’m choosing now as an adult. But for a teenager, we need to make sure that they actually do know how to break down a task into smaller parts or to – and we will work on something rather than waiting at the last minute because if you don’t know the skill and you’re always just procrastinating until the last minute, that could come back to bite you in college or when you have a job in the adult world.
Jill Stowell: Right, right. So I know Natalie, you have a free resource for parents called “Seven Ways to Stop Your Teen from Procrastinating”. Sounds amazing and very relevant. So we’re going to put the link in the show notes for people. Do you have a favorite strategy for parents of procrastinators?
Natalie Borrell: I do. Alison is laughing because she knows I love it. It’s called the “Pomodoro Technique” and it’s actually one that I use myself. I know Alison uses it. So it’s great for any adults listening but we do teach our teenagers this strategy. So the way that it works is that first you’re going to set an intention. So what is it that you’re trying to get done or trying to accomplish? So for example let’s just take a history project.
Let’s say your teenager needs to start to work on their history project. OK? That’s the intention. The next step is to clear the clutter and what that means is to actually clear the physical clutter from your workspace. So get rid of everything that’s distracting on your desk. Maybe even put your phone away. Do whatever you need to do to have a clear workspace and the second part of clearing the clutter is clearing your mind.
So what that means, it could be like taking a couple of deep breaths. Just say a positive statement to yourself. Remind yourself of why it’s important to get this task done and then you’re going to want to put a blank piece of paper next to you because part of clearing your mind is that we know we’re going to have thoughts as humans that kind of interrupt us or distract us from what we’re doing. So that piece of paper is there for you to write down anything that comes to mind that you need to address later whether that’s, oh, I forgot to text Sarah back or I wonder what Starbuck’s new latte flavors are.
Whatever it is, like you’ve got a place to put it down. So after you’ve set your intention, you’ve cleared the clutter, then the third step is to set a timer and you’re going to set that timer for however long you think you can focus and work uninterrupted. So for some of our teenagers, that’s 10 minutes and for some of our teenagers, it’s up to 30, maybe 45.
So when you set your timer, you’re going to work as diligently as you can for that amount of minutes. Trying not to get distracted, trying to write down your thoughts if you need to and then when the timer goes off, you can decide, “Hey, do I need a brain break? Do I have to go outside and get a breath of fresh air and get a drink and come back or am I ready to just do another 20-minute session?”
So the Pomodoro is something that is really helpful if you’re feeling like you’re just not motivated to do a big project but I think I could work for 10 minutes or 20 minutes because often that hardest part is just getting started. So if you can get yourself and your mind convinced to work for 10 or 20 minutes and you’ve got that hardest part started, sometimes you’re in that flow or that work mode and you can just keep going.
Jill Stowell: That is great. Yeah, it is a lot of times. Just getting started is the hardest part. I do an online yoga class and she always says, “Hey, you’ve done the hardest part. You’re here.” So yeah and giving a small, manageable chunk makes so much sense.
Natalie Borrell: Yeah. Well, I will offer another strategy too. I know Alison likes this one as well, accountability partners. So doing something on your own that seems daunting can be really tough. Like going to yoga classes, right?
But like if I take Alison with me and I’m like “Hey, let’s meet at yoga,” I’m going to show up because I know that she’s going to be there, right? I might not do it for myself but for our teenagers, we talk about accountability partners being – you know, maybe it’s a study buddy or a friend in class. You guys can meet after school. You can go to the coffee shop or Facetime each other, whatever it is, and kind of hold each other accountable so that you’re coworking. You know, either if you’re working on the same thing together or you’re both working on your own projects but you’re just in the same space. That is really helpful.
It’s kind of like when you go to a coffeeshop and you see people typing on their laptops or working. It's because that’s kind of the culture in the room. So you feel like you should do that too. So accountability partners are really helpful when you’re not feeling motivated and you’re procrastinating on something.
Jill Stowell: Absolutely. And Alison, do you have any others that you want to add in here?
Alison Grant: Yeah. I think my favorite is I like to set timers in regards to like an alarm clock that goes off to tell me it’s time to work on this because it forces me to address the problem right when it goes off and I always say like the reminder on my phone isn’t strong enough. I need a really loud bell that like shocks me into doing it. I can swipe a reminder away very easily. But when my alarm clock goes off to tell me it’s time to write that email or it’s time to make that phone call, it does two things.
One, it allows me to not have to worry about it up until that point and I can put it away and it’s not like an open tab in my brain running, always being something that I’m worrying about and I like that, that I addressed it. I put the timer or the alarm on and I can then move on to whatever task I need to and then when that alarm goes off, I can then address it and because the alarm is such – like it just stops what you’re doing, I can then address the – whatever I need to do. I have alarms for everything. It is literally how I function. My family makes fun of me because I have alarms going off. Like who do you need to text? Who do you need to call? It’s like an ongoing joke in my house but I do find it highly effective. So …
Jill Stowell: Well, thank you for those. Those are really great suggestions. That’s really interesting Alison talking about the alarm versus just a reminder because you’re right. It is so easy to swipe a reminder away but that alarm, it literally breaks what you were doing and helps you make that shift. It’s a great tool.
Alison Grant: Oh, yeah.
Natalie Borrell: Make sure to label your alarm because otherwise you’re going to go, “Why is this alarm going off?”
Alison Grant: Absolutely.
Natalie Borrell: What am I supposed to be doing right now?
Jill Stowell: Yeah, yeah. Well, I want to talk a little bit about ADHD. Students with ADHD tend to live in the now. So it’s really hard for them to plan and manage their time or even look backwards and learn from their mistakes. Do you have any particular advice for parents or teens dealing with ADHD?
Natalie Borrell: Yeah. The first thing that comes to mind for me is that the ability to look at your week is a skill – look at the week ahead of you and know what is coming up, what is due, when your tests are. That is a skill that is not innate in many teenagers and especially a lot of our teenagers who had ADHD and sometimes even a whole week ahead feels like too much.
So I would figure out where your teenager is in terms of being able to plan ahead. Are they able to look at their evening and know that hey, Tuesdays is soccer and I have to lock the dog every Tuesday? Whatever. Are they able to look a couple of hours ahead? Can they look a day ahead or are they at the point where they can look a week ahead and kind of be able to go through their schedule and what it is they have to do?
Wherever they are at, you need to meet them there. When we think that about all skills with teenagers, figure out where they’re at because you can’t get from A to Z. You have to go A, B, C, maybe B again, C, whatever it is, to get from where you are to where it is that you want to be.
So for our kids with ADHD, figure out how long they’re able to kind of look ahead and go from there as far as helping them break down what is due when and what does that mean for how you – what you have to do tonight if something is due tomorrow.
My other thing for parents of ADHD is that sometimes those conversations can become tense I guess with any teenager but especially with ADHD. If you know that this is a deficit, that conversation between a teenager and their parent can get tense. It can cause frustration. It can cause arguments. You name it and sometimes you need another voice. So if it is – if that – if you’re trying to save that relationship with your teenager but you also know that you need some support for them, with these skills, find somebody else to help them. Maybe it is a teacher at school that’s willing to come in before or after. Maybe it’s a family member. Maybe it’s a friend. Maybe it’s a coach, an athletic coach or academic coach. It’s somebody who’s a different voice who doesn’t have 14 to 18 years of emotion tied into those conversations and can kind of just be a neutral party. Alison and I say this all the time. It’s the reason why we have a job because you could say something as a mom and how could you possibly understand. You’re a mom. You don’t get it.
But Alison and I say it or a family friend says it and it’s the most brilliant thing they’ve ever heard. So it’s really a matter of sometimes changing the voice if your voice isn’t the one they need to hear in the moment.
Alison Grant: And one thing I’ve often been working with some of my clients, I’ve realized and I know this is a little bit of a balancing act but kind of embracing and accepting who you are in regards that if you know you can only work in short periods of time, that’s OK. So then embrace that and know that a 15-minute interval is OK for you.
I actually am thinking of two sisters in particular who were in our college track and they both really struggled with ADHD and one of the things that we started doing was breaking tests down and creating variety for them because it allowed them to be successful, complete tasks and not just get overwhelmed on what they were doing instead of just staring at it and being overwhelmed.
They were both brilliant minds but just needed a little bit of a perspective shift in embracing and accepting who they are and almost using it as a strength and not a weakness for them, that they could say, “OK, I have 20 minutes. I could actually use this 20 minutes and get something done and that’s all my brain can really take right now,” and that’s OK. So it really worked for them to just accept that piece of who they were.
Jill Stowell: Well, thank you both so much. These are really great little gems of advice for parents and students, teachers. I really, really appreciate you both. I know you work with students all over the country, both of you. How can people get a hold of you?
Natalie Borrell: Yeah, a couple of different ways. Our website is probably the best place to know more about us and what we do and that website is www.lifesuccessforteens.com. So on there you can meet some of our coaches and see their areas of specialty and learn a little bit more about them and the work that we do with middle school, high school and college students and then we’re also on Instagram @LifeSuccessforTeens and we also had a Facebook group for parents called “Raising Successful Teens” and that group – we post a lot of different content. We have blog posts in there. We have some just fun conversation, tips and tricks and all kinds of stuff, executive function and confidence building.
Jill Stowell: Fantastic. That sounds like a really great resource and we will put those in the show notes also so that parents can find you. Thank you so much.
Alison Grant: Oh, it’s our pleasure. Thanks Jill.
Jill Stowell: Really, really helpful tips and strategies.
Natalie Borrell: Our pleasure.
Jill Stowell: Next week, we’re starting a new series on auditory processing. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss out on any of our new episodes. At Stowell Learning Centers, we help children and adults eliminate struggles associated with dyslexia and learning differences. It is still a common belief that if you have a learning disability or dyslexia, you’re just going to have to find ways to work around it.
The brain research and decades of clinical evidence prove that this is not necessary or true. We must change the conversation around learning and attention challenges so that these amazing children and teens can enjoy learning and live their best life.
Help us reach more people and get the word out. Like, share and leave us a five-star review. Let’s change the narrative together.
- Episode 64: Brain Training for Self-Care, Focus, and Productivity – Alex Doman
- Episode 63: Dear Moms of Neurodiverse Learners… – Megan Champion
- Episode 62: 2E and Misunderstood – Lauren Ma
- Episode 61: School Refusal, Digital Media, and Medication and ADHD – Dr. Keeban Nam
- Episode 60: Mental Flexibility Tools for Neurodiverse Learners – Jill Stowell
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