Executive Function: How to Help College Kids Who Struggle

When our children go to college, they receive far less feedback about their performance than they used to. Not only are we, as parents relatively uninvolved in their daily goings-on, but the institution of school itself is expecting our children to be self-aware enough to know when they need help and self-directed enough to pursue it. For a teen who struggles with executive function skills,* the lack of constant feedback in college can make freshman year especially challenging.

student working at computer
Some teens struggle with executive function skills in college.

Executive Function Skills

College and High School Are Vastly Different

College is a far cry from high school when students receive progress reports halfway into each quarter, letting them know what they owe and what they must do to get back on track. Now, during semester-long courses, they may have graded assignments or tests only occasionally until the big mid-terms or finals come.

By the time kids face exam-level assessments, their perception of how they are doing is often off-base due to a combination of their general mood,  selective attention to grades, and a lacking  of awareness of the relative weights of those grades. As a result, until they receive final grades revealing the often unpleasant truth, college students are primarily guessing at their overall standing in their classes.

What I have found as an executive function coach and parent is that most students think they are doing significantly better than they are, which is why so many find themselves with low grades and probation notices after just one or two semesters away from home.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 44% of students are not even graduating from private four-year colleges after six years. At $50,000 or more a year, those extra years are costly and, according to The New York Times, at epidemic levels. Unfortunately, for those who quit college after only partially completing it, they will have nothing to show for their time in terms of future earnings except for a mountain of debt.

Five Ways Parents Can Help College Students Develop Stronger Executive Function Skills

The continued development of executive function skills until the early-to- mid-twenties explains why it is so important for us, as parents, to continue to advise our college and even post-college young adults in learning how to be successful. How can we encourage our sometimes overly sanguine children to more accurately determine how they are doing and then to seek out the help they need? The following five tips will allow your child to stay on top of things.

1. Professor in the Phone

Most successful students use Google Calendar or a similar app on their phone to keep track of critical deadlines, such as mid-terms and finals. Before classes even begin, the best students also insert their professors’ office hours into the weekly calendars. Tell your child how you yourself would forget some of your commitments if you didn’t use a system to track and remind you of them. While office hours are not obligatory, seeing them pop up each week increases the likelihood that your college student will take advantage of the opportunity.

2. Know Thy Syllabus

It is an expectation, if not a requirement, at the college level for professors to disclose exactly how they will grade their students. The elementary and secondary days when teachers would say, “Don’t ask me if it will be on the test. If I’m saying it, it’s obviously important,” are over.

A thorough review of the syllabus before classes begin provides students an unambiguous guide for how to spend time in order to receive the best grade. Unless your child is auditing a class, knowing what percentage of the final grade is based on a project versus a mid-term, for example, is critical information. Ask your college student to either send you photos of their syllabi to review with them or encourage them to review each syllabus with the appropriate professor, teaching assistant or learning support professional on campus.


During the semester, your child will surely understand some of the material, be confused elsewhere, and have blind spots about other parts. The blind spots are where a lack of knowledge becomes a truly dangerous thing, as we all know from driving. When they “don’t even know that they don’t know” – that’s the DKDK – they, of course, feel no urgency whatsoever to seek out help.

Ask your kid to list their questions for the professor, and note their level of certainty on each, to help them determine which to bring to their teacher’s office hours. Consider what a life skill this approach is compared to your rushing to Google with them to provide an answer. Instead of just getting by through your help providing information, you are teaching your child how to self-assess and how to seek help, skills they will certainly need in the workplace as well.

4. 80/20

Until college, school was mostly 80% at school and 20% done at home. The school day was structured that way, and teachers may have expected two to three hours of total work per night for five subjects. In college, that formula is more or less flipped. Only 20% of the work is covered in class – classes usually don’t even meet every day – and students do most of the work independently.

Reading and taking notes on the material, conducting research, writing papers, studying for exams alone or with peers – these skills must be done without the aid of a teacher. While there is no simple solution, it is important for students to have a clear idea entering college how much of this work must be done on their own.

As parents, the more you can help your college student with problem solving skills the better. Imagine your child calls you with a complaint about how much reading there is in a course and the impossibility of keeping up.

I know this example because it happened to me during my freshman year in college, and my parents told me to accept my professor’s invitation to discuss my situation with him. I was ready to quit the course two weeks into it, but, instead, he taught me a skimming and hunting technique that allowed me to read more efficiently in his Latin American studies course and to earn a B in the class. Pushing through the discomfort and learning that I could become a more effective student was not only a great enhancement to my education but a life lesson in being resourceful once I realized that I was stuck.

5. Enlightened Face Time

The simplest and best method of becoming more successful – talking to the professor – may feel like the most difficult since it requires not only initiative but a degree of confidence. It is ideal to meet with the professor after the very first class to simply introduce oneself and, thereby, to make it easier to come back when there is a concern.

Another way to build that confidence and overcome inertia is to have your child write down very specific questions ahead of time. Doing so invests them in the process, making it far more likely they will follow through with the meeting. It will, of course, demonstrate to the professor that your child is serious about the course and values the instructor’s time and has the additional benefit of increasing the efficiency of the meeting.

Generally, good preparation includes writing down clarifying questions, probing questions, and a request for next steps:

  • Clarifying questions are an attempt to verify that the student’s information or assumptions are correct or to fill in factual gaps that could not be found independently, such as, “In the third chapter, is the ‘1’ in the ‘1-r’ meaning the principal?”
  • Probing questions seek deeper understanding, such as, “Why did some of the countries we studied not push for vertical integration when it was so clearly a good thing for them?” Clueless as the student is about the answer, he knows enough to recognize where his confusion lies.
  • Asking for recommendations on next steps compliments the professor, putting that professor in the role of sage and mentor. Professors love the chance to help and to be appreciated, and making this request for advice builds a bond and opens the door for future meetings. And students learn that making time saves them time – and pain – later on.

One student I know asked the professor for steps and was told ‘When you’re doing the reading, always understand the graphs even it the narrative around it is dry or confusing.’ The inside scoop is not always given in the lecture hall.

Savvy Social Media

Perhaps surprisingly, it is also valuable to connect with professors who are social media savvy. Students need to be quick to send an email or text to  either their professors or teaching assistants to answer questions that may need answering before the next class or office hours. A number of professors maintain websites and Facebook pages and share resources, such as Power Points and Quizlet flash card questions, to allow students to solve common problems on their own or to post questions that can benefit many students. This may be a good use of social media you can encourage.

Lights Off

A number of apps can also make a difference in good self-management and in self-awareness. F.lux changes the lighting of the screen from blue rays to red as the night progresses to induce a natural sleepiness. The Forest app essentially reprimands users if they get distracted and start using the phone by destroying the “tree” they have just planted. And apps like 30/30 facilitate awareness of both time passed and time required to complete a number of tasks. Numerous others already exist and are being designed to help students notice when they are on and off task and to help them focus.

Backwards Planning

Finally, teach your college student how to manage projects. After listing all the needed steps and time estimates for each, they need to enter those steps into a document and assign dates for each step. Have them build in realistic amounts of time for each step, keeping some days clear for breaks or for catching up. That wiggle room will prove necessary especially the first few times they try to be regimented about managing their time.

They then enter those steps into their phones, along with the reminders. The point is to avoid surprises, to develop the habit of tuning in to what needs to be done.

Summary: Moving Forward

Ironically, one of the things that students are happiest to leave back at high school is what they need most in college – feedback on performance. It requires previewing the syllabus and material early in the semester to determine what matters, building relationships early with the professors, self-assessing throughout the term and managing time effectively.

Learning to look in the academic mirror and figure out what they know and what they can answer on their own not only improves performance in the short-term. It builds confidence and motivation, realizing they can determine what they need and how to get the help. In the long run, these skills are the ones that will enable them to truly soar.

*Executive function skills are those that allow people to set and achieve goals, including prioritizing, planning, organizing, initiating, self-monitoring, and adapting.

You Might Also Want to Read:

Professor Offers Best Advice for College Freshmen 

Advice for College Freshmen from Recent Grads 


Massachusetts Distinguished Educator Michael Delman is founder and CEO of Beyond BookSmart, an executive function coaching company teaching students throughout the United States how to be more effective in school and beyond.  Previously, he founded and served as principal of the McAuliffe Charter School. He is the author of  Your Kid’s Gonna Be Okay: Building the Executive Function Skills Your Child Needs in the Age of Attention.

You can find him on Facebook and Twitter.
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