Executive Function Strategies for New College Students: Three Tips to Empower Your Teen by Sasha Shtern, CEO, Goally

College can be one of the most incredible experiences for your kids, but it can also be one of the most challenging transitions they will face. I mean, consider this: they go from having a consistent curfew to having none, from spending eighty percent of their day actually in class to only twenty percent. They go from having minimal homework to loads of it. Not to mention navigating an entirely new social environment.

Now, imagine trying to tackle these changes in the midst of already wrestling with executive function challenges. Does this sound familiar when you think about your teenager’s experience?

Well, here is the good news: You, as a parent, have the ability to empower your child with resources and strategies that will help their transition into college be one that helps them develop independence.

Because of this, I have mapped out three executive function skills to focus on that will help you guide your child in hopping on board the college train.

1.    Improving Organization and Planning:

Staying organized is important on an entirely new level in college. Kids show up to class expected to have already read the syllabus, and there are not nearly as many reminders about due dates, if any. You can help your child get organized by helping them work backwards through their syllabi and map out assignments in a calendar or planner.

Here are some resources ideas:

Whether it be a paper schedule or an app, getting assignments organized in some sort of system will save them many headaches and panic moments in the future.

You can also teach them about the Steps, Time, Mapping strategy. This strategy is helpful for teens and kids who find it helpful to break large tasks into bite-sized chunks. Give them an easy example of an assignment and walk them through it. In this strategy, they

  1. Break an assignment into the steps needed to be taken
  2. List the time it will take to accomplish each step
  3. Map out when each step will be done in a calendar or visual schedule.

Whatever system works best, it is important to consider that many teens with executive functioning challenges are also visual learners. This means that visually seeing a timeline of task due dates can greatly increase their chance of success.

2.    Improving Time management

If you think about it, time is kind of a funny concept. I mean, on one hand, a day at the beach can feel like only an hour, while on the other, an eight-hour work day can feel like 20 hours dragging by. This is definitely the case for me!

Time management, though, is more than just a funny concept. It is a challenge most people struggle to master and is one of the most common executive functions that creates a hurdle for new college students to jump over. But as a parent, you can help!

Guide your child to resources like:

  • Visual timers
    • Visual timers help keep people on-task, ease transitions, and provide a promised ending to a task that is not exactly fun.
  • Token boards
    • Teaching your child how to set up rewards for themselves can be a great motivator to get things done on time. While token boards are often used for kids, the concept can easily be applied to older teens in the form of bigger, more applicable rewards. Help them think through what would motivate them week-by-week during the semester.

Maybe that reward is allowing themselves the budgeting room to buy a new video game or that newest fashion item on the market. The reward could even be as simple as getting to sleep all day!

Whatever it may be, the fun of it is that at this point in your child’s life, it is now them setting the reward and following through with rewarding themselves, ultimately teaching independence and self control.

  • Reminder/task-management apps
    • Technology is not going anywhere, and it can be a beautiful thing! Encourage your child to look for apps and distraction-free technology that can help them be efficient during their college experience!

3.    Improving Transition Skills

College is a game of navigating change. Every year, living situations change. Every semester, entire classes change. On a daily level, assignments and expectations of professors change. Even hour-to-hour, the transition of walking from one side of campus to the other without getting lost can be overwhelming. As time goes on, these transitions get easier, but as a parent, you can make that timeline shrink! Here are some things you could do to help:

  • Get them a digital visual schedule
    • Again, visual schedules provide a heads up before a change in activity. If your child struggles hour by hour to transition smoothly, a pocket-sized visual schedule can be helpful.
  • Set up a weekly call
    • With their permission, of course, you can ask them how their transitions from activity to activity has been. Accountability can be a really helpful motivator.
  • Encourage reflection
    • Help your child brainstorm a way to reflect on their improvement throughout the year! You could buy them a journal or encourage them to set aside time once a month to consider which transitions are the most difficult and what has helped them navigate the best.

Your teen does not have to enter college unprepared. And as their parent, you can have a significant role in making sure that does not happen! With that said, I hope you grab some of these tips and tricks and send them off with confidence and pride.


Sasha Shtern is CEO of Goally, a company dedicated to making software for special needs kids. Goally’s tools help parents implement at home the strategies professionals use in clinics and schools.

A successful serial entrepreneur, angel investor, co-organizer of Ethereum Denver, and co-founder of Rocky Mountain Blockchain, Shtern advocates for other serial entrepreneurs to move into social enterprises. In 2015, he co-founded Impact Makers Table, a nonprofit dedicated to channeling data-driven philanthropy. He is passionate about education policy and healthy eating for kids. 



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