A Day in the Life of a College Student with Executive Function Challenges
Article by Brittany Peterson
Picture this: You go from 6:30am wake-ups to 10:00am ones. You go from four intense hours of learning to a 50-minute class followed by a three hour break. You go from abiding by a curfew to having no curfew at all. These are the kinds of transitions that college freshmen eagerly look forward to (and make your parents wish they were still in college…). But the awesomeness of these transitions is often coupled with the loss of some strong support systems.
Mom isn’t there to wake you up when you sleep through your alarm. Mr. Larkin isn’t offering (once again) a non-penalized extension on your history paper. Dad isn’t driving down to the baseball field to drop off your socks before your evening game.
All of this means that college is full of cool opportunities yet it's also a minefield of challenges — especially if you have Executive Function challenges that are common for students with ADHD or other learning differences.
Let’s take a look at how you can prepare for some common situations:
The Situation: So. Many. Syllabi.
Your Bio professor wants everything submitted through Blackboard. Your Algebra professor requires homework to be submitted by 11:59pm on Sunday nights on some portal you've never used before. Your English teacher assigns readings for each class, has an alternating schedule for writing a post on the readings, and then has a rotating schedule for how many times you’ll have to comment on other students’ posts. Some classes have tests. Some papers. Some both. If you struggle with organizational skills, mastering the differing expectations and routines for all of these classes will be overwhelming.
Some Solutions for Organization
One approach you can take is to plot out major due dates on a long-term calendar, such as Google Calendar. Then, add in reminders for each that go off at intervals: 5 days in advance, 3 days, 2 hours. This will help you keep the big stuff, like tests and papers, continually on your radar. To manage the smaller scale tasks, like submitting homework to the online portal systems, you can set up recurring events on your calendar or on a reminders app on your phone that tells you what you need to do and when. It’s much better to have your phone tell you “submit Bio homework onto Blackboard in three hours!” than to hunt for the syllabus, miss the deadline, or upload the Bio homework to the wrong portal. Once you've got the routine down, you can delete the alerts.
The Situation: So. Much. Work.
Once you sort out the routines for when and how to submit work for each class you’ll need to shift your attention to how you’ll actually manage to get all of that work done. 250 pages of reading each week between your History, English, and Biology classes is just the start. Interspersed are papers to write and tests to prepare for. If your attention is anything like mine, it tends to wane after 20 minutes of work. Or, maybe you struggle to start the work in the first place. With either Executive Function weakness, you might find yourself binge-working right up until deadlines and then crashing the next day. This cycle might get you through midterms, but it’s definitely not sustainable.
Some Solutions for Planning Work
One of the most useful approaches you can take is to use a Steps, Time, Mapping (STM) strategy. First, you figure out what steps you need to take to complete each assignment, then estimate how much time each step might take, and finally, map out on your calendar when you'll do the work. Building in breaks or using the Pomodoro Timer can encourage you to focus in short bursts, making a day full of work seem like tiny segments of awesome intellectual fury.
The Situation: "It’s wing night, bro."
Just as you get your academic work habits in order, you might find other factors taxing your Executive Function skills. Wednesday, you learn, is wing night at the restaurant down the street. It’s fun to go, but it also means a three-hour downtime from studying. Thursdays are apparently “thirsty” and that means your suitemates are loudly making all kinds of questionable choices right outside your door - even though you have class on Friday morning. Call of Duty is calling to you constantly. Some days, it seems like everything else is way more tempting than your research paper on genetic diseases (and, in truth, everything else might actually be way more interesting than that paper).
Some Solutions for Prioritizing and Avoiding Distractions
Thankfully your kindergarten teacher taught you that Wednesdays always arrive after Tuesdays, so you can use the routine of wing night to your advantage. The first thing you can do is set up a countering mechanism. If you simply can’t tell your friends “no” in person, you can shoot over to the library early Wednesday afternoon, shut off your phone, and avoid the temptation altogether. Alternately, you could build in time for wing night into your schedule. We often spend so much time scheduling our work that we might forget to schedule in some fun. Scheduling it in means that you can map out your work around that block of time - maybe using Monday and Tuesday more strategically - and feel less guilty about a midweek night out.
The Takeaway for a College Student with Executive Function Challenges
College can be both incredibly exciting and incredibly stressful for students with Executive Function weaknesses. The key is to remember that both academic and interpersonal situations that require strong Executive Function skills can be managed with strategic approaches and targeted tools. And if some accountability and guidance are needed to get those new habits in place, working with a qualified coach could mean the difference between a successful semester and finding yourself in academic trouble.
Book recommendation: College students are experiencing anxiety, depression, alcohol abuse, and other mental health issues at alarming rates in a landscape of growing academic, social, and financial pressures. A college mental health psychiatrist for over two decades and a mother of two twenty-somethings, Marcia Morris provides a trusted guide for parents.
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