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Jun 12, 2017

When thinking back to your middle school years, I’ll bet you recall a time in your life when your peers Middle schoolers with executive function challenged can get overwhelmed by demandswere always accepting, your teachers understood you, and your retainer never, ever got lost.

No? I didn't think so. It turns out, not too much has changed since the Pleistocene era we grew up in, pre-interwebs. Middle school is still an awkward time, to say the least, for even the most “together” students. But for adolescents with Executive Function challenges, daily life in middle school can feel downright unmanageable without the proper supports. Consider below some common obstacles that seventh graders face and the Executive Function skills needed to meet those challenges. (Don’t worry, I’m also including some practical suggestions for managing these issues.)

Challenge #1: Getting to class on time and prepared

The problem

Put yourself in the Nikes of a 7th grader. You have eight class periods in the course of a six hour day. You are expected to visit your locker before school, take out the books you’ll need until lunch, and leave the rest in your locker. You have two minutes from the moment one class ends until the next one starts in which to pack up your books and papers, and walk down the hall to your next class, all the while resisting the urge to chat with friends in the hallway. When you have trouble with organizing materials and planning ahead, there’s a lot of stress in these rushed transitions between classes. And maybe you also get treated to an exasperated teacher when you need to pop back to your locker (again) for your pencil.

What you can do

Troubleshoot with your child. If he finds that bringing his entire backpack with him throughout the day, rather than stopping at his locker, enables him to get to class on time and/or reduces anxiety, then why not request that he be allowed to carry a backpack to class? Or, maybe a conversation with his homeroom teacher could help him get a locker that’s more centrally located. If he finds that he’s spending time at the end of class scrambling to put away loose papers, help him to create a filing system that works for him. Whether it’s a separate folder with sections for “to do” work and “to pass in” work or a compartment within his binder, what matters is that he’s willing to use it.

Challenge #2: Tracking homework assignments

The problem

You’re a seventh grader with four or five different teachers, each with a slightly different system of assigning and collecting the homework. Some teachers post assignments on a corner of the board, and some teachers provide handouts. Many teachers post the homework online. The trouble is, different teachers sometimes post assignments on different sites. On top of that inconsistency, some teachers want you to submit homework online, others want a hard copy (with the proper heading). If you’re a kid with challenges in cognitive flexibility, organization, or emotion regulation, this variation between expectations in your classes can be frustrating. Unless you have a system for finding assignments, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. And that feeling of being overwhelmed can cause you to avoid the homework completely.

What you can do

If your child is willing to try it, request a daily “backpack check”. This means that before leaving school for the day, your child checks in with a teacher or counselor who can prompt them with the following questions: “Do you know what your assignments are, and do you have all the necessary materials needed to complete the assignments? If not, let’s find them.” The idea is that the support will gradually be faded, so that student will develop the habit of independently asking themselves these questions before heading home each day. At home, help your child to bookmark her teachers’ websites on the computer so she can more easily check assignments that have been posted online.   

Challenge #3: Writing on demand

The problem

Classes in 7th grade sometimes begin with a “do-now” exercise. Starting from the moment class begins, you have five minutes to write down two to three ideas in response to a given prompt. Your working memory challenges or slower processing speed can make it hard to compose a thought in your head and rapidly transform it into grammatically correct language. Your attention challenges make it hard to keep your focus on writing when there are some really loud kids in the hallway or the student next to you keeps clicking his pen. Your struggles with organization result in a paragraph with no topic sentence and some unrelated details that seemed important when you thought of them.

What you can do

Here’s a chance for your child to practice self-advocacy skills. One option is to ask a teacher for a “heads up” the day before about the prompts and allow the student to come in with some bullet points they have prepared in advance. If the student discusses a plan with the teacher ahead of time for how they will complete a particular assignment (the plan can be as simple as bringing it home to have additional time to formulate and write down ideas), most teachers will be willing to help. If she does not yet feel ready to take the step of approaching the teacher, a parent or Executive Function coach can guide her in composing an email to the teacher to ask for extra time and/or modifications.

The takeaway

Students with Executive Function challenges face extra stress in middle school when demands increase for flexibility, productivity, organization, and timeliness. While it’s frustrating for a parent (or teacher) when a student can’t “get it together” it’s even more overwhelming to actually be that student. Lots of bright kids need to be explicitly taught how to manage themselves effectively - and we’ve found that once they know how to do that, all students can thrive...even in middle school!

photo credit: Shutterstock

Please see this page for comprehensive information about Executive Function in middle school students.


Help your middle school child be prepared with the foundational skills needed to succeed in high school. Download our guide below.

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About the Author

Pia Cisternino

Pia Cisternino, M.A., M.S. is an executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart and a speech-language pathologist, with over a decade of experience working with students diagnosed with ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, and learning disabilities. She received her B.A. from Tufts University, where she majored in English and Italian, and continued to study literature at Johns Hopkins University, where she received an Master’s degree in Creative Writing and Poetry. She went on to receive a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. A strong advocate for students with special education needs, Pia founded and facilitated a support group for parents of 2e (twice exceptional) children, and served for two years as co-chair of the Parent Advisory Council on Special Education (C-PAC) within her local school district.. Pia’s approach to coaching centers around enabling students to build skills by utilizing their own individual strengths. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and children.

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