A Day in the Life of a High Schooler with Executive Dysfunction


Living with executive dysfunction makes life infinitely more difficult - especially for high schoolers. For the first time in their lives, struggling to manage time, stay organized, resist procrastination, and study effectively all begin to have meaningful consequences. Even so, it's also the perfect time to build these skills before their demands ramp up in college and the working world.

Today, we're going to look at a day in the life of Alex - a high schooler with executive dysfunction - and explore some strategies that will help him better navigate his Executive Function challenges and feel more confident & capable. You'll leave with a better understanding of what living with Executive Dysfunction is really like for the students experiencing it, as well as how you may be able to help a high schooler in your life better navigate these challenges. Let's dive right in...

Morning Madness: 7:01 AM - Rushing Out the Doorella-don-oPrXf-0Nf9Q-unsplash

It's late Sunday evening. Alex knows he'll have to catch the bus at 7:30 tomorrow morning, but the thought of a good night's sleep can't compete with another hour of gaming or the sea of entertainment waiting in his YouTube recommendations. By the time he finally calls it a night and gets to sleep, it's well past midnight.

Some hours pass and before he knows it, morning light is hitting him like a freight train, blaring the incessant horn of a 6:45 alarm that's already been snoozed four times. He finally rolls out of bed at 7, leaving Alex about half an hour to madly dash about the house to squeeze in a shower, get changed, brush his teeth, choose an outfit, pack his lunch, replace his pants (because those jeans couldn't even pass his own smell test), text his friends, realize the new pants are stained - and - if time allows - pack his half-completed homework from the night before. With this routine, Alex usually makes it onto the bus, but oftentimes without the homework he only half-completed. Although this particular Monday he had finished it all, he's soon reminded that his Algebra I teacher doesn't give partial credit for homework left on the kitchen floor...

The Way Forward: Planning Ahead for Mornings

Alex’s tendency to use the snooze button isn’t the main issue here: there’s a lack of planning on his part that makes the morning routine more frantic than it needs to be. In fact, we might even suggest enlisting the help of YouTube for this (bear with us, here). There are so many useful video guides on organization and self-help on YouTube from genuinely cool people that create engaging content. Since this is a platform Alex is already using constantly, he could try picking out a video he likes from one of these content creators, and try out a planning strategy like this creator's "Saturday Strategy" to see if it helps his week. He can also set up simple daily alerts for 8:30pm that walk him through a check-list of items he needs to pack up: lunch, homework folder, planner, textbooks, and gym clothes. This way, he can get to school with homework in hand and have time to do the things he enjoys Sunday night.

Mid-Morning Focus Dip: 10:48 AM - Chemistry Class

Despite his challenges, Alex doesn’t entirely mind school. He’s got friends he can chat with, and most of his classes are at least kind of interesting. But there’s one exception — chemistry, where Ms. Glurtman has a tendency to drone on for the full hour in a voice that’s somehow a combination of white noise and nails on a chalkboard. As much as Alex would love to just tune her out completely, he's cursed with a chemistry quiz every week and tests twice a month, so he really needs to be able to hear and process what Ms. Glurtman is saying.

The Way Forward: Maintaining Focus in Class

While he’d like to just blame Ms. Glurtman for a bad chemistry grade, Alex does have some options to help him. Although it’s tough to maintain attention when a subject you find uninteresting is presented in a dull manner, learning to do so is part of developing Executive Function skills. Alex can’t change Ms. Glurtman’s voice, but he can change what he does while listening to it. That might start with posture. Sitting upright rather than slouched over might help Alex ward off the boredom demons at least a bit. So might the way he takes notes — by finding a method that works for him (jotting down key words, diagramming concepts, connecting chemistry to other aspects of his life), Alex can keep his chemistry grade from being wrecked by a teacher whose favorite element is Boron. 

Afternoon Procrastination: 3:04 PM - School Day’s Finally Over (sort of)

After Alex has stepped off the bus and sinks into the living room couch, his comfort is quickly diminished by the routine reminder that the school day isn’t quite over yet - there's homework to be done. Between the lack of sleep, tough morning, and boring chemistry class, Alex's mental energy is practically gone and he's all but wiped out. Even though Mr. Coyle went light on the US History reading questions (Alex’s favorite subject) the thought of getting started on everything is overwhelming. He promises himself that he’ll start at 4 pm, but when 4:30 hits, he's deep into a gaming video. YouTube rabbit hole flash forward an hour later, and the gaming videos inspired some actual gaming. After all, there's so much night left and plenty of time to bang out all the homework. Time passes, dinner is eaten, and suddenly it's 8:30 pm and nothing has been done. The panic sets in, and Alex begins his binge, only to realize the homework will take him at least three hours - meaning tomorrow morning will likely be just as chaotic as today.

The Way Forward: Modern Approaches for Managing Distractions 

Alex’s tendency to put off his homework until the last possible minute is understandable. The amount of energy and attention students need to focus on classes all day leaves them with little gas in the tank to begin a homework session. Add in distractions from the endless depths of the internet, friends texting, and video games and Alex’s task initiation skills are put to the ultimate test. So what can he do? One place to start is by experimenting with a planning app like Habitica or TickTick to set up a to-do list for the evening that is easy to follow, fun to use, and realistic. If the distractions are the real barrier to getting started, Alex can try reducing their effect. One way to do this is by using the Forest app on his phone to “plant” a tree on his phone so that while he works, it grows. If he touches his phone, the tree dies. If the distractions come through on his computer, installing Freedom might do the trick as this widget can block access to tempting websites for a set amount of time (looking at you, YouTube!)

The Takeaway on Executive Dysfunction

Although Alex faces Executive Function challenges throughout the day, he has many options for how to address each one. Once he understands that these tough moments can be managed with the right strategies, it’s easier for Alex to imagine the benefits of using better ways to plan his time, manage attention, and resist distractions when he needs to get work done. Maybe a day in the life of a high schooler doesn’t have to be so bad after all.

2021 Information Session Social media graphicSee our info session on Executive Function coaching and discover how our coaches equip students with the skills they need to succeed in high school and beyond. 

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Photo by ELLA DON on Unsplash


About the Author

Brittany Peterson & Sean Potts

Brittany Peterson is a college writing instructor, certified writing tutor, and senior executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart. She began her career in education at Quinnipiac University earning a Bachelor of Arts in English and Masters degree in Secondary Education. Feeling motivated to expand her pedagogical skill set, Brittany pursued a second Masters degree in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Boston. After graduating, she became a full-time lecturer at UMass Boston where she currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition and teaches first-year composition to a diverse classroom culture including English Language Learners and nontraditional students from a variety of academic backgrounds. Brittany's experience with adult learners, diverse cultures, and a range of learning abilities has enabled her to become a flexible educator who is sensitive to individual learning needs and intrinsically invested in their educational success. Sean Potts is the Marketing Specialist at Beyond BookSmart. As a former coaching client and intern at BBS, Sean has spent the better part of the last ten years witnessing firsthand the positive impact Beyond BookSmart's mission has on transforming lives.

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