Activating Teens with a Summer Project to Build Executive Functioning


This turbulent school year has finally reached its end! But now that summer Activate Your Teen Blog Articleis here, many of you may be shifting into this new season with some concerns: What will my teen do if they’re not returning to camp? Will my teen be screen-bound for hours on end? Will my teen sleep all day and stay up all night, messing with their circadian rhythm? All of this upcoming downtime provides a host of new challenges, especially if you’re beginning to play the perilous game of overseeing your teen’s summer without creating conflict or managing outright rebellion.

But what if this surplus of free time could be viewed as an opportunity for your teen to explore their interests in order to build skills?

In this article, I’ll discuss how to encourage your teen to dive into a passion project for the summer that’s geared towards enhancing their Executive Functioning skills. And, I’ll offer ways for how you, as a parent, can help guide them along the way ... without needing to do too much work to get their project off the ground and to keep it going.

Before we dive in, I want to share a little bit of what I observe about new students from my perspective as a college instructor. The majority of my time is spent working with first-year students which means that, for the last 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to witness the ways in which students manage the shift from a structured high school environment to a mostly unstructured new environment. This lack of structure -- both in time and accountability -- leads to several challenges for college students, most notably in the following areas:

  • Time Management
  • Planning and Prioritizing
  • Getting started (alternatively called “procrastination”)
  • Self-monitoring (most often in the form of being either unaware of how they’re doing in class or inaccurate in their self-assessment)
Many students may have had a smoother start in college if they’d beefed up some of their Executive Function (EF) skills a bit more before their arrival. And when pressed to think about when these students would have time to really, actively, and deeply work on building these skills, I can think of no better time than the summer. This is particularly true since setting goals -- and then making plans for how to work towards those goals -- helps to create a structure to those endless summer days.

So let’s dive into how you might support your teen in enhancing their EF skills this summer!

Identifying a Passion that Builds EF Skills

Most teens have something they’re passionate about or interested in. Consider how your teen likes to spend their time outside of school. Perhaps they’re very active and find joy when they’re practicing their jumpshot, mounting the high beam, or swimming laps. Or, perhaps they are creative -- expressing that through music, dance, photography, or writing. Some of you might have more cerebral children who are voracious readers or intense online gamers. Or maybe your teen is passionate about human rights, climate change, or building models. Wherever their passion lies, therein lies your opportunity to enhance their Executive Function skills.

You may already be imagining what this may look like for a sport or a creative interest like a painting. When the finished product is more tangible, it can be easier to imagine what “success” in those areas might look like. But what about the teen whose main interest is online gaming? How might that screen-bound interest area meaningfully translate to a skill-building summer project?

From learning how to code to showing the ropes to newbies in the gaming world to writing reviews of games, your gamer can engage more deeply with their passion beyond strictly through the console. Let me explain how.

Let’s say your teen perks up at the idea that they could spend time this summer teaching new players a game that they already know and love. This is an excellent opportunity to engage critical EF skills. In order to provide key information to a newcomer, your teen will need to participate in continual perspective-taking as they imagine what a novice is thinking, feeling, and needing to know. They’ll also need to develop an organized approach for how to convey new information.

Both of these Executive Function areas translate successfully into the academic world: Perspective-taking allows your teen to strengthen relationships with others as they learn to consider multiple points of view and respond accordingly, and organizing an approach for how to deliver material is key to successful essay writing.

But maybe your teen just wants to play. That can be a skill-building opportunity, too. Let’s imagine a teen who loves an online soccer game like FIFA. In these kinds of games, there’s typically a key statistic that shows a player’s skill relative to other players, such as their win-loss ratio on matches. These sorts of stats are low-hanging fruit for goal setting as most teens who are invested in a certain online game keep track of these metrics and usually want to improve them. Once you begin to create steps for how to work towards improvement, you’ll quickly find that it’s no different from striving to achieve any other goal: You make a plan, and then take measured steps towards it.

The key is to lean in to the passion your teen already has and identify ways that passion can open up opportunities for skill development.

Getting Buy-In

Once you’ve identified a passion or interest that has the potential to build EF skills, it’s time to pitch a project to your kid. For many of you, this might go over pretty well. After all, you’re encouraging them to further engage with the thing they love in more ways than they might currently be. This shows them you respect and support their passions and it might yield buy-in without much persuasion.

You can always test the waters, though, if you’re unsure. For example, when your avid guitarist finally emerges from her room to tape up her blistered fingers, just keep the conversation open and express genuine interest in her musical proclivities. The more she talks, the more you’ll learn about whether she’s likely to latch onto the idea of learning a more difficult song or teaching the neighborhood newbie how to play bass.

Once your teen has chosen a project, you’re ready to think about what role you’ll play in supporting it. And this can be tough. If you’re heavily involved, you’re likely to get serious pushback as the project morphs from a joyful adventure into a chore for your teen. On the other hand, if you stay out of it entirely, there’s potential for the project to fall away after the initial burst of interest. So how do we find a happy medium?

Collaborating vs. Directing

The key is to position yourself as a collaborator, not a director. This means utilizing language that empowers them to take ownership of their project each step of the way. In addition to reducing parent-teen friction, this will also dramatically reduce the amount of work on your end.

So what kind of empowering language is best? Open-ended leading questions that help them think through how they’ll tackle their goal are a great method.

At the outset of the project, you might try asking:

  • How would you define the ultimate goal or outcome of this project?
  • How might you create smaller steps leading towards this outcome?
  • What’s a reasonable timeline for these steps?
  • What materials do you need?
  • How will you get started?
  • What challenges do you anticipate?
  • Whose help do you think you might call upon should you need it? 

These kinds of questions put the planning and problem-solving cognitive load on them, building their ability to think through the project. The more problem-solving they get in the habit of doing, the better equipped they’ll be when they are out of the home at college or on the job. 

Once they’ve thought through their project, let them set to work. You might find it helpful to set up scheduled checkpoints together every week to encourage reflection and revision of their working habits. During these checkpoints, try asking a new set of leading questions:

  • How are you doing with your project?
  • What are you learning?
  • What’s been tough?
  • What support -- if any -- do you think you could benefit from?
  • How do you feel about how you’re getting it done?
  • What changes do you think you need to make to your plan to be even more successful? 

Again, by framing these questions openly, you activate their thinking about how they work (metacognition), which encourages reflection, reassessment, and possibly even revision to their approaches and habits. And in my experience, the ability to assess and make adjustments to how a student works is the difference between a successful and struggling student on my college campus.

Enlisting Support

If you’re thinking you’ll be in a tough spot trying to encourage your child to work on a passion project this summer, you might benefit from asking yourself: if not you, then who? Is there another person in your child’s life that’s likely to have an easier time getting them to buy into the idea that summer can be productive and passion-focused at the same time?

Maybe there’s a cousin, a coach, or other mentor you can recruit to help you activate your teen. Sometimes it can make a world of difference to get someone to collaborate with your kid who doesn’t share the day-to-day frictions that a parent can typically have. Our own coaches see that play out regularly: We often make suggestions similar to those their parents have made, but somehow when they hear it from us -- from people who don’t also remind them to make their bed or put their phone away -- they seem more open to hearing it, and that increases the likelihood that they’ll try it. In fact, summer passion projects are one of our coaches’ favorite ways to work on Executive Function skills since the pressure of academic work isn’t perpetually weighing on students. And that ends up being a 3-way win: the kid has a sense of purpose to their summer days that they enjoy, the parent doesn’t wind up in fights with their teen, and the kid gains skills and confidence that take them beyond the summer and into their school year.

Photo by Luisa Denu on Unsplash

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About the Author

Brittany Peterson

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.

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