By Sophia K. Havasy, Ph.D.
Seniors in high school think that the language of launching is: “Where are you going to school?” “What will you major in?” “Are you excited?” “Are you ready?” Parents think that the language of launching is: “Have you finished your essays?” “Which schools do you want to visit?” “How are your grades?” “What are you going to do without me?” These questions are the dance that young people and their parents do as they get ready for college. They are not the language of launching.
The questions that need to be asked are more like: “What are your goals?” “How are you going to get there?” “If you don’t have goals, what are ideas that you have to figure it out?” “What skills and abilities do you need to develop before you leave home?” These questions are about executive functioning.
The key to successful launching of young adults, with and without risk factors such as ADHD or learning differences, is the development of executive functioning. According to Jack Naglieri, Ph.D., in a November 2017 APA-sponsored webinar, executive functioning allows us to figure out “how to do what we choose to do to achieve a goal.” Executive functioning involves the frontal lobes and is the last major growth spurt of the brain. It occurs roughly between 17 and 27 years of age.
According to Naglieri, “How you do what you decide to do’ demands … Initiation to achieve a goal, planning and organizing parts of a task, attending to details to notice success of the solution, keeping information in memory, having flexibility to modify the solution as information from self-monitoring is received and demonstrating emotion regulation (which also demands inhibitory control) to ensure clear thinking so that the task is completed successfully.” These are the skills that comprise executive functioning.
Young people with ADHD and LD are more vulnerable to being derailed by the lack of these skills than their peers with more neuro-typical development. The stakes are much higher when failure occurs in the post-high school years rather than during high school. Society gives much more leeway to high school kids messing up than to young adults messing up. For these reasons, I encourage parents and teens to use high school as the training ground for executive functioning.
There are two parts to Naglieri’s definition: the how of a task, and the ownership of the task. Usually, parents can figure out how to get something done more easily than their teens. The life experiences of adults make many things automatic, making it very easy to tell a teenager how to go about most anything. This can include: how to complete community service hours, the Eagle Scout project, returning a package, doing homework, preparing for the SAT, or completing college applications. It is not important, however, that the parent can take care of these tasks. It is important that the young person takes ownership of the goal and then problem-solves and learns how to go about doing what they need to do to make it happen.
Young adults with poor executive functioning often do not ask for help. After some major failure has occurred a parent will say, “Why didn’t you tell us you needed help a month ago? We might have been able to salvage something. What happened?” The young adult might respond, “I thought I was doing okay. I didn’t know it was that bad.” Or, “I didn’t think of it.”
The following blog post is printed in the 2018 Houston Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (HBIDA Resource).