Teen Development


There are many challenges to becoming a teenager. Teens often want increased responsibilities and privileges but their decision-making capacity is still developing. Specifically, it is their executive functioning skills that are still developing, which provide some challenges with activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.

Help Teens Grow Their Executive Functioning Skills

Helping teens improve their executive functioning skills may help them in the following ways:

  • To make specific plans
  • Keep track of time and finish work on time
  • Keep track of more than one thing at once
  • Meaningfully include past knowledge in discussions
  • Evaluate ideas and reflect on their work
  • Ask for help or seek more information when they need it
  • Engage in group dynamics
  • Wait to speak until they are called on
  • Make mid-course corrections while thinking, reading, and writing

Providing Structure

Teens are more likely to make poor choices if not provided sufficient structure and modeling to develop executive functioning skills. Some common signs that may indicate your teen might require further scaffolding in executive functioning may include some of the following symptoms:

  • Impulsive behaviors such as the inability to stop and think before acting
  • Difficulty with emotional control and becoming easily stressed
  • Difficulty with planning and outlining steps to reach a goal
  • Difficulty making decisions about what to focus on first
  • Difficulty sustaining attention and getting easily distracted

How Can We Help?

Harvard University Center on the Developing Child provides some practical suggestions for helping teens make positive choices by focusing on the development of their executive functioning skills in daily goal setting, self-monitoring skills, study skills, and everyday activities.

There are a variety of everyday activities that teens can work on to develop their emotional regulation skills. Teens can benefit from gradually increasing the challenge and focusing on continual improvement. Activities suggested by Harvard University Center on the Developing Child include:

Involvement in sports as they help teens self-monitor, make quick decisions, and respond flexibly to play. Ongoing, challenging aerobic activity can also improve executive function.

  • Yoga and meditation promote mindfulness and may help teens develop sustained attention, reduce stress, and promote less reactive, more reflective decision-making and behavior.
  • Music can help facilitate working memory, selective attention, cognitive flexibility, and response inhibition.
  • Theater helps individuals develop plans, sustain attention, and improve working memory.
  • Strategy games and logic puzzles help support working memory, planning, and attention.
  • Computer games can also be valuable, as long as time limits are established and observed to promote selective attention, monitoring, and response inhibition.

Study Skills

Teens are expected to become progressively independent and organized in their academic work at school. Academic tasks provide a practical way to develop executive functioning skills in the following ways:

  • Breaking a project down into manageable pieces
  • Identifying timelines for completing academic assignments and breaking tasks into smaller steps
  • Using timers to self-monitor to help students sustain attention and manage their time effectively
  • Minimizing multitasking by reducing distractions (e.g., turn off electronics, find a quiet room)
  • Use a calendar to keep track of timelines and deadlines

Developing Executive Functioning Skills

Developing executive functioning skills is an ongoing process. Harvard University Center on the Developing Child recommends parents consider integrating the following principles in everyday life to help children and teens develop executive functioning skills. Here they are below:

  • Identifying goals, planning, monitoring progress, and adjusting behavior are important skills to practice.
  • Focus on the planning process by encouraging teens to identify something specific that they want to accomplish. Most important are the goals that are meaningful to the teen and not established by others. For example, for some teens, planning the college application process may be self-motivating, but for others, planning a social event may be more important. The goal is to start with something fairly simple and achievable, such as getting a driver’s license or saving money to buy a computer, before moving on to longer-term goals like buying a car or applying to colleges.
  • Help teens develop plans for steps to reach these goals. They should identify short- and long-term goals and think about what has to be done to achieve them. For example: If teens want their team to win the sports championship, what skills do they need to learn? How might they practice them? Identify some problems that might arise, and encourage the teen to plan ahead for them with goal setting.
  • Taking on large social issues, such as homelessness, domestic violence, or bullying can be both appealing and overwhelming to teens. Each goal of developing executive functioning should be tailored to your teen’s interests or passions. DoSomething.org and VolunteerMatch.org can help identify concrete actions if there is interest in this area.
  • Remind adolescents to periodically monitor their behavior and consider whether they are doing the things they planned and whether these plans are achieving the goals they identified. “Is this part of the plan? If not, why am I doing it? Has something changed?” Monitoring in this way can identify counter-productive habitual and impulsive actions and maintain focused attention and conscious control.

Source: Harvard University Center on the Developing Child – Accessed from https://46y5eh11fhgw3ve3ytpwxt9r-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Activities-for-Adolescents.pdf

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