This is the second in a series on Executive Skills, a new program that New England Tutors is offering. Peg Dawson, Ed.D is working with us on the program.

First of all, what are Executive Skills? I’ll let Peg give the definition, since it is so “right on the money.”

 “What are executive skills? Executive skills refer to the brain-based, cognitive processes that help us to regulate our behavior, make decisions and set and achieve goals. These skills include task initiation and follow-through, planning/organization, working memory, performance monitoring, inhibition of impulses, and self-regulation. Youngsters with weak executive skills can be disorganized or forgetful, have trouble getting started on tasks and get distracted easily. They can become angry when routines are changed or expectations not met and act without realizing the consequences of their actions.

“School performance is affected by lost papers or assignments, forgotten homework, last minute work and careless mistakes. These youngsters don’t know how to begin long-term assignments and their workspaces, desks, and backpacks resemble “black holes.” At home, mornings can be chaotic, and misplaced clothing, sports equipment, and school materials are a routine occurrence. Chores don’t get done unless nagging is constant. During the teen years, emotional outbursts are common and parents hold their breath when their son or daughter gets behind the wheel of a car or goes out with friends, fearful of the risks they might take.” (

These skills can actually be located in the brain…mapped as it were. They occur in the frontal lobes which are just behind the forehead. They develop through a process called myelination. Myelin acts as insulation, increasing the speed with which nerve impulses are transmitted. The faster the impulse, the better the skill.

Recent research has shown that these, and other, parts of the brain take time to develop. Our brains, in other words, are not formed at one go…all there at the time of birth. Some studies have concluded that it is not until the early 20’s that human brains become fully formed. There is still work to be done in this science, but still, as you always expected, the brains of teenagers are not like yours and mine…there is actually something missing!

I’d like to quote from the online description of the teen brain by the National Institute of Mental Health for a minute:

The Teen Brain: Still Under Construction 

One of the ways that scientists have searched for the causes of mental illness is by studying the development of the brain from birth to adulthood. Powerful new technologies have enabled them to track the growth of the brain and to investigate the connections between brain function, development, and behavior.

The research has turned up some surprises, among them the discovery of striking changes taking place during the teen years. These findings have altered long-held assumptions about the timing of brain maturation. In key ways, the brain doesn’t look like that of an adult until the early 20s.

An understanding of how the brain of an adolescent is changing may help explain a puzzling contradiction of adolescence: young people at this age are close to a lifelong peak of physical health, strength, and mental capacity, and yet, for some, this can be a hazardous age. Mortality rates jump between early and late adolescence. Rates of death by injury between ages 15 to 19 are about six times that of the rate between ages 10 and 14. Crime rates are highest among young males and rates of alcohol abuse are high relative to other ages. Even though most adolescents come through this transitional age well, it’s important to understand the risk factors for behavior that can have serious consequences. Genes, childhood experience, and the environment in which a young person reaches adolescence all shape behavior. Adding to this complex picture, research is revealing how all these factors act in the context of a brain that is changing, with its own impact on behavior.

The more we learn, the better we may be able to understand the abilities and vulnerabilities of teens, and the significance of this stage for life-long mental health.

The fact that so much change is taking place beneath the surface may be something for parents to keep in mind during the ups and downs of adolescence.

In our next post, we’ll go into more definitions and continue the discussion, but here, let me again quote Peg: “All skills, including executive skills, improve with practice. The more you practice, the better the skill. Practice also makes the task less effortful.”

This is to say that there is definitely “hope.” Not to be too lighthearted in such a serious discussion, but we’ve seen parents at their wit’s end over the issues their child is facing…and here is a way to understand and plan for the steps needed to set their kids on the right path.

Next month we will continue this important discussion with a few more definitions and an examination of how this concept can be put to practical use as we explore how executive skills can be understood and developed.

As always, we welcome your participation, either through blog comments or though other contacts with us. You can help us implement our motto: Success with Every Student.

Want to know more? Interested in the concept? Call us to day to find out more about our Executive Skills Coaching Programs: 844-NETUTOR (844-638-8867).

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