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Executive Function Skills = College Readiness

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Sending our teens off to college is a significant milestone that evokes both excitement and apprehension for parents. As we prepare them for the most critical transition, “college readiness” is often used. While most parents can identify some traits their child does possess, such as the need to thrive in an independent living environment, the connection between these traits and executive function skills is rarely made. However, the ability to manage time effectively, initiate tasks without procrastination, break down long-term goals into manageable steps, and advocate for oneself are all aspects of executive function that directly contribute to college readiness.

A study by the University of Chicago found that students with strong executive function skills were more likely to enroll in college and earn a degree than those with weaker skills, regardless of their IQ or family background. Furthermore, a report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities revealed that 94% of students with learning disabilities who had strong executive function skills graduated from college, compared to only 41% of those with weaker skills. By understanding the importance of executive function skills and actively working to foster their development, parents can help their children prepare for the transition to college.

What are Executive Function Skills?

Executive function skills are a set of cognitive processes that enable individuals to plan, organize, prioritize, and manage their time effectively. These skills, which include time management, task initiation, problem-solving, attention, and impulse control, are needed to navigate college life’s demands.

Students with strong executive function skills are better equipped to balance coursework, extracurricular activities, and personal responsibilities, leading to greater academic success and overall well-being. Developing and strengthening these skills during the formative years can lay the foundation for a smooth transition.

The Transition from Structure to Unstructured Environments

One of the biggest challenges students face when transitioning from high school to college is the shift from a structured environment to an unstructured one. In high school, students have a schedule (usually created by their parents), regular check-ins with teachers, and a support system to keep them on track. In college, students are expected to manage their time independently, balance coursework with extracurricular activities, and seek help when needed. This is where strong executive function skills become essential, and gaps in executive function skills become more apparent.

Time Management and Task Initiation

In college, students must learn to manage their time, prioritize tasks, break large projects into smaller, manageable steps, and allocate their time wisely. Task initiation, or the ability to start a task without procrastination, is equally important. Without strong time management and task initiation skills, college students may struggle to balance their academic, extracurricular, and personal responsibilities, leading to increased stress and potentially lower academic performance.

Problem-Solving and Attention

College coursework often presents complex problems that require critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills. Help your child develop these skills by encouraging them to tackle challenging tasks, break down problems into smaller components, and brainstorm multiple solutions. Attention is another key aspect of executive function. Students who struggle with maintaining attention independently will have difficulties completing assignments and performing well on exams.

Impulse Control

Impulse control is the ability to resist temptations and think before acting. In college, students face many distractions and competing priorities. Strong impulse control helps students stay focused on their goals, avoid procrastination, and make responsible decisions. Students with weak impulse control may find it challenging to resist distractions, leading to missed deadlines, poor time management, and risky behaviors that can negatively impact their college experience and academic performance.

What Can Be Done Before College?

  1. Model Impulse Control: As a parent, you can set a positive example for your child by demonstrating strong impulse control in your own life. Discuss strategies for resisting temptations, staying focused on goals, and making responsible decisions. Share your own experiences and the techniques you use to maintain self-control in challenging situations.
  2. Teach Deep Focus: Help your child develop strategies to maintain focus and attention. Encourage them to minimize distractions by creating a dedicated study space, noise- canceling headphones, or apps blocking distracting websites. Teach them the importance of taking regular breaks to recharge and reengage with their work. Encourage active learning techniques, such as summarizing information in their own words or teaching concepts to others.
  3. Develop an Organization System: Work with your child to create and refine an organization system that suits their needs and learning style. This may include using a combination of physical and digital tools, such as calendars, to-do lists, and time- blocking techniques. Encourage them to break down large projects into smaller, manageable tasks and allocate their time wisely. Regularly review and adjust the system together to ensure it remains effective.
  4. Seek Professional Help: If your child consistently struggles with executive function skills, consider seeking the assistance of a professional. An educational therapist, school counselor, or psychologist who specializes in executive function can provide targeted strategies and support to help your child develop and strengthen these crucial skills. They can also help identify any underlying issues, such as ADHD or learning disabilities, that may be contributing to executive function challenges.
  5. Encourage Independence: Gradually increase your child’s independence in managing responsibilities and decision-making. Allow them to take ownership of their tasks, such as planning their study schedule or organizing their extracurricular activities. Provide guidance and support when needed, but avoid micromanaging. This will help them build confidence in their abilities and prepare them for the increased autonomy of college life.

By proactively addressing executive function skills before college, you can help your child develop the tools and strategies they need to navigate the challenges of higher education successfully.


Executive function skills are the foundation for college readiness. By understanding the importance of these skills and actively working to foster their development through modeling, teaching strategies, and seeking professional help, parents can help their children successfully navigate the challenges of college life and beyond.

Students who need to strengthen their executive functioning skills will benefit from academic coaching. For more information you can follow up by reading the Benefits of Academic Coaching.

Read the blog: Benefits of Academic Coaching for College Students