Executive Function & Transitioning to College: Tips for Parents

Two college students, drinking coffee and doing homework together

Parents of students entering their first year of college often experience a range of emotions; excitement, pride, and anxiety are all normal things to feel as your child enters a new chapter of their educational journey. While no new college student’s needs are the same, here are some suggestions for supporting your child with executive function needs during this change.

Express to your child your confidence in them

Whether your child wears their heart on their sleeve or projects cool confidence, they are likely feeling a degree of stress about transitioning to college, especially if they have struggled with executive function needs in the past. While you may worry about your child’s ability to plan and stay organized on their own, try to focus on expressing that you see them having academic and organizational success.

In these conversations, be as specific and genuine in your comments as possible. For example, saying, “The binder system you created this year will help you so much in introductory chemistry” is often more meaningful than “You’ll do great!” as the former highlights your child’s past success.

Ask your child open-ended questions about their needs

College is a natural time for your young adult child to gain independence. Your role as a parent may shift during this time to a supporter rather than an initiator of executive function tasks, such as organizing school supplies and creating an assignment tracking system. Lean into this transition by asking your child open-ended questions about what they need from you as they get ready for college. Show them that you are in their corner and trust their judgment!

Help them explore their strengths and potential challenges

If your child has struggled with executive function challenges in the past (e.g., forgetting to submit assignments, procrastinating, struggling to organize materials), how they will handle these challenges in college may feel like an “elephant in the room.” Using the open-ended question tactic (described above) to broach this topic can be helpful, as it will help your child practice self-advocacy skills and reinforce your parental role as supporter (rather than initiator). Questions can range from “What do you foresee your strengths in college to be?” to “What about college worries you?

Expressing confidence in your college-bound child, asking them open-ended questions about their needs, and supporting them in exploring their potential strengths and challenges in college will likely lead you both towards a productive path of preparing for college.

Additional Resources

Taylor McKenna, M.A., M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum: smarts-ef.org

Research Institute for Learning and Development: researchild.org



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