The Challenges of Adolescence

  • Physical & Cognitive Development
  • Frontal lobes may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life.
  • Home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” such as planning, working memory, and impulse control (which can lead to stress and anxiety).
  • Reflecting the complexities of brain development, adolescents also experience enhanced risk-taking behavior.

Executive Functions

  • The prefrontal cortex coordinates higher-order cognitive processes and executive functioning.
  • Executive functions are a set of supervisory cognitive skills needed for goal-directed behavior, including planning, response inhibition, working memory, and attention.
  • These skills allow an individual to pause long enough to take stock of a situation, assess his or her options, plan a course of action, and execute it. Poor executive functioning leads to difficulty with planning, attention, using feedback, and mental inflexibility, all of which could undermine judgment, decision making, and LEARNING.

Adolescent Anxiety

  • Another byproduct of brain development is that adolescents experience more ANXIETY and FEAR and have a harder time learning how NOT to be afraid than either children or adults.
  • This means that adolescents have a brain that is wired with an enhanced capacity for fear and anxiety, but is relatively underdeveloped when it comes to calm reasoning.

School Anxiety

  • Anxiety has been on the rise among children and young adults.
  • School counselors and nurses alike have cited increased amounts of stress, pressure, school work, and social media as causes for this surge in anxiety.
  • According to Dr. Sharon Sevier, chair of the board of The American School Counselor Association and counselor at Lafayette High School in St. Louis, “School is more challenging, the stakes are higher, and pressure is alive and well.”
  • Jason Bradley, counselor at Roseville High School in Northern California, attributes a lot of the anxiety to the growing presence of technology in students’ lives. “With the rise in the digital world, kids very often feel rushed and pressured. There’s a lot of info, a lot to learn, a lot to know.”

Poor Executive Functioning Skills and Stress

  • A child’s inability to perform to their potential in school may have little to do with intellectual ability.
  • The state of the adolescent brain may result in both poor executive functioning skills AND feelings of stress and anxiety.
  • In some children, each condition can exacerbate the other.

Parent Anxiety

  • Levels of stress and anxiety within the family are enhanced when children experience these difficulties.
  • The time required to monitor and assist with schoolwork can be demanding.
  • When performance in school seems to undermine parents’ goals for their children’s future, the parents’ lives can become more stressful.


  • A stressor is anything that causes the release of stress hormones. There are two broad categories of stressors: Physiological (or physical) stressors and Psychological Stressors.
  • Stressors related to education can include: parental expectations, homework load, lack of organization, poor time management, and procrastination.

Student Reactions to Stressors

According to the Challenge/Success Program at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, students often react to these school-related stressors by engaging in or experiencing some of the following:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Cheating (85% of high school students)
  • Escape through social media and gaming
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Depression


The Challenge/Success Program advises a two-step approach to overcoming these issues:

  • Work with your child toward a balanced lifestyle that facilitates sleep, schoolwork, family time, downtime, etc.
  • Help your child develop the executive functioning skills necessary for performance in school up to their level of intellectual competence.

Balance (U.S. News and World Report, “Sleep to Succeed”, July 22, 2015)

  • Working with your child to apportion their time in creating a balanced lifestyle must begin with proper attention to the importance of sleep.
  • Adequate sleep is important for healthy brain development and overall well-being.
  • During sleep, the brain strengthens the neural pathways that cement the learning that took place that day.
  • Students who experience exhaustion are also more likely to report other mental and physical health problems, such as depression and headaches.

“The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adolescents get eight to 10 hours of sleep each night. However, high school students in our sample, drawn from dozens of high-performing schools from across the country, report an average of 6.8 hours, with the averages in some schools falling as low as six hours during week nights. Furthermore, well over half of the students in our studies report experiencing frequent exhaustion or difficulty falling asleep due to stress. Other studies of nationally representative samples of high school students find that fewer than 10 percent obtain 9 or more hours of sleep a night, the guideline recommended for teens by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”


  • While parents have some control over time spent away from school, they often have little control over time spent at school or time required to do homework.
  • They can, however, work with their children to determine time spent in extra-curricular activities and, for high school, the rigor-level of courses requested.

Parents can, and should, work with their children to schedule the other portions of their day.  A healthy balance would result from consideration and time allotments for some of the following (some of these are required):

  • Homework
  • Sleep
  • Family time
  • Play time
  • Chores/work
  • Electronic media use
  • Unstructured time

Executive Functioning (Study Skills)

  • As previously discussed, there are developmental reasons why a child’s executive functioning skills may not be fully operational.
  • In addition, demands associated with teaching the curriculum prevent most schools from including detailed instruction in these skills.


  • Obviously, involving yourself in implementing the suggested improvements involves even more of your time.
  • However, time spent on the front end will save a great deal of time and anguish (for you and your child) on the back end.
  • Done properly, instruction in study skills includes the development of metacognitive skills, which puts your child in a position to self-monitor and self-correct when a change of strategies is required.

With Your Child, Plug Into Working…

  • To develop a plan for a balanced lifestyle.
  • To reduce school-related stress for both you and your child.
  • To master and practice the executive function skills (study skills) in our courses.