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Semester 2: Setting Teens Up for Success

Updated: Feb 1

I believe this is true for all high school students, regardless of their age or grade: 

Semester 1 begins with excitement. At least it is exciting to see friends, meet new people, and learn what school will look like. It’s novel; new. It is a change from summer time, jobs, school adds structure. School can be suffocating and stable all at the same time! 

Semester 2 isn’t like that! In deep winter, we find ourselves in a grind. Only one or two classes or study halls will shift the people you see day in and day out. Q3 is a slog. February and March - a colleague who has been a teacher for 4 decades so she knows a thing or two, calls it FARCH. It sounds like a swear word, but it isn’t. Saying it feels like a good ‘ol swear word.

The upside, which is going to be a HARD SELL to any teenager, is that we know what the rest of winter and spring will look like. How we organize it can be helpful. This week, I want to talk about Executive Functioning and some of the challenges facing teens and their caregivers. 

I believe we will return to this topic over and over again. I am cool with that. I would like to start at the beginning so that we can create a cohesive story line about executive functioning. I am using That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week as a guiding resource.

Challenge 1. Multi-Tasking

Life asks teenagers (and all of us, HELLO!) to monitor multiple things at the same time. I giggle every time this happens to me in the car. And the giggle comes after I have gotten through the situation. When I find myself in a new traffic pattern, a rotary, bad weather, I turn the music down. I CAN do it. But it isn’t easy to separate tasks and ensure that I do them well. All I am doing is driving and listening to music. I don’t have high emotional connection to driving. I do with music when a good tune comes on. But it has to be a good song. 

Anyway, teens are multitasking or juggling highly emotional things… music or tv, social media, and school. All at the same time. Each of these tasks have a belonging component. TV demonstrates belonging in every scene, social media tells you where you stand on everyone’s like list and best friend list. School tells you where your intellect is in relation to others. 

In real time, this looks like pack your soccer bag, empty the dishwasher, check you have your math homework, take a shower, snap your bff, pick the right outfit, find your shoes. Oh, that is all before 8am. On a Monday. 

The prefrontal cortex of teenagers is NOT developed enough to handle all of this on their own. They need help.

TIP: Help teens focus on one task at a time. Make a list of daily tasks that are visible on the fridge. Give them a planner/calendar to organize their day. Have a check in each morning for the activities of the day ahead and ask them to repeat the important ones back to you.

Challenge 2. Overly Helpful Parents

Parents want the best for their kids. And educators LOVE that. We want what is best for students too. There can be a tension between the two stakeholders in the development of teens. Parents have been helping their kids navigate hard situations since they were born. Near water, I tell my toddler to use “walking feet”, I remind that the stove is hot, you need a jacket in winter, and a water bottle all the time. We are building skills for little humans and keeping them safe when they can’t do it for themselves. Now that the same little ones are teens, we can’t protect them in the same way. We can’t identify each potential threat and shield them from it. They are working toward independence. They need to build skills and perhaps stumble so they can learn. High school is a good place to practice stumbling. 

What parents can do to help is to provide a consistent and supportive environment at home. This may feel hard in the short term (changing up some family patterns can be hard!) but in the long term, everyone benefits!

TIP: Choose something that happens every single night at your house. For example, I am going to choose dinner. We all eat dinner at one point or another. Some of us make dinner, some reheat it, depending on our schedule. This is a habit, a pattern. A great way to make small but specific changes is to build on what is already in place. Adding to the dinner time habit could be to put dishes in the dishwasher. It could also be for teens to prepare for tomorrow before they go on their phone or disappear to their room. This small habit will have big benefits. Preparing for tomorrow might include laying out clothes, pack their sports bag, make their lunch, and all of this is helpful. It can be part of a habit (dinner) so it is easy to remember.

Challenge 3. Technology’s Control on our Teens’ Lives

As a high school assistant principal, I am acutely aware of the toxic and terrifying parts of SnapChat. SnapChat plays a role in most of the major discipline situations I see at school. It is part of almost every bullying investigation. Let that sink in. 

I had a motto I would share with anyone who listened, “SnapChat is the devil’s playground.” 

Then my own high school aged daughter presented why she should be allowed to have SnapChat. It was a 20 minute slide show presentation about social connection and how I only see the bad parts. 


So we began a two-week SnapChat trial period. We mutually agreed upon data collection of time on phone, mood, sleep, and the reach of people she connected with. We talked through the dopamine rush that comes with getting a snap. We talked through how to discern who to add and why. Group membership was also something we made a check list for. Was it a group that was being kind? Inclusive? The test we used was the front page test… (or we could call it the Insta-Story test): If what is being said on social media is posted for all to see (or on the front page of the newspaper), would you feel ok about it? 

SnapChat and other social media platforms do connect teens. In ways that are socially normed for them. I have work hard to understand the very fine line between “talking” to someone and snapping streaks. This is to say that there is a lure in technology that is tricky to fight against. When, then, do we fight for tech-free time, tech managed time, and tech-supported time. 

Tip: Reduce the multi-tasking opportunity for teens when technology is involved. You may want some influence in their at home study space. Check in with your teen about music. Classical music with no words can be ok. Mood music, perhaps. But heavy on the words or story lines or complex rhythms can take brain power away from studying. And any ping notification is so hard to ignore if you are trying to learn math! Creating a study space at home that is as distraction free as can be is great. Put the space in common areas like the living room, rather than a teen’s room. When there is an activity that technology does NOT enhance, set parameters that doesn't ask your teen to multitask with technology.

Challenge 4. Not Enough Sleep 

Ahhhh, the relief after a good night’s sleep is magical. The AHHHHHH of a bad night’s sleep is just rotten. 

One of my favorite former students went to bed every night at 9:30. Jonas played varsity sports, took honors classes, and had a strong posse of friends that hung out. Jonas was able to be part of it all and keep his bedtime. One of the most memorable parts of Jonas was his demeanor. Jonas was consistently pleasant and upbeat. He was resilient. He bounced back from social stressors, setbacks from tests that were hard, losses on the soccer field. I cannot attribute all of these things solely to sleep. But I know that he did not compromise on sleep. 

Most teens will tell you that they are tired. They are. Teens have school, friends, relationships, athletics, theater, student government, extra curricular activities… you get it. Anyway, overscheduled and overwhelmed does not support adolescent physical or brain growth. We cannot fight biology but we can help organize teens’ time management. Structure in schedules can actually provides more freedom because no one has to think about checking off the list of things to do.

TIP: Help your teen build a daily schedule that gives them a time frame to do what they need to do. For instance, on school nights, it is important to check in about what is needed for tomorrow. If you play sports, pack your bag for practice. If you have rehearsal, review the scene so your lines are ready. If you go to bed and wake up feeling prepared for the day, the morning is less stressful. Set blocks of time for homework, practice, fun, and friends. This means using after school time well. Homework varies night to night in time. If every night there is the same amount of time scheduled, the nights when there is no homework, there is freedom!! To do whatever!! Your teen will need help establishing this schedule.

Challenge 5. Not Getting it Right the First Time

Why do we believe that because we are doing something that we are automatically good at it? We practiced driving a car and probably have a funny story of when it didn’t work out. We practiced riding a bike, we practiced reading, cooking, singing, everything we know how to do now. We had to fall many times when we were trying to walk. And when we did fall, our parents would celebrate it. Video it, laugh, and whoop. Littles would giggle and stand up again!

Why are we so afraid of failing now? 

“I only do what I am good at” was an admission of a former student who has now graduated from West Point. I believe he has changed his tune. He had to try and get better at new skills.

Brene Brown calls trying something new a FFT (freaking first time). You can substitute the first word for a swear if it makes sense to, which I do depending on my embarrassment level. Trying new things is hard! It is messy. I love calling any new thing an FFT. I feel like the pressure is taken off me to perform perfectly. It is the first time I have tried [blank]!

If you want to get better at [blank], give yourself time to learn it.

TIP: Identify something in which you want to improve. Then schedule time to work on it in your day. Treat this organization as if it were an appointment with someone else. You can’t let them down. Don’t let yourself down. If you schedule it, practice it. Then you will build a new skill.

Next Steps:

Please ask any questions that come up for you in the comments. On Saturday, I will do my best to address the questions and comments!

Written by: Nell Dailey

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From our All-School Assembly, February 28, 2024 Written by Nell Dailey “On this rainy day in February, I want to share a story with you. So sit back, put your phones away, and give me your attention.


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