Exploring Executive Skills: Flexibility, Sustained Attention, and Task Initiation

If you’ve ever encountered a teen who seems rigid in their ways, struggles to sustain attention, or finds it challenging to initiate tasks, you’re likely witnessing executive skill deficiencies in action. Let’s explore strategies to support and develop their skills.

Executive skills, often referred to as cognitive or higher-order thinking skills, are crucial abilities that enable individuals to plan, organize, manage time, pay attention, and regulate emotions effectively. These skills are essential for success in academics, personal relationships, and life in general. Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, leading researchers and authors in executive functioning, have broken down executive skills into 11 different areas. For more information on executive skills, check out my blog posts and YouTube channel.

Here’s a breakdown of three executive skills and how to build them in teenagers:

1. Flexibility: the ability to adapt and revise plans when conditions change. 

  • Teens with weak flexibility skills often exhibit resistance to change, becoming irritable or even defiant when things don’t go as expected. This can manifest as tantrums or reluctance to adjust to new situations.
  • Development: Flexibility begins to develop in infancy as children learn to adapt to schedules and routines set by caregivers. Over time, they become accustomed to changes and new experiences.
  • Support Strategies:
    • Provide advance notice of changes to help teens prepare mentally.
    • Maintain consistent routines but build in flexibility within those routines.
    • Collaborate with teens to develop scripts for handling unfamiliar situations.
    • Offer clear, nonnegotiable rules to provide structure while respecting their autonomy.
    • Help teens anticipate and problem-solve challenges proactively.

2. Sustained Attention: the ability to maintain focus on a task despite distractions, fatigue, or boredom. 

  • Teens with weak sustained attention skills may struggle to complete tasks, easily becoming distracted or giving up when faced with challenging or uninteresting activities.
  • Development: Initially seen in novel and interesting tasks during childhood, sustained attention becomes critical during adolescence when academic demands increase.
  • Support Strategies:
    • Break tasks into smaller, manageable steps.
    • Use incentive systems agreed upon with the teen to maintain motivation.
    • Employ tools like the Pomodoro Technique to structure study sessions effectively.
    • Provide regular, positive reinforcement for staying on task.

3. Task Initiation: starting projects or activities without undue procrastination. 

  • Teens with poor task initiation skills often delay starting important tasks in favor of more immediately gratifying activities, such as socializing or entertainment.
  • Development: Introduced in preschool through routines and activities with clear beginnings and ends, task initiation becomes crucial as teens face longer-term goals and responsibilities.
  • Support Strategies:
    • Connect tasks to long-term goals to motivate teens.
    • Involve teens in setting deadlines and establishing cues for task initiation.
    • Break tasks into smaller steps to reduce overwhelm.
    • Offer external incentives that align with the teen’s interests and goals.

Effective Communication Strategies

While understanding these executive skills is helpful, it’s even more critical to practice effective communication with teens that supports their development without causing conflict.

  • Avoid Power Struggles: Instead of issuing commands, engage teens in discussions about their behavior and challenges.
  • Build Trust: Seek consent before offering advice, demonstrating respect for their autonomy.
  • Encourage Open Communication: Foster a supportive environment where teens feel safe discussing their struggles and seeking help.


Enhancing executive skills in teens takes time and patience. By understanding the developmental stages of these skills and implementing effective strategies, educators and parents can help teens navigate life more effectively. Remember, consistency and collaboration are key to fostering growth in these critical areas.