academic stress

Teenage Stress and Executive Functioning

By | NESCA Notes 2019

By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Pediatric Neuropsychologist

It is increasingly clear to educators, parents, clinicians and the like that teens are experiencing high levels of stress. Why? There are, of course, many reasons stemming from family, social, historical, and systemic “forces” that impact a teen’s personal day-to-day experience.

As an evaluator, I am very aware of one “force” affecting our teens: the “mis-match” between what teens are expected to do and what their executive function skills can handle. I recently participated in a panel discussion along with professionals from Summit Education Group, Engaging Minds and Beyond BookSmart to discuss this “mis-match,” a large contributing factor to student stress. Here are a few important “take-aways” from the discussion:

First, what is executive functioning?  Executive functioning skills are a “family” of skills that operate in a “top-down” process, controlling and regulating brain regions associated with attention, impulse control, emotion regulation and meta-cognition or “thinking about thinking.” A helpful analogy is that executive function skills are the CEO or the “boss” in the brain that monitors, plans, organizes and makes decisions. Here is a useful diagram from ADD Vantages describing executive function skills.

This depicted “family” of executive function skills develops throughout our development. A six year-old is not expected to plan multi-step assignments and check for errors when they write. A six year-old is expected to begin controlling impulses (e.g. waiting their turn in a game) and respond to adult prompts to organize belongings. As a child grows, their brain develops, and executive function skills expand.

However, higher-level metacognition and executive function skills do not simply “magically appear in the brain” or develop “in a vacuum.” Akin to learning a subject, such as math or science, children and teens need to learn executive function skills through teaching, modeling, observing and doing.

We know that teens face a number of responsibilities, particularly in high school – whether that be studying for exams, working on projects, participating in extra-curricular activities, participating in community-run volunteer opportunities, considering academic options post-high school, following their family’s weekly schedule, manage their social media page – and all while getting enough sleep, eating three meals a day and having self-care or “me time.” That adds up to a lot of expectations and demands. Some may posit that these are higher expectations for teens than in decades prior. Yet, what we know is that all teens are unique and develop executive function skills at different speeds. It is therefore logical to expect that many teens will become stressed…stressed because there is a “mis-match” between their daily expectations and the executive function skills that are required to carry out and manage those activities.

As an evaluator, I have worked with a number of teens who experience this “mis-match.” They haven’t yet learned the tools and strategies needed to manage their academic, social and personal responsibilities, and this contributes to low self-confidence, academic underperformance, limited independence, depression and worries about the future. They not only need support and teaching to grow executive function skills to study, work and live more efficiently now and in the future, they also need this “mis-match” and the stress it produces identified and acknowledged by the adults around them.

This “mis-match” can be identified by parents, teachers and/or through a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation, which is oftentimes critical for determining a teen’s unique learning strengths and challenges. This “mis-match” is also sometimes identified by teens themselves – who are often highly aware of their own needs and simultaneously aware of difficulties that are impacting their vision and goals. As educators, clinicians and professionals who work with stressed teens, we have a responsibility to recognize when executive function “mis-matches” may be a source of stress and support our teens in developing an individualized, collaborative action plan.


About the Author:

Dr. Renée Marchant provides neuropsychological and psychological (projective) assessments for youth who present with a variety of complex, inter-related needs, with a particular emphasis on identifying co-occurring neurodevelopmental and psychiatric challenges. She specializes in the evaluation of developmental disabilities including autism spectrum disorder and social-emotional difficulties stemming from mood, anxiety, attachment and trauma-related diagnoses. She often assesses children who have “unique learning styles” that can underlie deficits in problem-solving, emotion regulation, social skills and self-esteem.

Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.

Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.

Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).

Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.


To book an evaluation with Dr. Marchant or one of our many other expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form.


Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.