A teen who can’t stay focused or organized at school may be bored, or he may be having a hard time handling all the demands on his time. Here’s what parents can do to help.

There are certain skills a person needs to develop to meet life’s demands. These are called “executive functioning skills.” The term refers to skills such as making decisions, planning and prioritizing, or deciding which tasks are more important than others.

“Young children and teens can have a hard time with these skills,” says Chris Bosworth, PhD, pediatric neuropsychology fellow at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “The parts of the brain responsible for executive functioning do not finish growing until about their mid-20s.”

Times (and Bodies) are Changing

Among the biggest reasons teenagers have a hard time planning and focusing is technology.

“Smartphones and tablets have all kinds of games and limitless distractions,” Dr. Bosworth says. “That makes it hard for teenagers to focus and to plan and set priorities.”

He adds that teenagers’ sleep-wake cycles change as they go through puberty. They like to sleep later in the day and stay up late at night. But school schedules, activities and study time don’t always allow them to sleep when they want to.

“One thing that makes executive functioning skills decline, at least for short periods of time, is a lack of sleep,” Dr. Bosworth says. “If teens have to get up too early or don’t get enough good-quality sleep, their executive functioning skills can get worse.”

Finally, some teens find that high school can be harder than they expect, Dr. Bosworth says. They may have done very well in elementary or middle school, but there are more academic demands in high school. That can make it hard to focus and manage their time.

Messy doesn’t always equal bad

“Often, parents will see a child’s messy room or backpack and think he isn’t focused or organized,” Dr. Bosworth says. “But if he’s still getting his homework in on time, keeping up with his classes and activities, and not causing your family to be late all the time, he’s probably OK.”

Look for signs such as a drop in grades or a child who was once very organized but recently seems to miss a lot of assignments or activities, Dr. Bosworth says. These sudden changes are often signs of a bigger problem.

“Parents should have open lines of communication with their kids about the problems they’re noticing,” Dr. Bosworth says. “It’s important not to be too angry or assign blame.”

Stop! Collaborate and listen

Dr. Bosworth suggests working with your child to come up with a plan to get more focused and organized. One method he recommends is called Goal-Plan-Do-Review.

“First, help them set goals. Next, figure out what steps they need to take to meet their goals,” Dr. Bosworth says. “Help them figure out how much time it will take to finish each step. After they’ve met the goal, review what they did. Look at what worked and what didn’t work. That helps guide them on the next project they have to complete.”

Most importantly, don’t get frustrated. Listen to your child and work with her to fix problems. For example, if she studied hard and still failed a test, review her answers. It’s possible she spent too much time studying one area and not enough of another.

“Focus problems do get better with time,” Dr. Bosworth says. “Take it one step at a time, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.”

Help is here if your teen needs it. To have more information or book recommendations on executive functioning skills or meditation sent to you, call the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Family Resource Center at 314.454.KIDS (5437) and press “5.”


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