Teens and Tweens


Keep teens on track by planning, prioritizing

By Lisa M. Schab, L.C.S.W.

With school in session, we're thinking grades again. Today's teens face tough competition when they apply for college admission or jobs and they can feel the pressure as early as middle school. If a child doesn't think he's smart enough, his discouragement can actually keep him from succeeding.

Organizational skills can make or break a student. High standardized test scores don't help if you lose your English paper, forget when assignments are due or don't have time to study for a test.

The abilities to categorize, prioritize and manage time are learned as early as preschool. Kids differentiate zoo animals from farm animals and separate puzzle pieces from game pieces; they learn to cross the checker board before getting "kinged," and go to the bathroom before getting in the car.

These simple activities grow in complexity and eventually allow an adolescent to successfully handle taking six or seven classes at once. Over time, however, the number of tasks increases and the time to complete them decreases. Teens who lack organizational skills can become overwhelmed by juggling daily demands.

You can help your teen do better in school by teaching him to:

• Categorize. First, explain the concept: Categorizing is simply grouping things according to similar characteristics. Then, remind him of the ways he already succeeds at this: putting books on his bookshelf and shorts in his shorts drawer. Have him practice categorizing other things—sorting his baseball cards, CDs or the clothes in his closet.

Next, transfer those skills to schoolwork. Help him organize his backpack, notebooks, folders and desk so he has the materials he needs when he needs them. Each class should have a separate notebook. Divide the notebook by class notes, research, completed assignments. Help him see that organizing schoolwork is just about putting things into groups–and keeping them there. (Knowing how to organize doesn't help if you don't do it.) To stay on track, check with him each night to make sure all schoolwork is categorized for the next day. Once he starts doing it himself, check every other day, then just once a week.

• Prioritize. Prioritizing is the ability to look at a list of tasks and rank them according to importance. When a teen can prioritize, he will spend his study time wisely and efficiently, complete assignments on time and have enough time to study for tests.

First, help him understand the concept and look for ways he is already successful. For instance, every morning he gets out of bed before he gets dressed and puts on his socks before his shoes. (He may laugh at this, but it's important he knows that he already has this skill.) When he cleans up the kitchen after dinner, he is aware that 1) the dishes have to come off the table before 2) they can be washed and 3) the table can be wiped. Help him understand that if he repeats these behaviors with his schoolwork as often as he does these everyday activities, efficient homework behavior will become second nature as well.

Next, have him practice prioritizing daily activities. If he is asked to mow the lawn, feed the dog breakfast and put away his clothes before noon on Saturday, he will need to think about what to do first, second and third in order to complete everything on time. Explain that the same thinking process is used when doing homework. Help him through this process each day, deciding what needs to be done first, second and so on.

• Time management. The ability to organize time means the difference between having enough of it or running out. It means being able to study thoroughly for a test instead of cramming at the last minute and completing assignments correctly and on time instead of getting a lower grade because of poorly done or late work.

Once a teen can categorize and prioritize, he needs to schedule his work time in the best possible way. Time management is best accomplished with the help of an assignment book, calendar or Palm Pilot. Find the tool that works best for your child, and make sure he uses it—recording assignments in a planner doesn't help if you don't consult the schedule.

A teen should record every assignment and when it is due, along with writing himself reminders for when to start studying. He will need to estimate how long each assignment will take and use his prioritizing skills to know which work to schedule when. If he has a research paper due in four weeks, this should be on the calendar along with what needs to be done at each point in the month to ensure he finishes on time. If he has a test on Friday, he should make a note on Tuesday or Wednesday to begin reviewing.

Your teen may need repeated help with this system until he gets the hang of it and uses it regularly. Help him to both record his tasks and look through his planner each day before he begins his homework.

Be patient; creating a habit takes time. If his grades start improving because he's more organized, he'll be motivated to keep going.


Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 20 and 24. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722


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