clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Ask an Expert: Dealing with a disorganized teen.

Q. My teenage daughter is very disorganized when it comes to school work. Do you know of a class or something that i could send her to that would help with this? Kim from Arvada

A. As the parent of a teenager, I know exactly what you mean. My daughter still struggles sometimes balancing her social calendar with her school work but the improvement she has made from middle school to now, her junior year, is remarkable.

The easiest answer to your question is yes, there are classes in study skills offered by private companies such as Sylvan Learning Centers and sometimes by schools as part of the curriculum. If your daughter’s school does not offer a study skills class or lab, you can check out the nearest Sylvan and see if it’s a good fit for your schedule and budget. Well, and your resolve. Teenagers are not keen to do a study skills course anywhere and the fight might not be worth it.

So what can you do? Quite a bit as it turns out. I researched a number of strategies and three of these had very noticeable payoff for my daughter. Keep in mind that I started this in middle school when she might have been a little more pliable. You may need to really sell these ideas to your daughter in terms of college prep as there will be resistance to changing her habits.

The first thing we did was to create a weekly study calendar. At first, we did it on poster board taped directly on her bedroom wall. Later, when it became a habit, she just used a regular day-planner with decent-sized squares. I recommend “Family Time Mine,” which is available at Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc. Be sure the calendar takes into account all study time available to her, which is often more than just nighttime at home. Include study periods at school and time right after school, which is often “dead” time. Look at all assignments she has and add in those that she gets during the week. Carve out dedicated pieces of time for every single assignment, test, quiz, project, book review, paper – everything.

Don’t be surprised if the first challenge comes in her not having all her assignments, or the instructions about her assignments with her. A result of disorganization is never having all that stuff with you. Half of it is at home, some at school, some at a friend’s house, some lost and some in a car somewhere. With my daughter Avery, we had to buy a folder that she put EVERYTHING for every class into. That way, when we did the calendar – and we did the calendar together, remember – she increasingly had everything I needed to see to make sure that there was a dedicated study time on the calendar aligned with expectations from school.

This was good learning for me, too, as I never realized just how much work was expected to be done at home. I can tell you that the free time she was used to experiencing was greatly diminished. She really had to get started right after school – none of this starting at 7 p.m. business. Again, at first there was depression and anger and push back. So, I tried to make it better by providing a snack as soon as I was home from work and after dinner I would make her hot tea and take it to her. Believe it or not, the June Cleaver approach made things better. It made Avery feel like somebody actually cared that she was doing all this sacrificing of her free time just for “stupid school” and her “mean stupid teachers.” Don’t forget to build in breaks. I did 15 minute breaks for every hour worked and phone/text only on the break period.

The second strategy that worked was flash cards. And yes, I did the flash cards with her. In fact, it turned out that I gave up a lot of my free time, too. But the key to remember is once it’s a habit, your daughter can start to fly solo and you can have your evening back. And if, by chance, you are a working parent with work you sometimes do at night, do your work with your daughter. This produced a HUGE improvement in attitude. She saw that I had “homework” too. She also saw that I stayed focused, off the phone and took a break every 45 minutes also.

Finally, I realized that just like calendaring, her study time was bringing the chaos of multiple subjects and assignments into something manageable, her ideas were the same way – chaos. Avery had exactly the same trouble organizing her ideas into something structured and methodical. I couldn’t figure out how a kid so verbal and smart wasn’t scoring very well on written tests or essays. So we started in middle school what your daughter may be learning now in high school. My personal opinion, based on experience, is that waiting for high school to learn idea webs or outlining is way, way too late.

So, I began teaching Avery how to associate ideas using first an old-fashioned outline format and then, when that didn’t seem to work, I tried the “web” concept and it worked much better. Just start with anything. Why she doesn’t like spinach? Why she thinks the Jonas Brothers are great? Why she shouldn’t have to go to bed at 9 p.m.? Why she should get more cell phone minutes? Draw a circle in the middle of a page, and write the statement. Then draw lines out from that circle – it looks like a sun – and draw a circle at the end of each mark that radiates out from the center. In each one of those, write an argument she is making/reason for why the statement is true. You can see how this goes. For each of those circles make her think of two reasons why the statement is true and write those under each circle. In the real world of school, this is “documentation” or “supporting evidence.”

Once you do a half-dozen of these, she will start to get the hang of it and suddenly, voila! She will start to notice visible improvement in her writing and her grades in any writing-based assignment or test. In addition, she will just get better with organization generally. My daughter’s room got better. Her thoughts got clearer. Grades improved. Writing skills much improved. Her ability to argue persuasively with her mom improved. Yes, that is a by-product – but one that’s worth it.

So the bottom line is – and this is hard to celebrate especially if you’re a working parent – an adult has to work with a kid to make measurable progress in organizational skills. If it’s not being taught at school then you have to teach it at home or pay a third party provider to teach it. For way too long we have assumed that modeling is enough. That what a kid sees a parent do will rub off or be inherited or something. But that’s just not true. Organization is as much a learned and practiced skill as driving a car. With some real attention to teaching these skills, kids reap incredible benefits, and not only in school.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

Help Chalkbeat raise $80k by Dec 31

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom filling a vital community need. We could not do this without you, and we need your support to keep going in 2022.

Connect with your community

Find upcoming Colorado events

Sign up for the How I Teach Newsletter

A monthly roundup of stories for educators from across the country.