As young people move into middle and high school, their lives become increasingly complicated. More schoolwork and homework, sports, activities and social lives make many adolescents and teens struggle with managing their busy schedules and feeling overwhelmed.
Meanwhile, parents become frustrated when their teen forgets things, neglects to complete tasks or fails to follow through on promises. We sometimes hear adults blame teenage laziness or irresponsibility for these issues. But based on more than 40 years of brain research, we now know that biology actually plays a significant role in the challenges many young people have with organization and self-control.
The Brain’s to Blame
By the time you reach adolescence, most of your brain has finished developing. You can generally gather, understand and retain information as well as adults. The outlier is the brain’s frontal lobe which does not fully develop until your mid-20s.
The frontal lobe is the area of the brain that controls executive functioning. Often called the management system of the brain, it supports self-control, flexible thinking (the ability to problem-solve), and working memory (which allows us to work with information without losing track of what we are doing). Executive functioning helps us to focus, plan, set priorities for long-term goals and follow through on our priorities.
Some parents and schools teach skills that foster the development of executive functioning from an early age, but many don’t. So it’s hardly surprising that young people (especially those who are diagnosed with conditions like ADD and ADHD that specifically impact the frontal lobe) often struggle.
Executive Functioning Skills Building
The good news is, by the time you are a teenager you can, with the help of teachers and parents, work on strategies that with practice and consistency will strengthen your executive functioning skills. These can include:
- Establishing routines. Try to set regular times for daily tasks including meals, homework, exercise and sleep. When you consistently stick to your schedule and get into a routine, it is easier to organize your day and get everything done.
- Managing stress. When you are feeling stressed, it is harder to focus on your priorities. Make sure you are practicing self-care by getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthily, doing breathing exercises, etc. If you can avoid becoming overwhelmed, it is much easier to think clearly.
- Spending time on positive self-talk. Self-talk can be a healthy strategy to keep us calm and collected. Come up with some positive phrases that can help you keep your cool. You can also use self-talk to remind yourself about your larger priorities and long-term goals so you can stay on track with these. You necessarily have to talk out loud. Consider, taking a few minutes to write down these thoughts.
- Making use of checklists, daily planners and calendars. This will help you keep track of everything you have to do, determine what is most important, and complete tasks in order of priority. Post your weekly calendar somewhere in your room where you can always see it so that you have a visual reminder of what you need to do. Having a visual of your schedule helps to clear the clutter in your brain and ease your stress, too.
- Scaffolding. This is a helpful strategy for schoolwork in particular. Take larger assignments or big projects and break them into small tasks. Set deadlines for each small task, and complete it, before you even think about the next task.
- Setting alarms for yourself. Give yourself finite amounts of time to complete a chore, participate in an activity, hang out with friends, spend on your phone or work on a homework assignment. This will help you stay focused on what you are doing, avoid procrastination and move on to the next thing when time is up.
- Avoiding temptation. When you need to focus on a task like homework, put away your devices and other distractions. Having a designated work area in your room or house and clearing away any clutter from your workspace also helps avoid distraction.
- Collaborating to achieve goals. You may have a good support system at home, where your parents promote routines and habits that help you stay on track with pursuing your goals. But you can also team up with classmates and other peers to hold each other accountable for completing homework or practicing for a sport or activity.
- Setting limits. Adolescents and teens often struggle with making choices. Sometimes they want to do everything and overschedule. But it’s important to learn to say no so that you don’t get overwhelmed and your schedule doesn’t become unmanageable. Set limits for how many extra-curricular activities you are going to participate in or how many work shifts you are going to sign up for. With the help of your parents, take time to consider what is truly important to you and make your choices accordingly.
- Play games. Brain flexibility (the ability to think of different ways to approach an issue) is an important area of executive functioning. It allows us to problem-solve rather than get stuck on a task. Doing puzzles and playing board games are great ways of building this skill. Scrabble, Jenga, Chess, Pictionary and SODUKO are often recommended as games to improve executive functioning.
Everyone is different and it’s not necessary to implement all of these strategies. Review the list and pick one, or a few, that you can realistically consistently incorporate into your routine. You can always add more as you master them.
If you are overwhelmed for an extended period of time or your life feels unmanageable, reach out to an adult. Your parents, teachers, school counselor, physician or mental health provider, can help.