With the school year just underway or about to begin for most students, parents often wonder how they can help their children and teens to make this a great school year, especially if the previous one did not go as well as they or their child/teen wanted.
Here are a few key principles to keep in mind:
- Give your child/teen as much autonomy as is feasible based on their ability to keep on top of their work. When intervening, aim to provide assistance that has the ultimate goal of promoting independence rather than simply serving as a temporary solution to ensure that the work gets completed. For example, for a high school student, pulling their daily assignments from online and asking them if they completed each one may be helpful in the short term, but that teen may rely on that extra check-in, or rebel against it, and it may limit the necessity of them as carefully keeping track of their assignments. As an alternative approach that promotes independence, parents could work out an arrangement with their teen where the teen emails them a daily to-do list of what they need/intend to complete as well as a second email with an update when they are done working for the evening. Obviously trust is needed in that the teen is being truthful, but this approach puts the responsibility more on the teen than the parents, forces the teen to actually create a to-do list, and keep track of what was completed.
- Pay attention to how your child/teen works best rather than imposing a set system on them because you think that is what they should do or because it worked for you as a child. Specifically, some individuals do best breaking long-term assignments into parts and setting interim deadlines. Some do best simply scheduling specific days to work on parts of a complete project. Others do much better focusing more on blocks of time and setting aside specific periods of time to complete given projects without as much emphasis on breaking it down into parts. For reading, some children/teens do better reading for big chunks of time while others do better reading for shorter periods with more breaks.
- If making changes in your child’s or teen’s organizational system or approach to homework, keep as much of their original system as possible and help them subtly tweak things to make them better. If you try to completely overhaul their system, for many individuals, they will get discouraged, rebel, and it won’t be helpful, but again it depends on the individual. As an example, if your child/teen has trouble keeping their binder organized and wants to use only folders or did so in the past, think about how you could transition them towards being more organized without going straight to everything having to be in the binder. Specifically, one option is to put folders in a binder with separate folders to take the place of dividers for class notes, returned tests, or other ways to separate papers within each subject. This enables your child/teen to keep their folder system, get more used to using a binder, and keep better organized.
Here are a few general suggestions to help your child/teen start off the school year doing well:
- Let them take breaks, but encourage them to use timers with countdown alerts so they can mentally prepare to return to work after the break is over.
- For older teens, instead of you setting controls to block access to games, websites, etc. on the computer that distract them from completing homework, get them to setup these tools themselves and select the sites to block. For many teens, simply being the one in control of using a tool to help them may make them more receptive to using it. Alternatively, individuals can create a separate user profile for schoolwork and block access to games, etc. on that account. Furthermore, one could use a web browser extension that blocks access to specific sites for a given period of time or during certain hours of the day.
- Teens may benefit from using interval apps where chimes or vibrations go off at set intervals and it jolts them if they’ve zoned out. Over time it helps them learn to associate the alert with staying on task or getting back to work.
- For individuals that have trouble sitting still, harness fidgeting with a small bike, elliptical, or other item that can fit under the desk. Exercise bands, attaching squishy items to the floor, and similar methods can help reduce fidgeting and in turn improve focus.
- Make sure your child/teen has a good place to do homework that is quiet, allows them to spread out, and ideally is a place where they don’t sit otherwise. This will help train them to focus better.
- If possible, engage your child/teen in a conversation about specifics of what they can do to improve things with the new school year. The more specific ideas they can bring up, the more they will think about making changes and would be more likely to do so.
- If your child/teen struggles with specific subjects, time management, organization, study skills, anxiety, depression, ADHD, or other items that are impacting their academic functioning, the start of the school year is the time to seek professional assistance. For some individuals, an organizational coach would be most helpful. Others may benefit from a mental health professional who specializes in ADHD/executive functioning and can address the time management/organizational piece as well as any underlying anxiety, etc. For some, a traditional therapist or tutor may be most helpful.
The Washington, D.C. area certainly has no shortage of professionals who can assist you, your child, or teen if professional assistance is needed.
I hope everyone has a wonderful school year filled with little stress, much success, and sufficient sleep (for parents and their children/teens).
Copyright 2016 Carey A. Heller, Psy.D.
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*Disclaimer: The previous information is intended as general guidance based on my professional opinion, does not constitute an established professional relationship, and should not replace the recommendations of a psychologist or other licensed professional with whom you initiate or maintain a professional relationship*