Help Teens Get Organized for School

 ADHD Weekly, August 19, 2021

Every teen—and parent—knows what the exploding bookbag looks like: a jumble of books, assignments, and school supplies all tumbling out at once. Managing papers, lockers, and homework is challenging. Teens with ADHD may not know how to get and stay organized. They often have difficulty organizing their space and time, especially when it comes to school assignments and forward planning. Being organized in high school is just tough to do, especially when ADHD complicates things.

Many teens returning to their high school campus after a year of learning at home could have trouble adjusting to in-person learning. Getting and staying organized can help ease the transition and keep them on top of their homework. Your teen may need your help to figure out the best way for them.

Helping teens get and stay organized

You can set your teen up for success this school year by encouraging them to create an organizational plan and modeling ways to be organized.

“One of the biggest strategies that students I work with find helpful is that they need to schedule time to plan and to organize,” says Christine Kotik. “It doesn’t come naturally to them. If they don’t schedule that time, they will most likely not do it.”

An ADHD coach at CK ADHD Coaching and Consulting in Columbus, Ms. Kotik works with families as the coordinator of CHADD’s Central Ohio support group. Many teens, especially those in high school, don’t use their lockers between classes, she says. They end up not taking the time to sort their folders, notebooks, and backpacks as they move from class to class. Assignments get stuffed in backpacks, not folders. This can result in missing homework or late assignments.

Ms. Kotik recommends that teens plan a time slot of 15 to 20 minutes in their day to sort their papers and put them in the correct folders or binders. Organizing papers by class serves a dual purpose, she explains. “It also gives them time to think about the homework they have, estimate how long each assignment will take, and prioritize what needs to be done that night and what can wait.”

Another strategy is setting aside time on Friday after school or on Sunday to organize and plan for the week ahead.

Parent as organizational coach

For teens who may be reluctant to try these strategies, Ms. Kotik recommends parents take a “coach approach” and help their teen develop their own organizational plan. You can ask questions like these to help guide your teen’s planning:

  • Is your current plan working?
  • What happens right now? Are there certain days on which different tasks should happen?
  • What would it look like if you sat down to do your homework and all the notes and materials you needed were right where you wanted them?
  • What would it look like if all your notes and papers were grouped together when you sit down to do a study guide? Would you use folders or another type of container to hold those papers before you were ready to use them?
  • How might these plans improve your ability to study or do homework?

To encourage your teen to practice organizational strategies, give them choices by asking:

  • Would it be more helpful to organize each day, every other day, or once a week?
  • What would help you remember to sort your backpack or bookbag?
  • What would you put on a checklist for organizing your backpack or bookbag? Where would be a good place to post that checklist?

Keep the plan bite-sized

Teens are more likely to succeed if they keep their plan small in the beginning. Smaller tasks, like selecting one day of the week for sorting and organizing or planning how much time each day they will set aside for homework, can help lessen feelings of overwhelm. This can make it more likely your teen will stick to their plan.

Ms. Kotik reminds parents this school year may be challenging for teens with ADHD. Keep in mind that your teen dealt with a lot of change in the past two school years and may have more difficulty with staying organized.

“They may need more support than you expect,” she says. “They may be more frustrated because they essentially skipped a year of developing increased organizational skills.”

Be patient and provide support, but don’t do the work for them. Instead work alongside your teen, by showing them the skills you use. Modeling good organizational skills can be a great tool in helping your teen develop these skills for themselves.

Looking for more tips on helping your teen get organized?

Join the discussion: What are good ways to coach your teens into creating an organizational system that works for them?