Homework, procrastination and the teenage brain.

Homework, procrastination and the teenage brain.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

It’s 10pm on a school night. You notice that instead of getting ready for bed, one of your kids is sitting in front of the family computer. It turns out they’re currently working on page 2 of a 10 page paper that happens to be due the next morning.

Or perhaps it’s a Friday afternoon. You’ve just picked your child up from school. On the drive home, she casually mentions a science fair project that is due on Monday. And you begin to realize your entire weekend is about to be rescheduled.

And then you ask them how long they’ve known about this assignment. And they say something like, “I don’t know. A few weeks, I guess.” And you find yourself wondering why your normally bright, smart and capable child would wait so long to start such a big project.

It turns out, your child’s lack of time management might have less to do with laziness or forgetfulness and more to do with how their adolescent brain is developing.

Complex cognitive tasks (like planning to complete a long-term or complicated school project) are primarily carried out in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain begins rapidly developing during adolescence. It doesn’t reach full maturation until the early to mid-twenties.

What does all this mean? It means watching your teenager learn how to plan is a lot like watching your toddler learn how to walk. It is a process. And they probably won’t perfect it overnight.

This is why your child may do a great job of staying on top of their homework when it comes to routine assignments, but they get tripped up with larger projects.

The good news is, there are some really effective ways that you can help your child with their prefrontal cortex development. And you might even make those dreaded homework conversations a little bit less awful along the way.

Here are two ways you can help your teenage child with their school planning:

  1. Hold regular planning meetings with them. If you’re finding out about the science fair experiment for the first time the day before it’s due, the battle is already lost. The trick is to get out in front of large homework assignments before they become a problem. I typically recommend holding a semester meeting, a monthly meeting, and then smaller weekly meetings as necessary. The idea here is not to manage your child’s schedule for them. The idea is to help them learn how to manage their own schedule. By going over the whole semester or month with them (including important family plans like weekend trips and holidays), you are teaching their developing minds how to look much further ahead than they are accustomed to.
  2. Hang a giant wall calendar in their room. I love my iPhone as much as the next guy, and I understand that many of our kids enjoy using the latest technology. But when it comes to helping adolescent minds develop, nothing is as effective as a giant paper or dry-erase wall calendar. The calendar creates what we call a “visual scaffold” for the child’s developing mind. By placing important dates like family trips, AP exams or football tryouts on the calendar, your child can learn how to internally visualize their semester schedule by actually seeing it.

And remember, none of this has to be boring. I’ve had parents who made it a point to always hold their semester and monthly meetings at a location that serves ice cream. Others have collaborated with their children over the wall calendar and used that as a jumping point to redecorate their entire bedroom together.

Eric McClerren, MS, CIT
Emcclerren @ growcounseling.com

Photo Credit: Public Domain



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