Why Is My Smart Kid So Scattered? And What’s the Real Impact on Grades?

by / Monday, 13 March 2017 / Published in ADHD, Homework, Motivation, Organization
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Every day I speak to parents who are stressed out and confused. If you live in the DC area, you can probably identify with being “stressed out.” But many are also confused at how their smart kids can be so scattered.

The parents who call our office looking for help are confounded by the fact that their kid is really smart (heck, most of these kids can tell you a story a mile long, remembering every last detail, and some have even been in the gifted program), but their grades are mired in mediocrity because they are perpetually disorganized and procrastinate like crazy.

Parents report that when left to their own devices without any parental oversight, these kids can’t keep up with their assignments and rarely study for tests, let alone remember when the tests are in the first place. And not surprisingly, when parents try to help, their overtures are resisted.

It just doesn’t make sense. How can a such a smart kid be so forgetful? Why is life with this kid so chaotic, with assignments left until the very last minute, stressing everyone out? And why, when help is clearly needed, do these kids push their parents away?

 

The Real Reason Kids Are So Scattered

Let’s start out with one of the most common reasons kids underperform in school — weak executive functions. Executive functions (EF) refer to cognitive processes occurring in the frontal lobe of the brain. They have to do with focus, problem solving, planning and organization. As you can imagine, these abilities are incredibly important in school.

So when kids aren’t all that focused or organized and have a hard time thinking ahead, we often assume that they’re lazy, unmotivated, or just don’t care about school. But actually this isn’t the case at all. It’s often that their executive functioning abilities, which do get better with age, are weak.

 

ADHD vs. Poor Executive Functions

Sometimes, parents wonder if a child with weak executive functions has ADD or ADHD, because the symptoms seem similar, and there definitely is overlap. A lot of kids have weak executive functioning abilities, but the problem might not be significant enough to warrant a diagnosis of ADHD. However, everyone with ADHD has executive functioning deficits.

 

The Disconnect Between Ability and Achievement

Regardless of whether your child just has weak EF or ADHD, it doesn’t really matter. The symptoms are similar and there’s almost always a divide between ability and achievement. Kids with weak EF are capable kids who underperform. They have the potential to get As, but they’re earning Bs and Cs, stressing you out, and falling further behind. The work they turn in to their teachers is not always in line with their intelligence. We see this a lot in writing. Very verbal students have a tough time organizing their ideas and sustaining focus long enough to get all their thoughts down on paper.

Now, not all kids who have executive functioning weaknesses have problems in writing, but what they almost always have in common is difficulty staying organized. Their binders, backpacks and oh yeah, even their bedrooms are not the tidiest in town. And so often, when things are scattered, time management isn’t so great either. Prioritizing is not a natural ability. The students we see don’t think about homework in an organized fashion.  They don’t think to ask themselves “What do I have to do tonight? And what should I do first, second, and third?” Getting organized enough to prioritize homework is tough for some, but what’s even harder is planning out that book report that’s due in two weeks or that science project not due for another month.

 

What the Research Says: The Impact of Disorganization on GPA

For years, we’ve been helping kids to get and stay a bit more organized, and it’s not an easy process. Most kids need regular upkeep to develop “habits of mind,” and for many, this takes a long time.

As a classroom teacher, I always knew that the students who came to class prepared had a leg up. There was a clear difference between the ones who did their homework and had it filed away in the right folder and those who slapped down a few answers on a piece of paper and had to dig through their backpack to find it. But I never saw research on the impact of disorganization on homework completion. I just knew that my disorganized kids chronically underperformed, even if they could do well on tests (because they were indeed intelligent).

A few weeks ago, I was reviewing some new research when I ran across a study from The Journal of School Psychology. Here’s what I found: kids with attention difficulties turned in 12% fewer assignments than kids without attention problems. Although this doesn’t sound like a big number, the impact on grade point average for these kids was significant. The researchers found that the culprit wasn’t behavior during homework, like lack of focus, it was actually organization (bringing home the right materials, bringing the completed work back to class the next day, etc.). Disorganization was the most important predictor of homework completion and GPA.

 

What You Need to Know

The bottom line is that when your child has a poor sense of time and seems to have trouble keeping track of his things, it’s not intentional, and no amount of nagging or reprimanding him will help. Instead, what really helps is simply understanding that your child needs more structure than the average kid. Simple measures to set up routines and structures can work for all your kids.

Personally, I’ve found simple systems to be the best, and that’s because although I love to be organized and tidy, I have to work at it. It doesn’t come naturally for me and I’ve found that other parents have similar struggles.  By targeting a few easy-to-implement routines and strategies that can be done on autopilot, virtually any parent can help their child even if he or she is resistant.

The key is choosing the right strategies and using them consistently. Both elements need to be present to see lasting and positive change. If you want to reduce the stress in your household surrounding your kid’s organization and time management (or lack thereof), check out my live, online class Prescriptions for Disorganization and Procrastination: How to Help Smart But Scattered Kids.

 

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