Time Management For Teens: 10 Tips For Tackling Schoolwork


time management for teens image 1Most school nights play out as if they were cribbed right out of a family sitcom script.

Mom: “Hi Nick, did you get your math homework done after you got home from school like you said you would?”

Nick: *Looking up from his Xbox controller* “Oh it’s not that much, so it’ll only take me like 10 minutes later.”

Then, when “later” rolls around…

Mom: “Nick are you done yet? It’s getting close to bedtime!”

Nick: “I will, I will… Just five more minutes I promise!”

We all know where that conversation goes from here. And although it may be infuriating and all too common, one thing is exceedingly clear:

Instilling a strong sense of time management for teens is a huge challenge as a parent. So in this post we cover 10 of our best tips for tackling this problem, and helping your child get their schoolwork done on time.

Time Management For Teens: The Soft Internal Clock

When it comes to time management and planning ahead, there are two types of kids:

Type 1: Kids with a loud internal clock, who have a fabulous sense of time, and can self-monitor how long things are taking and make adjustments.

These are the kids where if their alarm clock goes off at 7am in the morning, they’re able to shower, eat breakfast, and get out the door to meet the bus at 8am without fail.

Type 2: Kids with a soft internal clock: who struggle to be on time, maintain deadlines, and plan ahead appropriately.

These kids are much less aware of passing time, and are usually the kid you have to poke, prod, and micro-manage to get the to make sure they’re out the door on time in the morning (and sometimes you even have to drive them because they’re late!).

This concept comes from my friend Ari Tuckman, a psychologist who works with adults with ADHD, and it almost perfectly describes the kids we see all the time. And without fail, it’s the kids with the soft internal clock the we need strong routines and strategies to help manage their time more effectively.

Tip #1: Wear a watch

Research shows that when kids wear an analog watch (not a digital watch) it helps them better understand elapsed time.

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Tip #2: Make sure there are analog clocks in the house

Additionally, when there are analog clocks in the area where they’re working, that’s helpful as well. So if they do their work in your home office, or the dining room, or kitchen, make sure there’s an analog clock there easily visible to them.

Tip #3: Work on each class every day, no matter what

Now many of our middle and high school students these days are on block scheduling.

For some kids this is great! For others, especially those who struggle with time management, it’s much more difficult for them to plan ahead and avoid doing their homework at the last minute for a class they have every other day.

For example: let’s say your child’s math teacher routinely assigns homework on Monday that is then due Wednesday. If you have a soft clock kid, chances are they won’t even start this homework until 10pm on Tuesday night!

Instead, encourage your child just to get started the night it’s assigned. This could be as simple as pulling it out, putting their name on it, and starting work on the first problem or two. That way, the wheels have started turning, maybe they’ve identified some questions they need to ask their teacher, and they already have some momentum going on that task so it’s smaller and more manageable on Tuesday.

In fact, the easiest thing to do might be to encourage working on every subject, every day (even if it’s just five minutes) to keep this process going.

Tip #4: Use the right tools

Finally, a huge “time management for teens” principle is simply having the right tools available. And this benefits soft internal clock kids the most.

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These include:

  • Using a planner or an assignment book to look ahead and plan out their work
  • Using a to-do list to break down their assignments into smaller pieces so they can more accurately predict how long they will take
  • Using alarms or digital calendar reminders (if they work off of a computer most of the time)
  • Establishing a distraction-free study space, and organizing their environment

Executive Functioning: How kids control themselves

Struggles with time management may also be attributed it to weak executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills boil down to our ability to regulate emotions and reasoning.

We see a large number of children with ADHD who struggle with time management, and it is not because they are lazy or unmotivated, it is because of this link to their executive functioning skills.

One way to examine if your child may struggle with weak executive functioning skills is to observe their habits and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are they having a hard time getting started?
  • After they have started the task, are they having difficulty sustaining effort?
  • Can they inhibit themselves from outside stimuli and distractions?
  • Can they shift from one task to the next with reasonable effort?

Regardless of where you child fits in, there are actions you can take to help them improve and work around their executive functioning deficiencies.

Tip #5: Remove the barrier to entry

Many times students feel overwhelmed and underprepared, and in order to ease this anxiety have them break larger tasks into smaller tasks, and make the “barrier to entry” almost nonexistent. By setting the threshold for getting started so incredibly low that it is almost positive that he or she will be successful in completing the task will help get the ball rolling by making the student feel a sense of confidence that they can move forward.

Two different ways to do this are to focus on either time or task.

To focus on time, set a timer for 5-10 minutes. Have them commit: “I’m going to read for 10 minutes and then I can take a short break before restarting.” And then step though that process, bit by bit. Alternatively, you can chose to focus on task and focus on, for example, only 5 out of the 30 vocabulary words you have to study.

Here are some examples of how students can lower the bar to reduce procrastination:

Feeling Problem Strategy Solution
It’s Wednesday and you are tired. You have a Spanish test on Friday. You want to put off studying today and push it all to tomorrow, Thursday, which is what you typically do In the past, this hasn’t really worked because you feel overwhelmed and stressed out. You end up staying up late and are exhausted the next day. You give yourself a very easy task that you know you can easily accomplish. You decide to study just five vocabulary words since learning vocab is the easiest thing for you.
You have an essay due for your English class and you’re feeling overwhelmed. You have good ideas, but getting them onto paper is hard. You think you need extra adrenaline to get it done. You decide to watch TV and to start writing right before bed when you’re pressured to finish. Instead of viewing the essay as “all or nothing”, you figure out what you can easily do to get started. You set a simple task for yourself – to write the first sentence before you eat dinner.
Chemistry is a tough subject and you need extra help from your teacher. Meeting with her after school would be beneficial. You are starving and want to go to Chipotle, but you also don’t know how to solve those darned chemical equations. In lieu of getting help with the whole assignment, you ask your teacher for help with the first question only. You meet with your teacher for just a few minutes, ensure that you understand how to do the work, and then bolt to Chipotle.

Both of these strategies give a small sense of accomplishment and often times one the timer or the task is completed it is easy to keep going without a break. After all, success breeds success.

Tip #6: Set small goals

To tack on to the previous tip, help your student prioritize their assignments and tasks and set goals! And make sure they celebrate each small win.

Then, the better they become at setting small goals and accomplishing them the easier and less scary those big goals will seem in the future. It will also help them get better at estimating what they can achieve and planning ahead accordingly.

Tip #7: Write it out

And finally, for many students just getting their plans down on paper can do a number of positive things.

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First, it helps them get organized by getting all of the information out of their head. When everything is written down in front of them, it’s easier to see how much they have to do, and whether they’ll have enough time to do it all.

Second, like we mentioned earlier, it helps “lower the barrier” to getting started. All they need to do is go to their planner where they wrote it down, and pick out the first thing on the list to get started on.

And third, it facilitates the goal setting process. Having to write down tasks that have to be done requires them to start thinking about how they will do it, how long it will take, and when they’ll get it done by. As your child realizes what is and isn’t able to be accomplished, their predictions will get better and better over time.

Emotion Management: Avoiding what make us feel bad

According to Dr. Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada-a leading researcher on the topic, emotion is at the core of procrastination.

A huge problem for individuals is the thought that they must be in a good mood to tackle an uninteresting task. Instead of working on the task that needs done, they will chose to do something more pleasurable such as play a video game, or scroll through their phone.

This is an attempt at something researchers refer to as “mood repair”, and let me tell you… it almost never works. In fact, this approach ends in being disappointed in oneself because of wasted time and they often feel even worse because they are now faced with a missed deadline or some kind of negative feedback.

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Simply suggesting that the attempted “mood repair” is actually sabotaging their efforts may help. Knowing that you are at a fork in the road and you have two choices is a good place to start: the choice between doing the more pleasurable thing and actually starting the task. Realizing this feeling and knowing when you are about to procrastinate is an important first step because it enables you to take action.

That being said, here’s our final set of tips on how to tackle the emotional aspect of time management for teens.

Tip #8: Encourage “time travel”

Researcher Fuschia Sirois from Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Quebec identified an approach called “time travel”. She studied 4,000 people and found that those who could project themselves into the future and think about how great it would feel to finish a task were more likely to ward off procrastination.

They were also trained to imagine how awful the would feel if they chose to put off their work, to anchor them against a future negative emotion. This type of visualization has been shown to be an effective strategy, and may just work for your procrastinating student as well.

Tip #9: Pair work with reward

Another way to decrease the negative emotion associated with doing schoolwork, is to pair it with a reward. This is the concept of “reward substitution.”

Here’s Dan Ariely, professor of behavioral economics at Duke University, explaining this idea:

So for example, you could set up a system where each completed homework assignment is immediately followed by 15 minutes of video games, or your kid’s favorite snack. Eventually, if repeated enough, they’ll start to associate the positive emotions of the reward with the activity of completing their work itself, reducing the need for a the reward over time.

Tip #10: Use 80% positive, 20% negative feedback (not the other way around)

Finally, along those same lines, kids generally don’t like to do things they feel poorly about. And one of the most reliable predictors of how a child will feel about their performance in any domain, is the ratio of positive to negative feedback they receive.

As it turns out, kids with weak executive functioning, ADHD, and other academic struggles receive negative feedback about 80% of the time they are at school. This doesn’t bode well for feeling positive about their schoolwork.

So try to flip the script and give positive reinforcement 80% of the time when they’re at home. Don’t avoid pointing out their mistakes, but do make sure to balance that by pointing out all of the good things they’re doing as well. Slowly but surely you’ll shift the balance of their attitude towards their work if you maintain this practice over time.

Helping Your Child Manage Time: Next Steps

How do you think your child fits into the pictures we’ve laid out? What strategies do you think will work best for them?

If your child needs help staying on track, that’s what our Executive Function Coaches are here for! Click HERE for a free consultation.