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August 15, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 131

How Do I Help My Disorganized High School Kid?

Episode 131

Getting kids ready for the new school year can be a hard transition from summer. In this encore episode we look at helping teens manage their responsibilities during and after high school. Staying organized isn’t just about getting into college – it’s also about having the ability to operate independently. A parent writes in worried about a charming, but disorganized, son. Dr. Lisa explains what executive functioning skills are – and how to help kids build them. Dr. Lisa and Reena address what drives procrastination in kids, how adults can provide executive functioning “training wheels,” and how to get kids to do things like homework without having to nag constantly. The conversation also considers when parents should offer lots of support, and when kids should be allowed to feel the consequences of being disorganized.

August 15, 2023 | 32 min

Transcript | How Do I Help My Disorganized High School Kid?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 131: How Do I Help My Disorganized High School Kid?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
You know, we now have these videos, our episodes up on YouTube. And I’m really grateful that on the YouTube show, you don’t see my desk. Because if we were to go down to you know, pan the camera down to your desk versus my desk, it is a hot mess. I did not learn executive functioning skills, Lisa. Is it too late for an adult?

Lisa Damour
It’s not too late and Reena, you do have executive functioning skills. But people have a lot of confusion about what those mean, because you get stuff done or you know like you are on top of things you are and so but I think that you know what executive functioning skills look like are different person to person.

Reena Ninan
What I feel like my my closet and my desk is a constant hot mess. Who’s the Peanuts whose like, little trail of smoke that always follows it?

Lisa Damour
Was it Linus?

Reena Ninan
I can’t remember which one. That’s how I feel

Lisa Damour
Pigpen! You’re thinking about Pigpen?

Reena Ninan
I’m thinking exactly right. That’s me. That’s how I feel sometimes. But, you know, we’ve been hearing a lot from parents about how do you kind of get your high schooler to be ready for college. And this was something that showed up in our inbox It says, Dear Dr. Lisa, Reena, my son, a high school junior is a terrific guy. He’s kind funny and smart. He’s also totally disorganized. I can tell from looking online that he often misses homework assignments. And he can’t seem to get serious about studying for tests until the very last minute. So we often ends up staying up late into the night cramming. His grades aren’t awful. But they could be much better if he’d stayed on top of his work, and not leave everything until the last minute. Outside of school. I feel like I’m always having to remind him about things like getting his hair cut, or going to his orthodontic appointments. I cannot imagine what the fall is going to look like when the craziness of the college process is added to his plate. And honestly, if he’s still so bad at managing his responsibilities next year, is he really ready for college? Please help. I’m at a total loss. Thank you. Oh, my gosh. First off, is this a lack of executive functioning skills?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, probably. I mean, there’s some other things we might want to rule out. But in all likelihood, this is just a kid who’s like executive functioning skills have room to grow, as we would say.

Reena Ninan
So first off, can you just sort of define what is executive functioning skills? And why is it so important that we help kids kind of get on board about this?

Lisa Damour
Executive functioning skills are the various sort of mental properties we use to keep our lives are organized to stay on top of things to know where we’re supposed to be when we’re supposed to be there and to have all the right stuff with us at the time. I mean, that’s really, you know, it’s kind of the governing body of our mind. It’s our, it’s our CEO of running the company that is us, right? I mean, in some ways, like that idea of executive works pretty well. It’s the executive ability to make things happen and make things happen in a timely fashion.

Reena Ninan
So this mom here in the letter says, you know, he’s gotten basic, just missing homework assignments. So that’s like basic sort of number one, how do you help a parent whose kid is struggling with just turning in homework assignments? And you’re in high school, you should sort of be able to do this at this point.

Lisa Damour
You just should, right? I mean, and I think that that’s, you know, a question that comes up is like, Okay, this kid is late in the game. I mean, thank goodness, he’s not a senior, there’s still time to work. But one of the key principles that we want to work with here is this idea of first you diagnose the problem before you try to fix the problem. So if the problem is, the kid is not turning in homework, right? So you can see from the online portal, that he’s got zeros where homework should homework scores should be. What we want to think through is like the chain of events that happen between a kid getting a homework assignment and a kid turning in the homework. And there’s a lot of steps in that chain. And what we want to first figure out is, where’s the hiccup, right? Where’s the hiccup? So read it, okay. So think about it like so you and I are students in class, we’re, you know, we’re Junior girls together, and we’re sitting in class. So the first chain of the events is that the teacher tells us what the homework is. And we somehow record that information somewhere, right? We write it down, we have some clue about what to do and what, okay, so there are kids who are falling apart at that point, like the teacher says it and the kids like thinking about something else, or like I’ll remember which they won’t. And so that may be where things are falling apart. Maybe he’s getting as far as writing it down. Yeah. But then comes home and doesn’t actually have the stuff he needs to do the work, right. That’s the other thing like, because part of what has to happen is you have to put in your bag, all of the stuff that you are requiring to get the work done in order to, you know, when you get home, okay, so say that the kid, or you are I, these junior girls were like, Okay, we’re putting our stuff in our bag, we can go home and do homework, the next chain in the event is we have to be able to do the work, either we have to not have a learning disability that gets in the way, or learning disorder that gets in the way, we have to have had enough like awareness or mastery of the content leading up to this work to be able to do it. So that when we’re sitting down to the homework, we can actually do the homework. So things can fall apart at that point, okay, so that we can do the work. Now we have to get the work back to school. There’s a lot of kids who do the work, and then don’t get it in. Really, yeah, so excited to get that in. I know, you’re like getting off my plane crash list. Sometimes usually, if a kid gets to school with the work gets the work back in their backpack and their backpack with them to school. Usually, if the kid gets there, and the teacher is in class, when the teacher says Turn in your work, the kid will turn in their work. Where it can fall apart is the kid misses the class, or the kid shows up after like late to class and the teacher has already collected the work. So it’s sitting in their backpack, and they’re getting a big fat zero in their grading book for work they’ve actually done. So the first question I would have this mom, or this parent, I don’t know if it’s a mom or a dad or a parent of any gender in target is where in this chain of events are things going off the rails, because the interventions are going to be different depending on where it’s falling apart.

Reena Ninan
That’s interesting. So there are a lot of little blockages along the way, you need to figure out where it is that it’s tripping them up. What about the follow through rate? Like, I guess, you get the assignment, they’re just not following. I know you’ve walked us through some of the steps. But if you have a kid who just won’t follow through on assignments, whether it’s getting the stuff together, whether it’s just doing it, how do you help them? Okay.

Lisa Damour
So something’s getting in the way, right? Something’s getting in the way. And for kids, where things are not getting in the way for kids who are actually getting it done. The magic magic word is routines. They have routines that work. And so whether the routine is every time the teacher says this is do they pull out their book, they write it down, they know to come in the house and look in their book, right? They you know, they have a checklist of the things they know they need to bring home, the kids for who will look like they’ve got great executive functioning skills actually have good routines for making sure they do the things they need to do. It’s not like you wake up one day and you’re like, magically I can remember all of this in my head, right? That is not executive functioning. Executive functioning is I always do things in this way every day in this order. These were my systems, so I don’t drop balls. These are my systems so I don’t lose things. So if you want follow through, figure out where the kids going off the rails and so he may be like, No, I wrote it down but I didn’t bring home the stuff I need to do the work. Okay. So then he needs to create as part of his routine, that he’s got maybe a checklist in his locker. And they’ll checklist is do you have what you need for this class, this class this class, and it becomes routine for him and And then we’ll talk about how to help make routines happen when there are no routines for him to check that checklist before he comes home. That’s going to make follow through possible.

Reena Ninan
In this particular letter, we got a teen who’s in their junior year. How do you get them ready before they head off to college? So Lisa, we were talking a little bit about routines. You said you would help us create routines for kids? How do we do that?

Lisa Damour
Okay, and this is interesting because this because a junior, I mean like we’re talking about a 17 year old like this kid shaves. How do you feel like buddy, you gotta get some routines. So I think you know, the first thing we say to them, my favorite line of all lines, what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to come up with something that does work, what’s going to help you as routine and make the kid write it out. Be like how it was show me the routine that is going to keep this from continuing to happen. Have him make the first draft, then say bring it to me and then be like, alright, this is a really good start. I’m you know, it’s like maybe it’d be minus effort. We’re gonna get this to a Neve a plus, I know you and I love you. And I can tell you where it’s falling apart. Here’s other things I would have you put in your routine. Okay, so the first thing is, I think sketching out like, what’s the pattern? What’s the system that should keep this kid on track? Then the second part is, how do we know he’s gonna do the routine, but you can create the craziest routine. So true. So true. So then, you know, the way we think about this, when we’re trying to help kids develop executive functioning skills, is you do as little as possible, but you, you do help them. So you may say to this kid, Alright, so here’s the great routine. How do you want me to prompt you in the mornings when you’re home? For the part I can see, when you’re at school? What are the things you can do to prompt yourself so you stay on routine. When you get back home, you know, I can prompt you. And hopefully what we do see is when people start to fall into a routine where they establish a pattern, it becomes more habitual, they need less prompting, but the kinds of prompting that we might consider kids send themselves texts, kids set reminders on their phone, lots of kids with executive functioning challenges, or kids who have fantastic executive functioning, are using timed reminders to prompt them to do the things they mean to do.

Reena Ninan
So I want to touch on that the kids that you see at this age that are really incredibly good executive function-ers, if that’s a word. What are they doing right?

Lisa Damour
It’s a great question. Okay, so let me just say, there’s no one version of this story, what they’re doing right as they figured out the systems that work well for them. Okay? So it may be that you have a student who is very, very aware that every afternoon, the first thing he does when he walks in the door is he sits down, and he actually checks all the online portals because also a lot of teachers post homework there. That’s right. So they may have said something in class that went completely over the kid’s head didn’t get written down. So it’s a kid who may, you know, check the online portal, the second they walk in the door, double check everything they’ve got, they may use a combined version of like, they have a digital planner they use and then at the start of everyday, they write down everything, the digital planner on paper, and they cross it off. It’s really, very, very individual. And I will say, that’s part of what’s so frustrating as a parent, because you may be a super organized parent, and you’ve got fantastic systems, and you’re like, let me show you how to use a planner. There are kids who are like, I’m never going to use a planner, like it’s never gonna happen. That’s okay. But they have to have something that really works for them.

Reena Ninan
You got to be able to write it down, right? So if not a planner, then what, right?

Lisa Damour
So kids will put it in their phones, kids will send themselves time to texts. Kids will use an entirely digital environment like that. I mean that a lot of these online learning spaces actually have an option where kids can create their own to do lists in those online learning spaces. Some kids love that. I mean, there are kids who don’t touch paper. I mean, they just don’t touch paper, but they’re on top of it. I also am a big believer on paper, right? And so if your kid is like, no, no, I hate paper, but they’re not turning in their work, then I think you might have to say, that’s great. You hate paper, but what you’re doing isn’t working. You’ve got to keep trying until you figure something else out. And it may involve paper.

Reena Ninan
So that might have to be an option. I want to ask you about this procrastination for studying for tests, something that I identify with greatly personally, but what not with my kid meaning myself in college in high school, but what do you do when you have a kid who is not taking the time to like map out days to study for a test? How do you fix that?

Lisa Damour
Okay, so you’ve said the magic words like you have to map this out? Right? And again, like say, do you hear the kind of inherent executive functioning in that, like you understand it has to be mapped out. And a lot of kids like they just haven’t made that leap yet, you know that they’re like the test is coming, the test is coming, I’ll think about when I think about it. Also, they may feel very intimidated by the test, they may feel anxious that procrastination is often driven by discomfort, like I’m scared of that test. So I’ll just do this other thing over here in the meantime, because I feel better when I’m focusing on it. I’ll tell you Reena. I when I was in graduate school, especially and I had like some beastly project I didn’t want to do, I would clean my apartment within an inch of its life. Right? I mean, I would just clean and clean, busy Yeah, busy but not doing what I was supposed to be doing. But at least you had a clean apartment.

Reena Ninan
Well, that’s how I figured it would be on the couch eating potato chips and watching latest 90210 episode.

Lisa Damour
You know what, we’re both feeling better, right? Feeling better than doing the thing we were supposed to be doing? So part of what needs to happen is to say to this kid, look, when’s your next big test? Show me how you’re going to map this out range? Show me if the test is on the 19th Show me what your game plan is for how you’re going to be starting from the fifth forward. Tell me what days what look, you know how much how long, how you’re gonna break this down? Him He may not have really thought about it in that way. So again, though, it gets back to that theme of like he can map it out now is is he going to do it right having articulated what happens on which day? So then there may be that, again, that kind of structural piece where the parent says, Great, now show me how you’re going to make sure this happens. Okay, let me say something. Any teenager worth their salt is going to be annoyed by this level of intervention. Right? They’re going to be like, Get off my back. Like you’re like I am 17 years old and you were standing over me, having me show you when I’m going to study for this, that and the other. If they are annoyed, it’s and they will almost certainly be annoyed. It’s really important for parents to be able to say, I don’t want to do this. I don’t like being in your business at this level. Here’s the way we get out of this. You take responsibility for this. The minute you show me that you are on top of this and can manage it and can give yourself enough digital reminders or visual reminders or however you want to do it. I am out I can’t wait to be out. You don’t want me here. I don’t want to be here. But I’m not going to let you shoot yourself in the foot.

Reena Ninan
You know, this is the thing, though, we come off as the Nag. And we don’t want to have to keep reminding them. So how do we get the training wheels off, so we don’t have to keep nagging and reminding them so they’re doing it. I think that’s the hard part is getting them to like, be able to coast and do this on their own without us obviously hovering, I hate hovering.

Lisa Damour
It’s miserable for everybody and Reena, that analogy, you just use the training wheels like that is how we think about this. On the clinical side, which is like, okay, so fantastic executive functioning is the kid who’s great at riding a bike. We put kids on training wheels first, right, we put in additional supports while they are still figuring it out. Right? Then we take the training wheels off, and we hold the back of the bike. I mean, like there’s, I just I really want people to be okay with the idea that like, you’re allowed to help, right? You don’t get on the bike with them, you know, and ride out for them when they could really be riding it. But you do try to put in structural supports until the kid is ready all the way all the while sort of encouraging and pushing. Okay, nagging. And it’s annoying. And I’m interested in this thing about his haircuts, and his orthodontic appointments, right, because now there’s other people involved. What’s your take on that? In terms of how much you would nag?

Reena Ninan
Well, you know, haircuts and appointments, I still feel it’s under my mom book, like, I just I don’t, but I get it. He’s gonna be in college in a year. Right? So you want them to be able to do this. But yeah, I just at what point? Do you say, Okay, these are yours, you need to set them up and do them on your own? And then see how that goes? And would you give them like a trial period like this needs to be set up in two weeks? Or how do you approach that?

Lisa Damour
I think what you’re suggesting makes a ton of sense, right? Because there is like, there’s this giant college question looming in the distance. And you’re like, if this kid can’t even get it together to make a haircut appointment and show off? What business does he have going off to college? What I like about, I’m going to put here cut an orthodontist appointment on two different levels, okay? Because I think part of what we’re also looking for in scenarios like this work has executive functioning has a lot of room to grow, is places where a total failure is not a crisis. And so one thing I would say, and this is a phrase that comes from one of my favorite colleagues, like sometimes kids need to feel the floor, like sometimes they need to feel the consequences of their actions. Wow. So what do you think about this right now I’m making this up. But what do you think? What if the parents are dumb, alright? You need a haircut? And why don’t we together, make the appointment, maybe it’s sort of get that far. And then say, here’s the deal. If you don’t show up, show up for this appointment, you are paying for the appointment, you didn’t show up for it, and you are paying for the appointment when you do go right, like, wow, but if you go when you’re supposed to go, I will pay for it. Wow. Well, it’s worth trying. Because if he blows it, then you’re not putting the person out who’s, you know, you’re paying the person who he didn’t show up for. And you’re also you know, making sure that person gets paid, and then you’re also following through anything, and you’re gonna have another appointment. So it’s gonna cost you twice as much as a regular haircut for you to blow this, it’s gonna cost you nothing for you to get it right. Something like that, where if he messes it up, he will feel it, it will be there will be a meaningful consequence. I think that’s one way to consider and the orthodontia appointments. I don’t know that I would do that. Right. I mean, schedule those is really hard. Yes, that can be extraordinarily expensive. You’re not going to I don’t try to make a kid pay for that. Right. So I think, what we also want to do as parents of kids who are struggling with executive functioning as look for places where we’re like, okay, if this goes totally sideways, is it bearable as an object lesson, versus I’m not going to let this thing go sideways? Yeah.

Reena Ninan
On the point of it really caught my attention when you said sometimes we want to just let kids hit the floor. What are those moments like when when is it like actually maybe beneficial that they hit the floor and you don’t swoop up and yell at them and get them to do it and let them feel the consequences?

Lisa Damour
I think it’s one of the best ways for kids to learn. And I remember when I was on the faculty, I used to teach for the University of Michigan and we would occasionally get into these like very long debates about student undergraduate student behavior, you know, kids who hadn’t turned stuff in or kids who were you know, not showing up for class and we would like really try to be empathic and understand like how to, you know, make a work for them. And one of our really wise colleagues would always be like, people make choices, choices have consequences. And it was a very helpful because in many ways like college do interesting, you know, they’re late adolescence, young adults, a lot of times faculty are taking the role of helping them understand how the world world really works. So I think that as early and often in parenting as you can be like, dude, people make choices, choices have consequences. You should, it’s way easier in middle school to let your kid feel the floor, right? It is way easier. So again, if your middle school kid is struggling, there’s a lot of room for them to get lousy grades and figure it out and have to talk to teachers. It’s so much harder. In high school, yeah, when their grades are gonna follow them. So early. And often, I would say like kids feel the floor. And interesting to be mean, it can just be reality based.

Reena Ninan
It’s also interesting, because I think, you know, having these conversations much like, on Valentine’s Day, we talked about a sex talk that it’s not just one talk that you kind of need to keep planting those seeds that maybe when they start Middle School, and it’s a major transition from elementary, I’m way more work. Explaining to them here are some things that have helped people in the past, but you’re gonna, and I don’t think I had that conversation with my son, you know, when he started middle school like these things help. And we just expect kids to sort of know that this will naturally come to them. And it doesn’t.

Lisa Damour
Now for all kids, I mean, some kids really Intuit their way there. But Reena, like, do not underestimate kids creativity and solving these problems, like I know kids who pack their lunch the night before, right? That’s part of their routine. And then they put their checklist on their lunch. So when they go to get the lunch out of the refrigerator, the checklist of all of the things they need to make sure are in their bag is on the lunch, and they can’t really get the lunch out of the fridge without coming across that checklist. Those kinds of things. I don’t care if the kids 25 doing that. Those are great systems, great systems. And that’s what we’re trying to put in place. And I just I think sometimes kids and parents can feel like one day my kids executive function is going to magically snap on No. systems and strategies, systems and strategies.

Reena Ninan
That’s a great point. So do you worry like, do you think this kid will be ready for college? And what do you think the mom can do to prepare this this team for college? There’s not a lot of time left, right?

Lisa Damour
No, he’s running out of runway. I don’t really know. I will tell you though, Reena. I don’t think I’ve ever had more motivating conversations with high schoolers than when we are that I or their parents say to them, You know what, if you’re still doing this, and spring of your senior year, we’re gonna have to really consider whether or not your college ready. Kids hate hearing that because they want to go to college, they want to go home to their cohort. And so there have been a few different scenarios around safety behavior around self management behavior, where I’ve said to the parent, no, we’ll have them apply with their cohort have them, you know, get in to wherever they get in with the help of the high school counselor, you can reserve the question of whether or not they’re going with their cohort, or whether they are taking a gap year. And I will tell you, it is very powerful motivator of parents is, if I see another zero in your homework thing that is a legit zero, we’re gonna really have to have a hard conversation about whether or not you’re going with your cohort. It is amazing how much kids will be like, You know what, I will figure out systems to keep zeros from showing up. That can happen. I think, though, there’s something else in this letter. I just, it’s a big one, which is this kid can’t stay on top of school. How’s he going to do school plus College in the fall? Exactly, right. Yeah. So much to juggle. And so I think that that’s where some pretty intense conversations need to happen. And there are families, and I think this is great, who create a giant chart on the kitchen wall of all the stuff that needs to be happening because all the applications right now they have like all these different elements, and there’s so many things that need to be tracked. So they make it very visual, they put it right in the middle of the house. And I would say that’s something that only needs to seriously consider and like have color coded like parents job, kids job, you know, and dates by which it needs to be done. And like you can look at it every night at dinner, and it’s going to be miserable and may be very helpful. Yeah.

Reena Ninan
Wow, this is terrific. There’s so much and you know what, it’s never too late. Right, Lisa? I just feel that way.

Lisa Damour
It is never too late. Right? These fit this family wants this kid to go to college. This boy wants to go to college, I presume. And so I think they are well within their rights to say we are so excited for what’s next for you, but we’re not doing our job as parents if we send you when your skywriting that you cannot manage yourself. We’re here to help you manage yourself for as long as you are under our roof and you show us you can do it. And college makes a ton of sense, right and be very forward looking and excited about it. But the parents can be just kind and supportive and also very realistic about his need to learn systems and strategies that work and then stick with them. That’s great.

Reena Ninan
A lot to chew on. But what do you have first for parenting to go?

Lisa Damour
So we were thinking about letting kids feel the floor. I also think, and that can be valuable. But I also think we really want to notice when kids are getting it right. Okay, so this is a great kid, he is getting it right, he is making it a haircut. Sometimes he is making it to us as orthodontist appointments sometimes when kids get it, right, there’s real value in praising them and saying, I really saw that you did. What I asked you to do. Great work. And I would say for a kid like this, but actually for all kids, but maybe for this kid, especially be highly specific in the praise. So say, Look, you know what, I just gotta like, give you you know, kudos, you called you made the appointment, I saw you put a reminder in your phone, I saw you put three reminders in your phone, I saw you organize yourself to get there. Whatever the kid did that made it happen. Name those in detail and be like, we’re really proud of you, we can see how much you’re growing. Don’t just say good job. You’re losing an opportunity to really detail what it is we want to see more of.

Reena Ninan
That’s great. You always, you know, for so long, you focus on all the negative because you want to get that right. And to hear you say that emphasizing the positive and giving them that positive praise can also be a motivator.

Lisa Damour
Absolutely. And the more specific like what did they do? Exactly. That made things work? Well, kids need to hear us name that and that reinforces the likelihood they’ll do that again.

Reena Ninan
I forget how important that is. Thank you for that reminder. It’s really great. And Lisa, next week, we’re going to talk about kids who are so mean to their parents. We’ve got an encore presentation next week. Why is my kid so mean to me? We’ll have more about math next week. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
See you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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