Organisation and the Teenage Brain

Always packing the wrong books for school or leaving lunch behind?  Assignments always been done the night before despite getting set 6 weeks in advance? Never seem to know where anything is or where it was last used?

If this sounds like your teenager, then don’t despair. It is very normal teenage behavior.  And the reason it happens is all to do with the changes that occur in the adolescent brain.

20 years ago it was believed that most brain development happened before the age of 5 years old. Now however it is understood that during early adolescence the teenage brain changes significantly. In fact the amount of change that occurs in the brain during adolescence is equivalent to the brain development that occurs in early childhood.

This drastic change in the hardwiring of the brain explains many common teenage behaviors, including increased risk taking, altered sleep patterns, and increased moodiness.  It also explains why even the brightest of teens can often appear abnormally forgetful and disorganized.

The part of the brain that is responsible for prioritizing, planning and making rational decisions (the prefrontal cortex), is one of the last parts of the teenage brain to develop. Compared to the adult brain the prefrontal cortex of a teenager’s brain operates very inefficiently and is more chaotic in it’s functioning. In fact it is now understood this part of the brain does not fully develop until we reach our early 20’s.

So teenagers, particularly in the early years, will often find it difficult to set priorities, plan ahead, and manage competing time demands in a rational or organized manner.  This is where adults, especially parents and teachers, can offer to act as that part of the teenager’s brain while it is still sorting itself out.

How To Help

There are lots of ways adults can help teenagers cope with the increasing demands they face managing the business of life while their brains are still playing catch up.

Use Visual Cues

Set up visual reminders around the house to remind teenagers of what needs to be done and when it needs to be done.  This could include things like a chart on the fridge door that states what chores need to be done on what day, or a chart on their bedroom wall that states what needs to be packed for school by day of the week.

Avoid Long Deadlines

Long term deadlines and timeframes make it very hard for teenagers to plan and operate effectively. In the early teen years most people think only a day ahead, never mind 6 weeks.  Give teens deadlines that are achievable but short term.

Avoid Long Lists

Sometimes even adults can get overwhelmed by long “to do” lists.  The teenage brain is not good at remembering or processing long lists of instructions, especially when they are not written down.  Help your teen by giving only one or two instructions at a time. Give the instructions in the order you want them to be completed.

Set Priorities

One of the reasons many teens find it hard to study is that they don’t know where to start. They sit down and feel overwhelmed by all the different subjects and tasks they have to do.  Helping teenagers determine which tasks are urgent, which are important, and which things would be good to do if there is time, can alleviate a great deal of stress and confusion for teens.  Teach your teen how to prioritize by writing out daily or weekly activities and getting them to number in order of importance is a simple way to help your teen feel in control.

Break Big Tasks Up Into Smaller Ones

Help your teenager break up big tasks into smaller achievable tasks.  Instead of just letting them putting in their calendar “assignment due” on the due date near the end of term, help your teen think through what needs to be done for the assignment. Once there is a series of tasks to be completed help your teen put them in order and set shorter term due dates for each one.

Image by CocteauBoy

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