How to Help Your ADHD Teen Get Organized for School

Parents of teens diagnosed with ADHD know their children need strategies to help keep them focused and complete classwork and homework on time.

They also know this: it takes more than a day planner and daily verbal reminders to make that happen.

It takes planning, creativity, patience, and cooperation.

It takes time and energy – but it’s one hundred percent worth it.

We have a simple list of things you can do to keep your ADHD teen on track, but before we do, we want to address a thought – a question, really – that may be lurking in the back of your mind:

“If I help too much, isn’t that the kind of helicopter parenting that I hear is actually counterproductive, and keeps my kid from learning how to do things for themselves?”

Here’s there answer: sure – it could be…if.

If your child did not have a neurological condition that’s associated with atypical or impaired executive function. We’re sure you already know this, but the executive function part of our brains is what helps us organize, prioritize, and analyze thoughts, environmental stimuli, and tasks we’re doing right now and those we need to accomplish in the future – even if that future is only five minutes away.

An outside observer – without knowledge of your child’s ADHD – may see your involvement and label it counterproductive helicoptering. However, that observer would not be seeing the whole picture. The whole picture is that in helping your teen stay organized in order to succeed in school, what you’re doing is exactly what you’re supposed to do.

Parenting an ADHD Teen

Here’s a critical point: you don’t do tasks for them – you work with them to develop practical techniques to accomplish tasks for themselves. They do the homework, complete the math worksheets, write the term papers, and finish the end-of-semester projects. What you learn – especially if you and your teen have been living with ADHD for several years – is that oftentimes, it’s not the actual work that trips these teens up: it’s the remembering to do the work. And when they do remember to do the work, they need to remember to turn the work into their teachers.

To do that, they need your help.

You know they’re not lazy, careless, or indifferent to the importance of school. You know getting angry and punishing them does not help them remember what happened to that in-class history assignment they got a zero on.

What did happen to that assignment?

That’s’ where they need you. They need help implementing systems that prevent them from leaving that history assignment folded up in the back of the history book. One thing that can happen with ADHD kids is that they leave free money on the table. Academically speaking, that means assignments that should be a slam-dunk “A” – like an open-book, in-class quiz – can end up as an unfortunate “F” because your teen simply forgot to turn it in.

And why did they forget?

Because they have an atypical executive function network in the brain.

That’s where you come in.

You’re that executive function.

You’re like an external prefrontal cortex that’s in place until the two of you – together – come up with ways to manage their ADHD that result in the academic results you both want.

Okay – enough preamble.

On to our list.

Five Tips to Keep Your ADHD Teen Organized for School

  1. Have a plan. This is the most important part of the whole thing. You have to create a plan to address the challenges presented by ADHD. The plan has to be something you come up with together, agree can work, and does not feel restrictive to either of you. A good plan is liberating, not oppressive. That may sound like dramatic language in this context, but think about it for a moment, and we think you’ll see what we mean.
  2. Organization. Top to bottom, the entire school aspect of your teen’s life needs to be organized. Otherwise things can and will fall through the cracks. Like the history assignment that hangs out in the back of the history book for a month and pulls the end-of-term grade down. Here are some things that work for ADHD teens:
    1. A day planner, agenda, or calendar with room for all assignments, due dates, and any other school-related information.
    2. Notebooks with clearly labeled dividers for each subject.
    3. Color-coded dividers work very well for many ADHD teens.
    4. Dividers with pockets work best.
    5. Each family will be do this differently, but here’s an example of how you might organize a 1 ½” or 2” three ring binder filled with dividers that have pockets: for each subject, make a “To Turn In” pocket, a “To Do” pocket, and a “Completed” pocket.
  3. Daily Check-Ins. Parents of ADHD kids are all too familiar with a scenario that goes something like this:

“Hey kiddo, any homework today?”

“Nope.”

“Great! You have free-time until dinner.”

<<Four hours pass. It’s 9:00 pm. You hear a tap-tap at your bedroom door.>>

“Ummm…Mom…Dad…I have to write three five-sentence paragraphs on the factors that led to the start of World War I. With sources. It’s due tomorrow.”

<<Expletive deleted>>

The way to avoid this scenario is by checking the day planner and all folders – together – every single day. And yes: in the beginning, you do it together. The first time, you may actually – gasp! – do it for them, so they can see how it’s done. We’re not joking. It may seem to an adult that the obvious way you check a divider folder pocket is by opening the binder, looking through every sheet of paper in every divider pocket, and determining what needs to be turned in, what needs to be completed, and what belongs in the already been completed pocket. But for a teen with ADHD this is not obvious. Therefore, you do it with them every day until they’ve got the hang of it, and then you gradually give them complete responsibility for the task.

  1. Be Present. Whatever is going on with your ADHD teen’s schoolwork, stay in the moment and focus on the task at hand. Getting angry about the past will not help. It doesn’t matter you told them a thousand and one times to check their history folder. If they forgot, that’s over and done with. What matters is that they get the assignment to the right folder and turn it in. Also, projecting worry into the future is not productive. No matter how deep a whole you find your kid in, homework-wise, they can only do one assignment at a time. Reminding them that getting a low grade in a class will impact their future is not likely to help them complete the work in front of them. It’s more likely to fill them with uncomfortable emotions that will get in the way of the work they need to do.
  2. Keep emotion out of it. This is the second most important point on this list. Your emotional input is not required. Unless we’re talking about love, which is assumed: that’s why you’re helping your teen. Anger, guilt, and shame will not help your teenager stay organized, academically. Yes, you will get angry. Yes, you may feel guilty – for a few minutes – about making them do their work. And yes, they will feel ashamed when they get a lower grade than they wanted, simply because they forgot to turn in an assignment. However, when you implement your plan – i.e. when you check those folders every day – stay focused on the task and leave your emotions aside.

Communicate, Cooperate, Create

When you and your teen make your ADHD-proof academic plan, you can have fun doing it. You know who your teen is, and your teen knows who they are. The labels you make, the folders, the dividers – there’s no rule saying they have to be boring. Use colors, pictures, and texture. Use whatever draws them to the content of the folders. And there’s one final point that should be on the list, but it’s not. As the parent of an ADHD teen, you know it already: play to their strengths. The elements of your organizational plan should leverage what they’re naturally good at. Visual learners might need pictures on their folders, while your budding math prodigy might get distracted by colors and need a numbering system on plain brown folders.

It all depends on factors that are unique to your child and you – this article offers suggestions based on what’s worked with teens and parents we’ve met over the years.

Finally, if nothing we’ve said resonates with you at all, have a look at these online resources here and here – we’re sure you’ll find something that speaks to you and your teen.