The minimalist guide to teen time management

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Last week I mentioned an email I’d gotten from a parent looking for answers about how best to overcome some very common adolescent hurdles:

“Hi Chris. I want to tell you how much I enjoy your articles and the We Teach We Learn Facebook page. Thank you for providing such great information!

“After reading your most recent article I’m curious about neural exercises. We have a 14 yr. old who is really doing poorly in school. He isn’t overly enthusiastic about school to begin with, but he also seems to be very weak in some key executive function skills like task initiation, time management & goal directed persistence.

We are very concerned that our son is digging a hole so deep with his grades that he will have difficulty recovering when (if) he decides an education is indeed important to him.”

Getting started, prioritizing tasks, managing time, and persisting to the finish line are important skills for success both in and outside of school. I’m not sure you can find a kid, regardless of grade point, who hasn’t struggled at one time or another with procrastination, decisions about which task or project to tackle next, or the ability to focus on longer term projects to their completion.

For the sake of this discussion though, it’s important to note that I believe this parent’s concerns were heightened by a piece I wrote explaining how adolescents’ brains are actually shrinking. In the long run, this pruning of little used neural pathways actually helps to create a much more efficient brain—and the connections we use are strengthened. Those we neglect however, are eliminated

The major concern during adolescence then, is that teens may avoid exercising important neural connections at exactly the wrong time in their development, thus making these skills harder to learn later in life.

Let me stress that when we begin talking about exercising our brains we are definitely using verbs–actions and activities. Endless discussions and attempts at motivation—both through reward and punishment–often miss the mark. My experience is that we have to give students tools and coach them how to use it—following up with consistent and timely feedback.

So what can a teenager DO to stimulate the neural connections related to time management? Use a daily planner. There are endless time management and planning “systems” one can invest in, and entire self help libraries have been written on the topic. Avoid them all. Simply get a planner and use it by jotting down tasks and assignments after each class. This does not need to be fancy. In fact, it shouldn’t be. A spiral notebook works just fine.

The important thing is actually doing something, and then turning that something into a habit. Like a steroid inhaler for the child with asthma, the student should carry the planner with him at all times. But that’s not enough. He’ll also need coaching and support.

So, what can YOU do to strengthen your teen’s efficacy? Come together around the planner every day to discuss a plan of attack. Review priorities and line up resources. Keep these meetings as relaxed as possible and stick to what is known. If information is missing, assign fact-finding research to fill in the gaps. Breakfast, dinner or car trips are all great times for these conversations. I would also encourage parents to involve the teachers in this.

I have a student who asks me every day to sign her planner next to the assignment she’s written there. My initials communicate to the parent that I agree with what she’s written there for my class. It’s nothing more than a little box, and it takes less than ten seconds, but she’s got a spot for every class. Every day. It’s perfect. Her parents started her on this and they review it together every night. And it’s working.

There is a distinct and noticeable difference between students who use planners and those who don’t. Sure, kids with planners get better grades, but that’s just a side effect of being more organized. Items in the planner don’t have to be stored in short-term memory anymore, freeing up energy for all kinds of interesting changes. So be warned, teen use of planners has been shown to increase confidence, creativity, empowerment and in extreme cases, even happiness.

Founder of, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Email Chris at:

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