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Ask the Experts

My Teen Has Trouble Concentrating

By Dr. Stacie Bunning, clinical psychologist

Question:

What do I do with a teen son who has extreme difficulties in concentrating on his homework? Sometimes it takes hours to have him get the right answer to two problems. Help!

Answer:

It is not uncommon for a youngster to do fine in elementary school and then begin to struggle in middle or high school. This happens for a variety of reasons, including transitioning from the protective elementary atmosphere to a much larger, more overwhelming school environment. Many kids go from having one or two teachers all day and minimal homework to changing classes six to eight times per day, with increased academic demands and expectations for independent work. At the same time, they are expected to somehow manage their rapidly changing bodies (and urges!), new ways of thinking and unique social challenges. That would be a lot for most of us as adults to cope with - imagine being 13 or 14 and having to do it!

It can be a really difficult time, and your son may just need to talk about it and get some help from you with organization. Just a few simple steps can make all the difference, such as the following:

  • 1. Plan ahead - make a weekly or daily "To Do" list.
  • 2. Prioritize the list.
  • 3. Use a planner, or an organizer to keep track of each task on the list.
  • 4. Have one set area and one set time for homework, and do not vary them.
  • 5. Have a place for everything: use small baskets, shoe boxes, or even a filing cabinet to organize supplies, assignments and other tasks.

If organization is only the tip of the iceberg, your son may have an undiagnosed attention deficit, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Sometimes young people with ADHD can "get by" in the primary grades, but simply cannot keep up with the workload in middle and/or high school. Not surprisingly, adolescents with ADHD often have trouble with homework because of short attention spans, lack of task focus, restlessness and impulsivity. Schedule a visit with your son's doctor to discuss the possibility of an ADHD diagnosis. Be sure to bring along relevant information from his teachers so that the physician gets a complete picture of what is going on with your son. He may find it appropriate to prescribe medication to assist your son with focus and concentration.

Here is a link to a wonderful article on the Attention Deficit Disorder Association Web site on this very topic. The article is especially helpful because it includes a sample homework plan for use with an adolescent boy.


Dr. Stacie Bunning is a licensed clinical psychologist in the St. Louis area. She has worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of clinical settings for 20 years. Bunning also teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent psychology, and human development at Maryville University in St. Louis.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

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