Helping bright, disorganized teens

by Kathy Kuhl

Helping bright, disorganized teens

Out-of-the-box thinkers can struggle with organization, tests, deadlines, and more

Do you have or know a teen like this not working up to his or her potential? One parent’s question appears below in italics; my comments are in boldface. She wrote:

We’re running up against some issues with H (16, 10th grade).
He’s extremely bright and standardized tests have backed up
our observations on that. He’s rarely scored lower than
the 99th percentile on a standardized test. 

However, he’s not working up to his potential.
I thought there were just general organization/motivation issues
that would resolve themselves by now, but as we get further into high school
and he can articulate things better, I think he probably has some legitimate executive processing deficiencies.

Examples of executive processing problems interfering with schoolwork

[H]e often forgets to turn things in, gets surprised
when he shows up to class and there’s a quiz,
always thinks “there’s plenty of time” to study for a test… the next day. 

Many bright students can mask their executive functioning difficulties by hard work–until the work gets too hard. That’s why these difficulties only become apparent for some students when they reach middle school, high school, college, or even grad school. 

Out-of the box thinking and its consequences

…. He has this really out-of-the-box thinking pattern.
His mind is open to a lot of possibilities and he’s quick to believe
anything is possible “if you just think about it like this…”
He’s very artistic and a great problem solver.
I do think this creative approach to thinking and
problem solving is a gift from the Lord.

Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, authors of The Dyslexic Advantage and owners of the Eide Neurolearning Clinic in Everett, Washington, have reported this interesting example. European cancer researchers noted that when their medical schools started admitting only students with perfect grades, it became harder to find new cancer researchers. Students who were less willing to take risks were reluctant to choose career in cancer research, where they might not find perfect answers.* 

Obviously, we need problem solvers, which means we need creative minds. 

However, this way of thinking really, really works against him
when it comes to, say, multiple choice AP Govt exams
(to name a recent example). Because, for every option,
he explained that it
could be true,
“if you think about it like this.” 

It took me years to realized that multiple choice tests are torture for some people. This is exactly why one nursing student I met could not pass the online board exams. But if he’d been examined orally, or given a short answer test, rather than multiple choice, he probably would have passed.
The mom continued:

This way of thinking can also be very frustrating when communicating with H.
I’ll constantly say, “I told you that…,”
and he’ll say, “Yes, but….” and explain some alternative meaning
he layered on top of my words. (He’s not by nature argumentative.)

Have you met people like this? I gave birth to one! 

I do think that mindset is somehow tied up in
his lack of planning and organization skills.
Anyhow, can you point me in the direction of any resources
that could help me help him?

My reply

Your son is a perfect illustration of how you can be brilliant, creative, yet struggle with organization. The world badly needs creative, out-of-the-box thinkers.

They need encouragement

It’s going to be important to continue to provide your son with opportunities to exercise his creativity and to be recognized for it. It’s vital to help him not get too discouraged by his organization struggles–not just for his sake, but for all of us.

Possible causes of these struggles with organization

You may be describing an executive function deficit (it may or may not rise to the level of an executive function disorder) or it could be undiagnosed ADHD.

Sometimes people don’t get diagnosed with these conditions for years. That’s because they are bright and hard-working enough to able to compensate for a while. One psychologist explained that it’s not unusual for trouble to arise when the academic pace picks up: at the beginning of middle school, high school, college, or even grad school.

So it’s good that it’s becoming apparent now, while he’s still under your roof, rather than away at college. If this crisis began there without your support, he might just decide he wasn’t good enough to succeed in college. When you see people less intelligent than yourself succeeding when you don’t, it’s tempting to conclude that you’re stupid. (Younger children, having little experience, can jump to this conclusion.)  But we know your son is bright.

How to help disorganized teens

  1. If you aren’t familiar with executive function deficits, is a good place to begin.
  2. Your son may find it helpful to work with an ADHD coach or an executive functioning coach.
    It doesn’t help everyone. But coaches do help some people. To find a coach, check with your local chapter of or
  3. Look at the book Smart but Scattered Teens. I haven’t read it, but I had a smart distracted young adult to review it for me here.
  4. Look at MaryDee Sklar’s website. She’s got an online course that might help. I liked her book 50 Tips. But don’t know if that’s what your son needs. I suggest you read the preview on Amazon.
  5. Before I went to college, I wish I could’ve read Why Freshmen Fail and How to Avoid It. It’s a practical book by an insightful professor, who includes stories of how she turned herself around when she was a struggling freshman. My review is here.

What are your favorite resources to help teens who struggle with organization? Please add them in the comments below.

*For more about value of creative thinkers, watch Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide, “The Turkey and The Crow,” TEDxEastsidePrep, June 7, 2011.

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