How to Help Your Teenager Focus in School: 7 Psychologist Strategies

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

If your teenager can’t focus in school, they may not fulfil their academic potential.

They may even start to become labelled as “naughty” or defiant.

I’m a child clinical psychologist specialising in teens.

In this article, I’ll talk you through seven effective strategies to help your teenager focus in school, drawn from my twenty years of experience supporting families just like yours.

Your child may have a diagnosis of ADHD, suspected ADHD, or their may be multiple other reasons why your teen can’t focus right now. I’ll help you think it through.

a tween or young teen sitting at a desk writing

Teenager Focus Problems: What’s The Root Cause?

Understanding the root causes of your child’s attention problems is the first step towards finding a solution.

If you know why your teen can’t focus in school, you can make a more effective plan and use the right strategies.

Here are ten possible reasons why your teen has issues with focus and concentration:

teenagers and focus difficulties: ten reasons why
  1. ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a common cause of concentration difficulties. Attentional problems are core/central ADHD symptoms.
  2. Sensory Issues: Overstimulation can overwhelm a child. This will interfere with their ability to concentrate. Children with a diagnosis of autism (autism spectrum disorder) often experience attention problems caused by their overwhelmed sensory system.
  3. Boredom: A lack of challenge or engagement can lead to distraction and inattention.
  4. Lack of Sleep: Insufficient rest can significantly impact a child’s focus and cognitive function.
  5. Anxiety: Worries or stress can preoccupy a child’s mind, impairing their ability to focus. Children suffering from an anxiety disorder are likely to spend significant periods of time in “fight or flight”, meaning that their body can only focus on survival and any academic learning is prevented.
  6. Specific Learning Difficulties: Teens with learning difficulties, like dyslexia, often process information differently. Traditional learning methods may not align with the way they learn most effectively. This will make comprehension and concentration more difficult for them.
  7. Hunger: Poor nutrition or skipped meals can lead to decreased focus and energy. A child’s brain needs a steady supply of nutrients to function properly. Nutrients such as glucose, fatty acids, and various vitamins and minerals are all essential for various brain functions, including concentration, memory, and decision-making. Glucose, in particular, is the primary source of energy for the brain. It’s like the fuel that keeps a car running. When a child skips meals or eats poorly, their blood sugar levels can drop. This deprives the brain of the energy it needs to function effectively, resulting in a decrease in cognitive performance, such as poor concentration, difficulty making decisions, and even mood changes.
  8. Too Much Screen Time: Excessive digital exposure can reduce a child’s attention span. Excessive screen time, whether on televisions, computers, or mobile devices, can bombard a child with rapid-fire, high-intensity stimuli. Over time, this conditions their brains to require constant stimulation and make it more difficult for them to focus and engage in slower-paced, real-world activities.
  9. Distracting Environment: Noisy or chaotic environments can disrupt a child’s ability to concentrate.
  10. Emotional Issues: Unresolved feelings or emotional distress can divert a child’s attention. When a child is dealing with unresolved emotions or emotional distress, their mental energy can be consumed by these feelings, making it difficult for them to concentrate on other tasks or activities, as their focus is constantly drawn back to their inner turmoil.
teen boy and his teacher at a desk having a discussion

My 6 Core Strategies

The strategies you choose to focus on the most will depend on the underlying causes that you identify.

For example, if sensory issues are a factor then strategy 5 (adapting the environment) is going to be the most important, but strategies 1,2 and 3 will also be very helpful.


Strategy 1: Structure & Planning

Teenage Focus Problems and The Importance of Structure

Introducing a structured routine can greatly assist children with focusing, especially during homework time.

Start by setting a specific hour each day dedicated solely to homework. This predictability helps your child mentally prepare and engage with their tasks. Ensure this space is free from distractions, with all necessary materials at hand.

For example, your child could begin homework at 6 PM daily, in a quiet, organized corner of your home. This consistency teaches them to anticipate and settle into their study session with less effort.

In school, communication with your child’s teachers is crucial.

Share the benefits of any specific approaches you’ve observed work at home. Suggest incorporating brief, focused periods for tasks, with clear instructions and a predictable routine.

Practical Ways to Incorporate Routine (Home and School)

To enhance your teen’s focus, I strongly advocate for a structured approach to learning, particularly when it comes to tackling complex assignments.

For instance, when faced with an essay, breaking it down into smaller, more digestible sections can significantly ease the process. It’s easier to focus on one small step, have a small break, then move on to the next step, rather than trying to focus for a long period all in one go.

I recommend teachers guide students through this by introducing a clear, step-by-step framework for tasks. They then need to check in regularly with students who have focus issues, re-focusing them if necessary.

Asking for a learning mentor for your teen within school can be a game-changer. I believe in the power of personalized support, where a mentor works closely with students to help them structure their study time effectively.

This involves assisting them in setting realistic goals, prioritizing their workload, and developing a tailored study plan that suits their individual learning styles.

The mentor’s role is to provide a steady hand, guiding students through their academic journey, offering advice, and helping them navigate challenges.

A routine for sleep and meals is the first step at home. Regular sleep times ensure your child is well-rested, and well-rested kids concentrate better.

Next, carve out distinct time periods for homework and relaxation.

Having clarity about knowing when to focus on work and when to relax can improve a teenager’s attention span during study time. I like to use a colour coded planner to show rough blocks of time, rather than being too precise.

For example, the hour after school will be colour coded as purple and this denotes rest and relaxation time. The hours between 6 and 7pm might be orange, denoting study time.

group of 3 teens studying together in a library deep focus

The Concept of “Chunking” Explained

“Chunking” is a strategy where we divide a big task into smaller, more manageable parts or ‘chunks’. This approach is beneficial because it lessens the mental burden on a child.

Instead of seeing a task as one big mountain to climb, they view it as a series of smaller hills, which are less intimidating.

For example, a book report isn’t just one task. It involves reading the book, taking notes, creating an outline, writing the report, and proofreading it. Each part is a ‘chunk’ of the overall task.

Examples of Task Segmentation for Children

Consider a typical homework session. Instead of asking your child to finish all their homework in one go, break it down.

For instance: Get them started by supporting them to engage in just 10 maths problems, then take a short break.

Next, read a chapter of the required English text, then have another break.

Finally, they will write the first paragraph of their essay. This way, they’re tackling one ‘chunk’ of work at a time, making the whole task less overwhelming.

Even with older teens, you may need to help them break the task down into segments and get started on sub-tasks.

In this way, each ‘chunk’ becomes a small victory, making the task more manageable and less daunting. This will not only help your child concentrate better but will also build their confidence and give them a sense of accomplishment.

Strategy 2: Use Visual Aids and Reminders

Visual aids are highly effective for children with attention difficulties, providing a concrete reference to keep them on task.

Enhancing Focus through Visual Stimulation

Visual aids stimulate the brain differently than auditory or text-based information.

Our brain processes visual information faster and tends to retain it for longer.

For teenagers with attention difficulties, visual cues can provide a regular reminder of tasks, thereby maintaining their focus.

Tried and Tested Visual Aid Suggestions

Visual schedules are a powerful tool. They provide a clear layout of the day’s tasks. Your teen can cross out completed tasks, giving a sense of accomplishment and clear progress.

Colour-coding is another effective method. Assign different colours for different activities.

For example, green for homework, blue for playtime, red for meal times. This makes it easy for your child to identify what’s next.

Visual timers, such as hourglass sand timers or digital countdown timers, give a clear representation of time. This helps your teenager gauge how long they have to focus on a particular task and when it’s time to move on to the next.

Apps like Flora are also fantastic for enhancing productivity, and are trendy amongst teens at the moment. Teens can also look at others’ progress and compare with their own.

Each time you focus for a sustained period you grow a tree, and this can be immensely satisfying!

TAKE THE QUIZ!

Strategy 3: Increase Physical Activity

Physical activity is a vital tool for enhancing a child’s ability to focus.

For example, a 2020 study found that both children with ADHD and those without performed better in a reading comprehension and a maths task following 20 minutes of moderate aerobic activity.

Exercise and Attention: The Connection

Physical exercise stimulates the release of chemicals in the brain, like endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.

Endorphins are mood elevators and natural painkillers.

Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters related to focus, memory, and mood. Exercise helps increase the production of these chemicals, thereby improving mood and cognitive function.

This is particularly beneficial for children struggling with attentional difficulties as it aids in sharpening focus and memory retention.

In the last few years scientists have also uncovered the importance of a crucial substance called BDNF.

BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, is a protein produced inside nerve cells. It acts like fertilizer for the brain, supporting the survival of existing neurons and promoting the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.

When we exercise, our bodies produce more BDNF. This increased production leads to improved brain health, including enhanced memory and cognitive function. BDNF also enhances the function of the brain’s attention systems. 

Teen-Friendly Physical Activities for Enhanced Focus

Making physical activity fun and enjoyable for kids is essential. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Organized Sports: Activities like football, basketball, or hockey not only provide a good workout but also teach teamwork, discipline and time management.
  2. “Complex” movement activities like dance or martial arts: An indoor dance party or structured dance classes can be a fun way to get moving and boost mood. In complex exercise, your child will be strengthening their executive functioning pathways in the brain at the same time as exercising, so it’s a “double whammy” in terms of improving their concentration! Executive functioning refers to the mental skills that help us plan, focus, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
  3. Cycling: This can be a family activity, promoting both exercise and quality time.
  4. Nature Walks: They are calming and provide a great way to exercise while exploring.
  5. Yoga for Kids: Yoga can help improve concentration, promote relaxation and body awareness.
a teen girl wearing glasses sitting at a desk focusing

So, how can you increase your child’s physical activity? Here are some ideas:

  • Get some exercise in before school, for example walking to school or getting off the bus earlier than normal and walking the rest of the way. This sets them up for great concentration in the early part of the way.
  • Encourage your teen to do physical movement at school break times (recess). Are there sports they can take part in? Even if they don’t want to take part in sport, could they “walk and chat” outdoors with a friend rather than sitting still?

Make sure your child isn’t exercising late in the evening as this can be overstimulating and can interfere with sleep. Gentle stretching or yoga are great alternatives though.

Fidgeting and Attention Issues

recent study found that children with ADHD perform better on a complex attention task when they are fidgeting.

This is certainly supported by my own observations over the years and the children I have worked with.

I always allow teens to fidget in my clinic room. It helps them sustain the mental effort of talking to me for an hour. They can choose a fidget toy from the shelf in the waiting room or bring one from home. 

Fidgeting should be allowed during school work and should be encouraged. 

Although views are changing, in the past children were expected to sit still in class and there is less awareness of teens’ need to fidget than younger children.

If your child has trouble focusing in class, chat with your child’s teacher(s) and find out if they are up to speed with latest research. The ultimate goal is to allow fiddling that does not distract other children, so avoid noisy fidget toys. Wobble cushions could also allow your child to shift and fidget quietly in a non-disruptive way.

Strategy 4: Mindfulness for Teens

Mindfulness can be an important tool in improving attention in teens.

Mindfulness is simply the practice of intentionally focusing our attention on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting all feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations without judgment. It is grounded in ancient wisdom and now supported by modern science.

Mindfulness allows us to become aware of our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them. It can help teenagers better manage their thoughts, feelings, and focus.

Mindfulness is much misunderstood and has a mixed reputation, which I think is unfair. I used to teach mindfulness in schools and it is an important part of my daily routine and healthy lifestyle.

Many people think mindfulness is about sitting still and breathing, but it is so much more than this.

If your child finds it difficult to sit still there are many “active” forms of mindfulness, such as mindful walking.

The Impact of Mindfulness on Attention Regulation

Current research has found a huge array of benefits of mindfulness for children including concentration and wellbeing. 

Mindfulness teaches children to focus their attention on the present moment. This can lead to improved concentration, as the child learns to pay attention intentionally and redirect their focus when their mind wanders.

Research has shown that mindfulness can actually change the physical structure of the brain, strengthening areas associated with attention and impulse control.

Easy-to-Follow Mindfulness Exercises for Teens

It doesn’t matter if these exercises only last a minute or two.

Little and often is perfect!

Ideally, get your child to do one of these exercises before school, and another one before bed.

Many schools also run whole-class mindfulness sessions, so enquire about this and encourage your child to attend.

  1. Breathing Buddies: In this exercise, have your teen lie down and place a small toy on their belly. As they breathe in and out, the toy will move up and down. Ask them to tune into this. The visual and tactile feedback helps children learn to focus on their breath, a central element of mindfulness, and to become more aware of their physical presence in the world.
  2. Listening to Bells: Using a bell or a chime, ask your child to listen to the sound until they can no longer hear it. This encourages your child to concentrate on a single sensory input, which helps improve their ability to focus.
  3. Guided Imagery: Take your child on an imaginary journey to a place they love such as a favorite beach. Encourage them to close their eyes and imagine the warm sand beneath their feet, the sound of gentle waves, and the salty scent of the ocean. Guide them to explore this imagined environment, noticing details and engaging their senses.
  4. Mindful Eating: Ask your child to eat something slowly, paying attention to its taste, texture, and smell. This can help your child learn to use mindfulness in daily activities, improving their ability to focus and be present.
  5. Body Scan: Guide your child to lie down in a quiet space and slowly bring their attention to various parts of their body, starting from their toes and moving upwards. The goal is for them to notice sensations in each part without judgment, enhancing their self-awareness and attention regulation skills.

Consistency is a key factor.

Regular practice of mindfulness exercises cultivates mindfulness as a way of life for your child, enhancing their attention regulation skills over time.

a teenage boy in a library focusing deeply

Strategy 5: Create a Positive Learning Environment

A Positive Learning Environment at School

Creating a conducive classroom environment is so important for teens with focus difficulties.

Ask your teen what their classroom environments are like, and you may also be able to check them out yourselves if you have in-person parent-teacher ci Here are practical ways you can collaborate with schools to achieve this:

  • Lighting: Advocate for natural light in classrooms, as it boosts mood and concentration. If natural light is limited, suggest the use of full-spectrum light bulbs that mimic daylight.
  • Seating: Discuss with teachers the possibility of flexible seating options. Stability balls, standing desks, or cushioned seats can help your teen stay focused by allowing slight movements that keep the mind engaged. My son currently complains of having to sit in hard plastic chairs that are too small, for certain lessons. This is certainly something I will mention next time I visit the school.
  • Clutter-Free Spaces: Encourage the school to maintain organized and clutter-free classrooms. A tidy space minimizes distractions, making it easier for your teen to concentrate on lessons.
  • Colour and Decor: Suggest the use of calming colours and minimal wall decorations. Overstimulation can be a challenge for focus, so serene blues or greens and limited visual clutter can help maintain your teen’s attention.

A Positive Learning Environment at Home

Creating a positive learning environment at home is just as crucial for your teen’s focus and productivity. Here’s how you can set up an effective study space:

  • Dedicated Study Area: Establish a specific spot in your home for study, away from high-traffic areas but close enough that you can offer regular re-focusing and prompting if needed.
  • Proper Lighting: Ensure the study area is well-lit, preferably with natural light. If that’s not possible, use lamps that provide bright, clear lighting to reduce eye strain.
  • Comfortable Seating: Invest in a comfortable, ergonomically designed chair. Proper posture can prevent discomfort and keep your teen focused for longer periods.
  • Minimal Distractions: Keep the study area clutter-free and limit distractions. This might mean having a no-phone rule or using noise-cancelling headphones to block out background noise.
  • Personal Touches: Allow your teen to personalize their study space with items that motivate them, such as inspirational quotes or a small plant. A space that feels personal and comfortable can enhance focus and make study time more enjoyable.

Strategy 6: Know When to Seek Professional Support

The strategies above can help all teens, but if they are not making enough of a difference and your teen is not achieving their potential or their mental health is affected, seek help.

Seeking professional support is crucial because trained professionals have the expertise to assess, diagnose, and provide specialized interventions tailored to your child’s attentional difficulties.

This will maximise their chances for improvement and success.

Indicators Your Child May Require Professional Support

Does your child struggle with sustained attention?

Perhaps they find it hard to concentrate enough to actually process instructions or new information in the first place?

Maybe they can’t retain the important information? 

Consider seeking professional help if your child’s attentional difficulties significantly impact their functioning in daily life, academic performance, emotional well-being, or if they display persistent challenges despite your efforts to support them.

In particular if you suspect your child has symptoms of ADHD or other neurodevelopmental disorders, it’s best to have it identified early.

Early identification means that adults working with your child can understand them better and adapt the environment to meet their needs.

An accurate diagnosis of ADHD can be extremely helpful in increasing the chances that your child will get the support they need.

ADHD is often diagnosed by a child psychiatrist or paediatrician but very often psychologists or other therapists are part of the multidisciplinary diagnostic team.

If your child’s attentional difficulties aren’t supported, there is a risk of developing (or uexacerbating) behavioral problems and mental health problems.

For example, if they’re unable to follow instructions, instead of getting on with the task at hand in class they may become bored and distract others. Ultimately they may start to get in trouble. 

Your child’s self-esteem may decline. They may start to assume that there is something wrong with them or that they are incapable of the academic standards required.

Therapists, Psychologists, and Educational Consultants

  1. Therapists: Occupational therapists or speech therapists (known as speech and language pathologists in the UK), focus on specific areas of development. Occupational therapists can assist with sensory integration, self-regulation, and organizational skills. Speech therapists can address language and communication difficulties that may affect attention and learning.
  2. Psychologists: Psychologists – like me – specialize in assessing and understanding cognitive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of attention difficulties. They can provide a comprehensive assessment and develop an individualized treatment plan. They offer therapeutic interventions to address specific challenges. For example, the psychologist may collaborate with the school to ensure appropriate adaptations and accommodations are made to support the child’s needs. They may also provide therapeutic support to address any issues related to low self-esteem stemming from the child’s difficulties. 
  3. Educational Consultants: Educational consultants provide expertise in educational settings. They can collaborate with schools and parents to develop tailored strategies and accommodations to support a child’s attentional needs. They can also assist in navigating Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and advocating for increased educational resources.

Medication for Attentional Difficulties

Certainly in the UK, medication is not the first line of treatment for inattentive symptoms in children and young adults. 

Very often, understanding and addressing the root causes will improve even significant symptoms and medication isn’t required.

However, if your child has ADHD and the strategies in this article have only had limited impact, it’s worth meeting with a prescribing physician to explore the potential benefits of trialing medication. 

When you’re considering professional support, start by consulting with your child’s doctor, school, or healthcare providers to discuss the specific challenges your child is facing.

They can provide guidance and help you determine the most appropriate professionals to involve in your child’s care.

​Useful Resources

How to Help Your Teenager Focus in School: Summary

I’ve delved into the best strategies to help teenagers with attention difficulties, emphasizing structured routines and positive learning environments both at school and at home.

I discussed the significance of breaking tasks into manageable segments and the role of learning mentors in offering tailored support at school.

I highlighted the importance of an organized, distraction-free classroom in enhancing focus and provided practical advice for you to advocate for such environments.

At home, I stressed the need for a dedicated study area, adequate lighting, and minimal distractions to create an ideal learning atmosphere.

Most importantly though, I want to encourage you to collaborate with your teen’s school and keep a positive channel of open communication.

This will enable tweaks to their school environment that will help your teen manage complexities of modern education, meet their potential and maintain their wellbeing and self-esteem.

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Screen Time For Children and Teens: Managing the Boundaries

5 Emotional Regulation Activities For Children

Empowering Autistic Children: Top 10 Autism Classroom Ideas For Every Teacher and Parent to Know

Transition to Secondary School or Middle School: Trouble-Shooting Problems in the First Year

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.


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