Stressed about online school? Here are 5 ways to help your teen focus

The new school year has been in session for a few weeks now, and we've heard from many parents how challenging it's been. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association, a whopping 71% of parents say that handling online learning for their children has been a significant source of stress. At the same time, 56% of teens reported feeling worried they’ll fall behind this school year.


Here are some common challenges we’ve heard from parents so far:

  • It’s harder for students to stay on task and focused during online school

  • Students aren’t showing up on time for online school sessions

  • Students still haven’t adjusted their sleeping habits to fit the new school year

  • Students in transition years like the leap between middle school and high school are finding it difficult to adjust to a whole new school with new teachers, new schedules, and new expectations when everything is virtual.

  • Students are feeling a lack of motivation because they aren’t benefiting from group learning and socialization with their peers.

Do any of these sound like your teen? Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing tips to address these back-to- school concerns.


This week, we’re starting with 5 suggestions to help your teen stay focused:

Set device rules for Online School

It’s hard to focus when your teen’s desk has video games, their phone, and other distractions. If possible, work together to create a quiet, dedicated space outside their bedroom where your teen “goes to school”. This space should only have the things they need to study. Keep it a phone free space, just like school, by designating a place where phones go during school hours. Having a physical separation (e.g, divider or a separate room to work in) helps our brains get into focus mode. Bonus for adding inspirational notes to the workspace walls to stay motivated!


Explore some attention-management tools

Many tools exist to help teens (and adults!) who struggle to stay on task when they’re on their devices. Have an honest conversation about what's been working and what's been tough about online school to identify the key challenges. Then, research together tools to incorporate to address the challenges. For example, if your teen having a hard time staying off distracting websites, you might suggest installing tools like Self Control and RescueTime. If they’re struggling to stay off social media on their phones, consider tools like Moment or Screen Time controls. Read here for our team’s top picks for productivity and self control tools. Discussing and guiding your teen to find the right tools, instead of enforcing tools on them, can help your teen build problem solving skills for the future.


Make a plan

Teach your teen how to schedule using paper planners or tools like Google Calendar. Now that the school year has settled in, it’s easier to estimate how much time to reserve for classwork.


Help your teen visualize their schedule: Put in obligations first (classes, tutors, appointments), then work blocks (when to get what schoolwork done based on the deadlines), followed by leisure (hang out time with family and friends). Not only is this great practice for your teen's executive function, but it can also help you and your teen balance how they spend their time. You can even get creative and use different colors for different event types. This habit can be difficult to build at first, but reserving some time each week to plan your schedules together can help your teen succeed in the long-term!



Implement a to-do list

Help get to do’s out of their head and onto “paper” to clear headspace. There are many wonderful tools out there for digital to-do lists like Todoist, Any.do, Google Tasks, TickTick and the traditional pen and paper is always an option too. Bonus if your family has Alexa or Google home assistants that you can sync to your teen’s digital to-do list and make list keeping easy. Here’s an example.


The hidden benefit of teaching your teen to keep a to-do list is that it can help their developing brains associate productivity with feeling good. For most people, crossing off a task on a to-do list releases dopamine (the brain’s reward currency) and helps us feel capable of taking on more.


Visualize the family’s “workflow” with a Kanban board

Track your family’s to-dos Kanban style. Kanban is a process management system used at many startups and other agile workplaces to manage work across teams. All you need to get started is a big wall where you can put post-its or a white board. Label three vertical sections: To Do, Doing, Done. Then, add tasks to be done in the To do column and move the stickies along as they are being done and completed.


This helps to:

  1. Visualize the work of your whole family to build empathy for the fact that everyone’s got a full plate

  2. Create a sense of “teamwork” in the family,

  3. Train your teen’s brain for productivity with a dopamine hit every time they update the status of a task (just like with crossing things off a todo list). Bonus if your company works this way. Teens love feeling like they’re using “real adult world” tools.


It’s important to remember that different tools and methodologies work for different people. Focus on letting your teen lead the exploration process to find what works for them. As their parent, guide them in that exploration by helping them identify their specific challenges and coaching them to build problem solving skills.


Cherish is not affiliated with any of the tools mentioned above. These are tools the team has tried or seen families try with success.


Have a specific question about your teen’s adjustment to online school? Sign up here to get personalized advice from a Cherish Coach!