It’s 9pm, and my middle schooler suddenly remembers that he has a history quiz tomorrow. Where is that study sheet? Crumpled up at the bottom of his backpack, or left in his locker? At 9:30 we find it, buried under one of the many piles of papers on my desk, where it has been for the last two days. My son shakes his head as he walks back to his desk. Houston, we have a problem.
It is no secret that being organized is one of the keys to and great challenges of middle school. And unless your son is wired for neatness and efficiency (in which case you can stop reading right now), odds are he will need help at home establishing and sticking to an organizational system. Here are some ways that you can help your son to get on the right track, even if you are not the most organized person yourself. While this information is good to have at the beginning of the school year, organizational issues often appear later in the year, as the paper flow and assignments increase. It is never too late to get organized.
Helping your son become an organized student involves focusing on four things at home and at school: space, supplies, planner, and follow-up.
Space: At home, work with your son to create a consistent and comfortable study space, and designate a regular time each day for him to sit there to do his work. Consider a place away from his bedroom, where many distractions loom. His study space needs to stay neat and organized. To minimize the stacks of paper that can pile up, he should go through his backpack at least once a week to decide what he needs to keep in it and what can be left at home. Encourage him to date every paper as soon as he gets or creates it, as this will help him determine what he needs and doesn’t need to carry around. Pick a regular day to sort through the papers in his backpack and on his desk with him each week. The papers to be left at home should be separated by subject, and kept in files. At school, designate one day a week (optimally the same day) for him to clear all papers from his locker and bring them home for sorting and filing.
Supplies: Most schools have recommendations for what supplies students will need. In addition to the school supplies, make sure you get supplies for a home filing system (file folders, file box) so he has a place to put his older work, which should be separated by subject and placed in chronological order.
Planner: A daily academic planner is a critical component of your son’s organizational plan. If his school doesn’t require a planner, make sure you buy one for him. Insist that each day he writes down all homework assigned that day and all tests/quizzes announced in class for all academic classes. This can be tougher to do when teachers don’t write assignments on the board, or if they hand out assignment sheets that list multiple weeks of homework at a time. Let your son know that it is his job to find out what the teacher wants and record it for that day. At he end of the day, before he leaves school, he should stop and look at the planner to make sure he has all the books, handouts and folders he needs for that night’s work.
Follow up: For all students learning these systems, consistency is key. This is where parents can be very helpful. Check in with your son when he gets home, or ask whomever is with him at home to do so, to make sure he has written his assignments in the planner, brought home all necessary books/papers and has a plan for tackling his homework. Remind him to pack his backpack at night and take the time then to make sure that he has everything he’ll need for the next day.
A few additional tips for parents:
Resist the temptation to organize his schoolwork for him. If you do all of the work for him, it might get done more quickly, and eliminate some nagging (you) and sulking (him), but ultimately you are not helping him learn how to do it himself.
Have patience. This is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes some time to develop new habits, particularly ones he is not necessarily interested in developing. You may want to set up a reward system for his consistent completion of several of the key daily rituals of getting organized. Be forewarned: despite his (and your) best efforts, things will slip and mistakes will be made. Take deep breaths and persevere.
This is not about you. This is about helping your son build skills, not about your lack (or abundance) of them. Middle school has changed a lot since you were there. The curricula today includes teaching children metacognitive strategies, which teaches them how to think about what they are thinking; not only the skills and results, but the processes used to get these results. This has led to a greater focus on helping children build the scaffolding (i.e., the study and organizational skills) for learning. For most parents, organizational skills were something you learned (or didn’t learn) on your own, and were not generally taught in school. So forgive yourself if you are a mess, and focus on what your son needs to do to make sure he doesn’t follow in your footsteps.
Since we have implemented these tools, my son is now keeping better track of his work, and my (still) paper piled desk is no longer a hiding place for his papers. The process of getting and staying organized requires quite a bit of time and focus for your son and for you as well. But the rewards of less stress (for you both), and more confidence in the learning process are well worth the effort.
Peters, Ruth A. “ How To Get Kids Organized for Middle School.” http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/20425248/ns/today-parenting/
Williams, Julie. “Organizing for Boys: Getting Your Guy Through Middle School.” www.education.com/magazine/article/Organizing_for_Boys/
Williams, Julie. “Organizing for Boys: What Parents Need to Know.” www.education.com/magazine/article/Organizing-goals-middle-school-boys/
Conversation with Learning Specialist, NYC Independent School, March 10, 2011.