Sunday, September 2, 2012

If It Wasn't Attached, Updated

It's back-to-school time across the U.S., and today I ordered some organization tools for students who really need help keeping their stuff together, reminding me of a post I wrote a few years ago. It was in response to this suggestion from a parent:

"My son in 6th grade is a bit scattered. He comes home from school only to announce that he forgot his book, homework, etc. I thought it was a problem exclusive to him. In talking to moms of kids the same age as mine, I find it's a common theme. And this is just elementary school! Next year, with switching classes and dealing with several different teachers/time constraints, it's logical to think the problem will only get worse. How do you suggest us parents support our children while making them responsible?"

Wow. GREAT question! And I applauded this mom for being proactive about middle school. Here's my updated answer to her question:

First of all, I find that kids are better organized when they have tools to use. You can go all-out to buy them a nice calendar to keep track of stuff, but if they weren't involved in the decision-making process about what to to use, they are less likely to use it. That said, here are some tools that I find that work for many kids (in order of organization-issue severity):

An AGENDA/Planner-Buy two or three right off the bat (you'll need backups for when he misplaces them.) Of course, if your child has one and the school allows it (and they should), allow him to use an electronic device (phone, iPod, etc.) for recording homework. Yes, of course I know that many disorganized kids lose stuff often. However, I have never has a student lose an electronic device. I'm sure it happens; you'll have to use your judgement on that.

An EXPANDABLE FILE-Don't buy "poly," like this one.They are inexpensive and cute, but think about your kid; how long is it going to last? If you're just not sure she'll use it, go ahead and buy one of these cheap ones. It should last long enough to find out if it works for her, and you can buy a nicer one later if it does.

Try to find one with fabric or at least something durable if you're going with this option. If you cannot afford one, ask your child's school (if he's in special education) to supply one as part of an IEP (if it's a necessary tool for meeting an Organization IEP goal.) Label the tabs for him in order of the classes. I like 13 pockets, because one can be like an "In" box, and one can be the "Out" box for homeroom. Work for all classes can then be kept in ONE place. Handouts/books/or Yugioh cards do not belong in this folder; it's just for homework and should come home every single day, homework or not.

Update: I used to really love the expandable file, but last year (2011) I found a similar-but-even-better tool that I consider must-have for all of my students who struggle with organization (or any student who likes staying organized.

It's an 8-pocket organizer made of some kind of durable plastic, I guess.  I have my students keep the first pocket for notes for parents and label the rest in order of their classes for the day.  Homework and current handouts get put in the designated pockets. What I really like about it is that everything in it can be seen/found much more easily than with expandable files.  I have the students go through theirs regularly to get rid of stuff that's not current. They really like these folders because they help them feel competent and independent.  You can click on the photo if you want to pin it, or you can buy these beauties here for only $3.29 each. (I usually buy two per student, as they don't last the entire year for all students, and for that price, you can afford two.

Routine-Speaking of homework, set aside the same time each day for homework, so that it becomes part of a routine, even when your child has "nothing" to do, they can always read, listen to a book on tape, or even "draw" notes about what they're learning . A routine is an important way to develop responsibility. If your child knows she's going to have to sit there either way, you may find the "lost homework" suddenly is found.

Checklist-At any age, a checklist is nice. In the early grades, or even for some older kids, a visual checklist is a great idea; it's a list of tasks he needs to check off (or move a velcro symbol for) that help him think through what needs to go back to school. Ideally, this checklist is best completed the night before, after homework, so that the backpack is ready and at the door in the morning. I know, it's hard to remember this stuff. (Maybe you need a checklist, too?!) [For students with autism, a no-brainer solution that works GREAT is a visual schedule. If your child has autism and does not have a visual schedule, you MUST consider making one of these.]

Extra Books-Ask the school to provide a second set of textbooks (or an on-line version), so that "I forgot my book" is never a worry. If you do have to run back to school for books/homework, consider "charging" your child for gas and for the time. For example, tell him that if you had to spend 30 minutes going back to school for him, he can lose that amount of time in video games that night (or whatever leisure activity he enjoys). It's only fair. In addition, NEVER leave your child at home, messing around, while you go fetch his work; make him come with you. Also, if your child's teacher uses on-line materials or digital copies, ask him to email copies to you (or provide them on a classroom website, if they have one); the back-up copy always comes in handy.

Support-Being organized takes time. In our middle school, my most disorganized students have me for homeroom (I have only three kids for homeroom.) They also come to me at the end of the day to get organized for the trip home. I make sure everything they need is in their backpacks when they leave, and I know what should be in their planners for homework (ideally), so when they return in the morning, I know what they should have. In a perfect world, the parent and child have taken time the night before to get organized for the next day, and Junior has everything (hasn't forgotten his homework/books at home.) Also, educational aids can help special ed students with this.  If your child's teacher is going to do their job of helping your child get organized for the night, please do yours.  If you slip now and then, that's understandable (We slip, too.), but don't expect your child to improve is you don't do your part.

Support is good, but you don't want to carry your child too much. I find that sometimes, parents, teachers, and aides spend far too much time keeping up with student homework (in middle school, anyway), when the tools are there for students to keep track of it themselves. Last year, I started having my students check their own grades daily in the computerized program at school. Now, if they say, "Am I missing anything?" I point to the computer. I think this puts it back on them and teaches them a skill they'll need one day at a job; monitoring their own progress.

Communication-Something else you can do is to set up routine communication with your child's teachers. Use a notebook that goes back and forth, or skip the headaches by simply emailing each day a SHORT note such as, "Is there any homework tonight?" It's a real luxury to be able to check your child's grades every night via an on-line program, but kids always seem to have plausible excuses for missing assignments, "I GAVE her that; she probably just didn't get it in the gradebook yet!" Recently, I've started having my students send an email home at the end of the day, and they copy me in. The email says what homework they have that night, what they finished, etc. This seems like a good idea for my older students.

Random Thought
-If your child is extremely disorganized and not in spec ed, you might consider having him evaluated for Attention Deficit Disorder, which falls under OHI label (Other Health Impairment, in Wisconsin). Whether you like labels or not, being in Spec Ed can protect your child if he has a genuine memory issue that interferes with organization (and results in late homework and lost instructional time due to distraction.) Just a thought....

The Big Guns-For the hardcore cases, sometimes you have to get down to the nitty gritty. Here's an example of something I came up with for an extremely disorganized studentwho lost everything on an hourly basis and was always late to classes, because he was digging around for missing papers. Our Parent Network is FANTASTIC, and a volunteer grandpa made this shelf. It worked so well, that I asked a Boy Scout who needed an Eagle Project to make several more for our school, and he did.
There is one opening (labeled) for each class. He came in, shoved his math in the math slot, grabbed reading stuff and left. It was great. At the end of the day, we helped him think through what needed to go home.

Avoidance-Finally, if your child has all the tools in the world but still doesn't use them, you might look further at the homework. What's the issue? Does he hate writing? Could technology help? (I know it makes a big difference for some of my most difficult students.) Is the reading level of the textbook way over the reading skill level of your child? Could your child be excused from half of the math problems if he can demonstrate mastery of the other 10? Is it an emotional issue? If your child has an autism and is coming home and melting down on a regular basis, maybe accommodations should be made for homework. For example, I have one student in whose IEP I have written, "No homework that will not be part of a later assessment." (In other words, "no busywork.") Of course, modifications and accommodations are easier to get if your child is in spec ed, but even if he/she is not, I pray that your school is child-centered and willing to look at what will help students be successful.

One more thing: If your child is spacey and disorganized, please avoid calling him/her names (even affectionately), as it can be hurtful and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stay positive. Avoid saying things like, "He'd lose his head if it weren't attached!" Kids with poor organization skills often feel terrible about it, and if they think that they are hopeless, they may just stop working on it. (Don't feel bad if you do this; just stop, now that you know better :)

Parenting kids with organization issues is tough! I hope this has been helpful to many of you, and to others who have lasted through the post, Some of you have tips because you were that disorganized student (or adult!) and have developed other tricks/tips that have worked for you. Your tips are also welcome!


  1. I think disorganization is one of the toughest things to overcome in middle school. Great post!

  2. Our most organized child became a teacher.

  3. This is excellent advice and will greatly help many kids (and parents).

  4. Great post! I could have used this over the last several years as my oldest son (and I) struggled with his organization of school stuff. He is doing so much better so far this year and is energized to be more prepared.

  5. I have this kind of kid and these are fantastic tips. We've done the expandable folder for a couple years now and IT HAS SAVED US!!!


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