As a volunteer tutor for grade-school kids, I see a lot of messy backpacks. Many are filled with crumpled papers, last week’s homework assignments, and plastic bags left over from a dozen lunches.
Those disorganized backpacks, experts say, are often a warning sign of trouble ahead—especially at key transitions in a student’s life: from grade school to middle school, middle school to high school, or even high school to college.
Suddenly, what seemed like typical adolescent chaos turns into a struggle to keep up when those same kids are faced with new challenges, like tougher math classes or less forgiving teachers.
Alyssa Coburn, the Director of Learning and Development at Nurturing Wisdom Tutoring, and Erin Doyle, the Executive Director at Nurturing Wisdom, see those struggles up close every day. And being physically disorganized, they say, is one big thing a lot of these kids have in common.
- On the night before a big test, they can’t find their notes, because they put them in their locker or into some folder that they left at school.
- Or they don’t know what they have to do for homework that night because they forgot to write it down, or wrote it down but misplaced the paper, or wrote it on their hand and it washed off.
- Or they take the (often painful, painstaking) time to finish their math homework and write their English papers, but then leave the completed assignments on the kitchen table.
The kids’ grades—and self-esteem—fall like a rock.
No wonder Coburn and Doyle think of physical organization as the cornerstone of executive function skills, the set of mental skills needed to plan, prioritize, and organize tasks and information. That means it’s the place they start when trying to win the war against nightly homework battles or the morning rush out the door or just boosting that grade in math. It also means that any effort spent on other keys to school (and life) success—say, study skills—may be moot if your child can’t find his or her notes when it’s time to study.
Part of the problem is that schools don’t teach physical organization. Kids (and their frustrated parents) have to try to figure it out on the fly. It’s a tall order for any kid, and nearly impossible for one with executive function challenges.
Of course, we all want to teach our kids to be organized. We know it’s an important life skill. But the conventional approaches—rewards, punishments, lecturing, nagging—don’t work.
Here’s what does work:
1. Give your child ownership over his or her organization strategy.
Kids naturally balk when parents hand down ultimatums. Instead, give your child a sense of choice and control, especially over something as personal as a backpack.
Physical disorganization isn’t a one-size-fits-all problem. You can have some standards that are non-negotiable, like requiring a system of organization—just don’t require the system of organization.
Avoid saying: “Here’s the system you must use. Just do it.”
Instead, try: “Here’s a method I think might work. If you don’t like it, can you think of something similar that you might like?”
Remember that it’s okay if your child’s system doesn’t look like yours. Different kids have different comfort levels for chaos. Some kids can make it work with a system that would make most adults cringe, but if it’s working for them—if permission slips are coming home and going back to school and assignments are getting turned in on time—then it’s okay.
2. Help your kid put everything in one place.
Make sure to check with your school to see what teachers require, but if you have the freedom (and your child’s on board with it), buy one big three-ring binder and keep everything in it.
Here’s why: It’s super easy to leave one of seven near-identical folders or spiral notebooks in a locker or at home, but it’s a lot harder to forget one giant binder with everything in it.
The binder might include:
- An assignment notebook or other designated place to write down homework and test dates
- A pocket at or near the front for things coming home from school, like permission slips and announcements.
- Another pocket at or near the front for things going back to school, like completed assignments or signed forms.
- An area for notes from each class.
- Plenty of loose-leaf paper.
Follow the same concept for homework by setting aside a dedicated study space.
It doesn’t matter where it is—a desk in his or her room or a spot at the kitchen table—as long as it’s quiet and fairly distraction-free (so probably not on the couch in front of the TV).
It should also have a shelf or drawer to store all needed supplies, so when it’s time to do math homework, your child doesn’t have to hunt through the whole house to find a calculator.
3. Train your child to “pack it in” at night.
Start a routine where, every night, completed assignments go into the binder, the binder and other materials go into the backpack, and the backpack goes by the front door or even into the car.
That helps your child learn to take all the prep work out of the morning, so that when she accidentally sleeps through the alarm and has to choose between breakfast and a shower, she doesn’t have to think about where her homework is.
(It’s the same concept as adults picking out their clothes the night before a big day at work, or pre-packing breakfast so they can grab-and-go.)
4. Celebrate signs of progress along the way.
It might feel silly to go get ice cream because your kid turned in his homework every day this week, but it’s those little victories that count when you’re trying to help a disorganized student.
Avoid making it a formal reward system, where he has to do certain things to earn different incentives. It’s just the two of you (or maybe the whole family) taking a minute to acknowledge his progress.
And when you’re celebrating, give him specific praise. Don’t just say, “You did a great job this week!” Instead, say, “You did a great job this week of packing your backpack every night before bed.” That will help him realize exactly what he’s doing well, so he keeps doing it.
Your kid may never be Hermione Granger, almost leaping up and down in an attempt to get the teacher to call on her—and that’s okay. Better physical organization—and all the things related to it, like being able to turn in the right homework at the right time—can help turn even a student who lists “PE” or “lunchtime” as her favorite class into someone who’s raring to go and reaching for the stars. All it takes is patience, determination, and the right kind of help.
Photos from top: Anton Petukhov/Flickr; Frustration/Wikimedia Commons; Ariel Grimm/Flickr; Nick Keppol/Flickr; U.S. Dept. of Education/Flickr
- Nurturing Wisdom is a tutoring and test prep company based in Chicago and San Francisco.
- The surprising connection between sleep and ADHD (that can start in infancy)
- Find an executive function expert.