Read an Excerpt
Parenting is a humbling experience. You follow your instincts, do your best and just when you think you're on the right track the phone call comes. My phone call came from my son Noah's sixth grade teacher informing me that my child hadn't handed in a single piece of homework all year. I was in shock. Noah spent hours in his room each night! And this was in the days before kids had computers in their rooms, which meant he wasn't instant messaging, playing computer games or surfing the internet. He didn't have a television or even a phone in his room what could he be doing for hours on end? I felt like a terrible mother why hadn't I asked to see his homework? Why didn't I know how he spent his time? And why wasn't he handing anything in?!
It turned out that Noah was, in fact, doing his homework. Upon investigation, I found nearly a semester's worth of completed, ungraded assignments buried in the dark recesses of his backpack. This made absolutely no sense to me. Why would someone go through the trouble of doing his homework and then not hand it in? Thus began my journey into the world of the disorganized student.
Disorganization was unfamiliar territory to me. My problems in school stemmed from a different set of challenges. I didn't learn to read until I was in the sixth grade. When I was little I would cry in my cubby every day before school; when I got older I dreaded the failure I knew awaited me in the classroom. I became a master at looking like I was paying attention when in fact I was in a completely different universe. I didn't want anyone to know how stupid I was, so I did my best to make myself disappear in class and I prayed that teachers wouldn't call on me so I wouldn't embarrass myself in front of my classmates. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to turn off the disappearing act at the end of the school day. A few years ago a former classmate recognized me in a bookstore. "Oh, Donna," she cried. "I remember you! You were so sweet and nice, but you were always sort of...invisible."
Life is painful for students who don't meet the expectations of their parents, teachers, schools and peers. Some kids suffer from learning issues and others from disorganization. Whatever the obstacle, its effects are devastating to a child's self-esteem. I survived in school for two reasons. First, I had a mother who was non-judgmental and accepting, who stood up for me and was available whenever I needed her. When she recognized that she wasn't equipped to handle my challenges alone, she sought help from professionals. In the days when there was no such thing as a learning specialist she found tutors to help me learn to read. Her tenacity became my model when it was time for me to help my own kids. Second, I was extremely organized. I developed excellent organizational skills as a way to maintain some control over the things I was learning and didn't understand. Being organized not only helped me get through school and adjust to living with dyslexia before it was a known diagnosis, but it enabled me to become a school librarian and put me in the position to help other students succeed in school.
When I received the phone call from Noah's teacher I realized how different a student Noah was than I. I had always assumed everyone knew how to be organized and now I was seeing for the first time that it wasn't true. Noah's backpack weighed more than he did and looked like it was better equipped for a cross-country trek than a cross-town bus ride to school. His homework got done and often managed to make it into his backpack, but that was where the train derailed: his assignments never saw the light of day again. At the age of eleven, Noah was missing deadlines, always searching for school-supplies, running late between classes and, as a result, starting to fail some of his subjects.
When I recognized that one reason Noah never handed anything in was because he couldn't find anything in his backpack, I began making connections between Noah's organizing habits and his academic performance. Once I understood the effects of his nehavior, we worked out a system together that enabled him to not only keep track of his homework but to make sure he handed it in.
As a middle school librarian I knew that Noah wasn't the only one having trouble keeping track of his things. Each May I would chase down library books that were taken out in October. The kids who had taken them out always had the best intentions and plenty of excuses "I'll bring it in tomorrow," "It's somewhere in my room," "I swear it was in my locker last week!" I began to realize that these same students ran into trouble in sixth grade when school became departmentalized and they were faced with multiple classrooms and teachers. Their names came up in faculty meetings year after year as the symptoms they had exhibited early on with their overdue library books now manifested themselves in overdue assignments, missed homework and deteriorating grades. The root of the problem had nothing to do with the students' intelligence or motivation to do well in school; it had to do with their lack of basic organizational skills.
I began applying some of the lessons I learned with Noah to the students in the middle school library. I helped them come up with ways to keep track of their paper and taught them how to meet deadlines. I developed theories about students and organization and used my friends' kids as guinea pigs. The students I worked with began to find success in school, and in 1990 The Organized Student was born. As a professional organizer I was able to help students from middle school through graduate school learn techniques that allowed them to work more effectively and increase their productivity. Word of mouth helped my business grow quickly, and in 1997 1 left my position as a librarian to become a fulltime consultant.
I've worked with hundreds of students and have certainly learned as much from them as they have from me. In the past few years I've noticed changes-an increase in pressure on students, heavier workloads, and an overwhelming number of distractions-that have made it more important than ever that students have strong organizational skills. I wrote this book to share what I've learned with as many students as possible, and I wrote it for those who are closest to children and who are most invested in seeing them succeed-their parents.
It's important to keep in mind that school today is not the place it was when you were growing up. Students have substantially more work, their days are more fragmented, and there's a pervasive sense of pressure leading students to feel that they can't afford to make mistakes. Advances in technology, overloaded schedules, and changes in family structure mean students are facing a different and often overwhelming world.
Entering middle school has always been challenging. When classes become departmentalized, children suddenly find themselves responsible for organizing their time and setting their own priorities. Over the past two decades the home computer and other technologies have made life even more overwhelming for students (as well as adults). Middle and high school students are drowning in paper, inundated with handouts, printouts, and packets. They lose hours each day to e-mail, instant messaging, and the Internet. The number of distractions available to students has increased exponentially, and their academic performance is suffering because of it. Without some training in how to handle the new paper flow, workload, and schedule, a student is lost.
In addition to these academic challenges, children today face new and often complex situations at home. In many households, both parents work outside the home and are unable to supervise their children as closely as they would like. Children of divorced parents may divide their time between two homes, and many families are headed by single parents or guardians. Even if there are two parents at home the students themselves are often not. Extracurricular activities take up precious hours of a student's study time; she may not arrive home until late in the evening, leaving barely enough time to eat dinner and complete her homework. If she's already struggling in school, having to search for the right notebook or call friends for the assignment may be one step too many.
If you and your child invest the time it takes to organize supplies, homework, and a study schedule, you can create the structure that he needs to succeed. While this book offers many different strategies and systems for getting organized, they will work only if you communicate openly with your child without being critical. Everyone learns differently and each student will come up with his own "right answers." It's vital that you recognize the importance of maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude and that you address each situation with an open mind, a positive approach, and no eye rolling. The fastest way to end an organizing session with your child is to criticize him. Keep your eye on the long-term goal and don't get distracted by a failed test or a notebook full of doodles. When you learn to stay focused and listen for the problems, you will discover that a solution can always be worked out. Keep your ears open and your mouth closed-you never know what seemingly insignificant detail will turn out to be the key to understanding what your child needs.
Learning to be organized is a process. It requires dedication, a little optimism, and a lot of support. It's a skill that needs to be taught, practiced, and honed, and there isn't a child (or adult) who can't benefit from the lessons in this book. Use the Assessment Questions provided in each chapter to pinpoint the places in your child's academic life where the system breaks down and discover insightful ways to rebuild each element, from the backpack to the bedroom. There are countless ways to make things fun and efficient, and as many unique solutions as there are students.
In this book I offer the tricks and tools I've gathered over the years, many of which came from the wonderful students with whom I've worked. You've taken the first step towards helping your child create an organized life. 'With time, patience, and the desire to help, you can teach your child invaluable lifelong skills. I wish you the best of luck as you embark upon this journey.
Copyright (c) 2005 by Donna Goldberg
Chapter One: Understanding the Organized Student
There are two types of organization: cerebral and physical. Cerebral organization allows you to organize information mentally, filing it in your brain so that you can access it, manipulate it, and use it to generate new ideas. Physical organization refers to the way you manage your space and your stuff. This book explores the aspect of cerebral organization that relates to time management and addresses physical organization and how it impacts academic achievement. By examining your child's habits and academic patterns, you will be able to determine where he's running into trouble. Once you understand the nature of the difficulty, you can design solutions that match his needs.
Is My Child Disorganized?
In order to create an organized student, you need to know what one looks like. The rule of thumb is that an organized
student can find what he needs when he needs it. More specifically, an organized student:
- Doesn't carry everything he owns in his backpack
- Can identify and bring home the books, supplies, and worksheets he needs in order to complete his homework
- Can locate his finished homework in class and hand it in on time
- Can study efficiently because he knows when tests are coming up, has set aside enough time to study, and doesn't waste time looking for class notes and handouts
The disorganized child, on the other hand, exhibits a range of behavior that inhibits his performance in school. Behavioral patterns signaling disorganization emerge at different stages of development. Some students show signs of disorganization at an early age, while others are fine until middle school or high school when everything suddenly falls apart. Some indications of disorganization in younger children include maintaining a messy school cubby and having trouble making it from one room to the next without losing something. Older students' patterns are even clearer and more problematic. The disorganized student:
- Frequently loses papers
- Doesn't hand in assignments on time or at all
- Has a backpack full of crumpled paper and random objects
- Can't break down long-term projects and misses deadlines
- Leaves everything for the last minute
- Disrupts home life with frantic searches, urgent requests for late-night help, and anxiety-ridden meltdowns
School performance is affected not only because the disorganized student can't meet deadlines or find his homework but also because he counts any time he spends doing anything related to school as study time. This means that the forty-five minutes spent searching for history notes counts as forty-five minutes of studyingand of course he deserves a break after "working" so hard.
It's also likely that the disorganized child's bedroom is a disaster area, although a cluttered bedroom is not always a sign of a disorganized child. Being messy and being disorganized are two different things. You may not be able to see the floor in your child's bedroom, but if he can find what he needs and hands his work in on time, if he is prepared for tests and gets good grades, disorganization is probably not an issue. His room may be a wreck, but there's an underlying structure that enables him to function, even if it's not apparent to you. On the other hand, if a child has a chaotic bedroom and is exhibiting signs of academic distress, it's likely that disorganization is contributing to the problem.
What's Not Being Taught in School
A student's ability to locate his class notes, bring home the right textbook, and complete and deliver an assignment on time is just as vital to his success in school as his ability to read or write. The concepts and practice of organization and time management, therefore, need to be a part of every school's curriculum. Basic skills, like decoding and addition, become assumed abilities in middle school and teachers build on them. When a student doesn't grasp the fundamentals in a particular area, he quickly falls behind. As his classmates move on to the next level, he can't follow. The same is true with organizational skills. He'll have a hard time focusing on a lesson if he's busy searching for his notebook, just as he will find it challenging to compare and contrast two books if he has difficulty grasping the main idea of a story. Like the student who has trouble with reading comprehension, the disorganized child will fall further and further behind until he gets help.
Many educators and parents have learned to recognize deficiencies in reading, writing, and math, but not in organization. Instead of being looked upon as a set of skills that needs to be taught, organization is seen as something instinctive, something everyone should be capable of. While some students do have the innate ability to organize themselves, many don't. Because we don't attend to students who exhibit problems in this area as we do students who have trouble with math or reading, the disorganized student rarely gets the help he needs. The gap in his education continues to grow and has an increasingly negative impact on his academic career.
Younger children are provided with some organizational guidance in school, but the lessons end before many students can absorb them. Between the second and fourth grades, teachers spend a lot of time creating structure and organization in their classrooms. They set up well-defined procedures that serve as cues for staying organized and they model behavior for students. What they don't do is explain why they are doing what they're doing. This makes it difficult for students to adopt these behaviors as their own. Teachers count on students to pick up on visual clues and to mimic their behavior, and students who are not visual learners or who do not draw connections to the bigger picture are left without an important set of skills. In later years when these students fail to live up to their teachers' expectations, they are told to try harder or to stop being lazy. Rather than acknowledging a deficiency in a student's education, we accuse him of having a character flaw.
When everyone buys into the image of the lazy or hopelessly disorganized student, it only reinforces the student's behavior and the belief that nothing can be done. There are, of course, parents and educators who recognize a need and try to help. What generally happens, however, is that an adult tries to impose her own ideas about organizing on a student, even if the ideas are not suited to the child's particular learning style. A student may learn better visually than verbally or think alphabetically and not by color. The point of this book is to help you understand what your child's needs are so that you can develop solutions that work with his learning style.
Organized Teachers, Disorganized Kids
While younger children tend to be kept in line by school rules and watchful eyes, many students fall apart as soon as teachers stop setting up classroom structures. A number of years ago I was lecturing to a group of parents and teachers at a local school. In between talks I observed classes so I could offer feedback to the faculty and administration. The fourth-grade class was led by an extremely well organized teacher. At the beginning of the year she had set up a mailbox system in which each student was assigned a cubby. Every day she would place the students' homework, worksheets, and permission slips in the mailboxes and the students would collect them at the end of the day. Towards the end of class I watched the children retrieve their homework, pack up, and prepare to go home. As the teacher reviewed each sheet that the students should have received, Stuart called out that he was missing his math worksheet. The teacher checked the mailboxit was empty. She had the other students look through their backpacks to make sure no one had taken the homework sheet by accident. No one had.
In the meantime, Stuart was busy dumping the contents of his backpack onto his desk. I wasn't surprised as the crumpled papers, worn notebooks, and old snacks spilled out, but I did a double-take when a pair of RollerBlades emerged. How could Stuart possibly find anything he needed with those RollerBlades taking up so much space?!
The state of the backpack set off warning bells immediately; I knew that it probably signaled a larger pattern of disorganization. I guessed that this was not the first time Stuart had misplaced his homework, and I had a feeling I could pick out his cubby by looking for the messiest one in the room. In the meantime, there was still no worksheet, and now the school buses were being held up to wait for Stuart's classmates while they searched the room. Finally, his teacher found the homeworkit had slipped under Stuart's deskand the class was dismissed.
After the classroom emptied I spoke with Stuart's teacher and learned that my instincts had been correct: the worksheet incident was not an isolated one, Stuart consistently lost his homework or left it at home, and his cubby was a disaster.
The teacher knew that Stuart was disorganized and had mentioned her concerns to his parents, but because he did well academically, his organizational issues were put on the back burner. She tried to make sure that his homework made it home each night, but beyond that she didn't know what she could do.
I walked out of that classroom knowing two things: one, Stuart needed to find a new way to carry his RollerBlades, and two, he was going to run into serious trouble when he hit middle school. As soon as classes became departmentalized and teachers no longer micromanaged every step, Stuart would not be able to sustain any systems on his own. While his current teacher had wonderful organizational skills, she had not taught them to Stuart. She didn't explain why something was being implemented or how it worked, and she didn't break the systems down or let students discover how to organize for themselves. Without someone guiding him through every step of the process, Stuart was destined to miss a lot more than a worksheet.
Warning: Transitions Ahead
By the end of fourth grade, teachers assume that students have an understanding of basic organizational skills. However, when students leave their homerooms and begin to change classrooms throughout the day and the focus shifts from process (how to do things) to product (finished work), many students get lost. Teachers become subject-specific, and instruction is focused on individual areas of study rather than on the general skills students need to survive in school.
Even students who had no academic difficulty in elementary school can easily fall apart in middle school. As a school librarian I could spot the lower-school kids who were likely to run into trouble when teachers' expectations changed without warning. They were the kids who always came to the library last to choose books for their reports and either couldn't pick a topic or picked something so esoteric there were no books on the subject. They focused on the more obvious goal of the assignment (to learn about ancient Egypt, for example) and did not infer the other significant goal, which was to learn how to write a research paper. The teacher wanted to impart the process to her students. She wanted to teach them how to find proper research materials, create note cards, devise an outline, write a first draft, and then edit it into a final paper. She wanted them to learn how to break down long-term projects and set and meet deadlines. These are the building blocks students have to master so that they can later focus on critical thinking and textual analysis. Students who miss the implied lesson are unable to use these foundational skills as they continue their education. Every time they have to write a paper, they must relearn the entire process. These are the kids who are going to be left behind as school progresses.
When students like these are faced with multiple subjects, teachers, and classrooms, the survival systems they've used to get themselves through school so far can quickly disintegrate. Suddenly they are expected to transport loose paper, notebooks, and textbooks for every subject between classrooms, locker, and home. They are responsible for handing in homework unsolicited and for breaking down long-term projects over weeks or months, even though they have never learned how to do these things on their own. They are exhausted by the effort they put into trying to keep themselves together and by the extra work they have to do every time they have to make up an assignment. They often end up doing twice the work more organized students do and by the end of the school year they're completely drained.
In order to stop these students from falling through the cracks, we must be able to recognize the telltale signs of disorganization that can lead to problems in middle school. If educators and parents learn to identify the signs, students can be helped sooner and be better prepared for what lies ahead.
Explosive Evenings and Other Symptoms
A student's habits and behavior have far-reaching consequences. They affect not only her grades and self-esteem; they also affect her family. Natalie had been getting A's and B's throughout elementary school, but once she hit sixth grade her grades dropped to C's and D's. Her twin sister wasn't having trouble with the transition into middle school and Natalie was starting to act out. Her MO was to do her homework all over the house which, of course, often led to missing assignments and frantic last-minute searches. At 10:30 one night Natalie desperately tore the house apart looking for the homework she had been working on all evening. Her anxiety threw the whole family into chaos. Frustrated and exhausted, Natalie lashed out at her parents and blamed them for moving her work. An explosive fight ensued that left everyone drained and miserable.
The next morning Natalie's father woke up still fuming about the previous night's fiasco. He asked Natalie again and again whether or not she had found her homework. After ignoring the question as long as possible she suddenly "remembered" that she had actually done her homework in school and left it in her locker. Her dad, annoyed and suspicious of the changing story, decided, against Natalie's rather vocal protests, to drive her to school and investigate for himself. Standing in the school hallway, he watched in amazement as several sweaters, a tennis racquet, three cans of tennis balls, heaps of paper, and a pile of textbooks with uncracked spines tumbled out of Natalie's locker. The homework, needless to say, was not there. They called me the next day.
Natalie had been an A student when she didn't have to multitask, but keeping track of several classrooms, teachers, and subjects was difficult for her, both physically and mentally. Her papers, notebooks, and textbooks were all over the place. It was hard to switch her focus from math to history when she was busy trying to find her classroom and locate the notebook she was supposed to be writing in. She was also having a hard time adapting to different teachers' personalities and expectations; she was so busy trying to figure out what everyone wanted, she barely had time to focus on her work.
Given enough time, Natalie would likely have adjusted to the changes in school on her own, but she would have missed so much academically that she would have been playing catch-up for the rest of the year. As it was, she couldn't hand in assignments because she either lost them or hadn't written them down in the first place. She couldn't keep up with class reading because she couldn't find the books she needed to bring home, and she wasn't doing well on tests because she didn't know when they were and didn't have any notes to study from.
Natalie was a smart kid who wouldn't be having academic difficulties were it not for her organizational problems.
Our goal was to organize the technical aspects of Natalie's academic life so that she could focus on doing her work instead of on locating it. Before our first meeting I had instructed Natalie to empty the contents of her locker into shopping bags and bring them home. We sorted through the bags together to get an accurate picture of how many textbooks she was dealing with and to determine whether a binder might work better for her than carrying seven separate notebooks. We created a filing system so she could clear out old notes and handouts once a unit was completed instead of carrying a year's worth of papers in her backpack.
We then set up a planner, giving Natalie one place to record all of her assignments and an opportunity to see the bigger picture. We recorded deadlines and test dates using her class syllabi, and I encouraged her to articulate what she already knew about her teachers' different personalities and expectations. Soon Natalie was able to discern some of her teachers' patterns: one teacher gave quizzes every Friday; another always collected homework on Tuesdays; some were strict about deadlines and binder checks, while others were more lenient. The more Natalie could pinpoint and predict her teachers' habits, the more she could concentrate on her schoolwork. When we talked it through she was able to frame her teachers and classes in a context she understood. This helped ease her anxiety about school.
Over the course of the next several months we tweaked the systems until Natalie felt comfortable with them. They certainly didn't all fall into place at once (she struggled with paper flow, and for several months we continued to find paper everywhere), but the planner changed her life immediately. Just knowing what to do and when to do it made her an achiever again. Once she felt in control of her life she was able to focus her energy on studying; soon her grades went back up to A's and B's. Natalie's ability to keep track of her homework also greatly reduced the tension at home. With the positive family dynamic restored, everyone could actually laugh when Natalie found the missing homework under her parents' bed, three months after she'd finished it on their bedroom floor.
Looking Ahead to High School
Organizing Natalie put her back in control and allowed her to focus on schoolwork. But what she experienced in the transition from lower school to middle school might well be echoed in a few years when she enters high school. High school is another great leap for students. They are suddenly faced with even more requirements, choices, and changes. The level of individual responsibility and accountability is raised, and not all students are equipped to handle it. Even if you have already addressed your child's organizational issues, you may have to intervene again. Some kids learn the systems once and continue to modify them to meet their needs. Others might take a few steps back when they begin high school and may need some review. If this is the case, you and your child can tweak her systems in order to accommodate her new schedule and course load. If you understand that this might happen, you won't be thrown if it does. With a good foundation and solid skills your child will simply need a few adjustments and a little encouragement as she moves on to the next stage in her life.
When Is It More Than Disorganization?
Physical organization and time management play a large part in every student's ability to succeed in school, but sometimes a student needs support beyond paper-flow and time-tracking systems. Executive function, often referred to as "the brain's CEO," describes the brain's ability to perform several different tasks in order to achieve a goal. Some of the specific tasks include a person's ability to:
- Understand the concept of cause and effect, perceive potential consequences, and inhibit behavior accordingly
- Sequence, categorize, and prioritize
- Stay focused on a task
- Make smooth and timely transitions from one subject or activity to another
- Manipulate information to answer questions about familiar material posed in an unfamiliar manner and to generate new ideas
- Apply one lesson in a similar situation instead of relearning the lesson each time
- Hold on to new information while you're using it (called "working memory")
When someone experiences trouble with these skills (executive dysfunction), he will have difficulty with organization and planning. The visible clues will be typical of a disorganized student, but you may also see symptoms in a student's ability to process information, make transitions in school or at home, behave appropriately in social situations (by not interrupting others or changing the topic of conversation), or foresee consequences and act accordingly. The systems in this book are a good foundation for any student, and particularly for those who experience executive dysfunction. If your child demonstrates significant difficulty in these areas, however, you should consult a qualified professional. Together you can identify the specific areas your child is struggling with and determine the best approach to helping him.
Keep in mind that children develop at different rates. While some students who exhibit signs of executive dysfunction early on will need to learn to compensate for the skills they lack, others will eventually mature and acquire the skills they're missing. Also remember that today's fast-paced, high-tech, hyperscheduled world demands that children develop executive function skills earlier than ever before.
In my work with students I have come across children who are physically disorganized, others who are cerebrally disorganized, and still others who share signs of both types of disorganization. While getting organized will not resolve problems posed by such challenges as learning disabilities or emotional issues, it will help put control back in your child's hands, which is the first key to unlocking his potential.
Copyright © 2005 by Donna Goldberg