Back-to-school: Five ways to help your middle-school student get organized


Milan Harris, 11, empties her locker on June 20, 2014. Soon, kids will be refilling lockers. (Jessica Contrer/The Washington post)

By the time our children inch their way to the end of fifth grade, they have that elementary school thing down. They know where everything is, from their favorite books in the library to the best seats in the lunchroom. Many sport fluorescent belts that signify safety patrol status, conferring the right to tell those first-graders on the bus to sit down or else. Quite simply, they are kings of their castle.

Then, after an all-too-brief summer hiatus, they’re in middle school, where the kids are bigger and the hallways are wider. There are lockers and gym uniforms and multiple teachers to keep track of, plus, in some cases, different schedules on different days.

Oh, and puberty, but we won’t even go there.

New environment, new routine, new expectations. It can lead to an organizational nightmare. Papers get put in the wrong folder. Buses get missed because kids forgot the combination for their locker. The math book for tonight’s homework? Oops, I left that at school. And parents have to go on Facebook to ask if it’s an A day or B day, because the kids have no idea.

If you’re feeling like your child is suddenly in way over his head when it comes to getting organized and managing his time, take heart. The transition is tough for lots of kids, says Judie Schoonover, an occupational therapist and an assistive technology trainer for Loudoun County Public Schools.

“It’s the first time most students have the experience of not being in one classroom for the whole day and not having all of their things in one place and having multiple teachers,” Schoonover said. “It can be very confusing.”

I recently asked Schoonover and other experts on kids and executive function skills — the mental processes that allow people to plan, organize and focus — to share advice on helping new middle-schoolers get, and stay, organized. Here are their suggestions.

Ease up on the helicopter parenting

Kids today are generally overscheduled, Schoonover said. They get to middle school and are suddenly expected to manage assignments from multiple teachers and budget their time to complete both daily assignments and long-term projects. But they’ve never had to manage their time before, because every second of every day has been planned for them.

If you can start early and let your child have some ownership of her schedule, she will be better prepared to juggle her responsibilities in school as she gets older, Schoonover said. For practice, ask her to plan an activity and try to figure out how much time she will need to complete it.

Getting from A to B

To help your child adjust to having different classes on different days (many school systems refer to them as “A” days and “B” days), have him keep the books, supplies and work for the two schedules completely separate. You can do that by keeping two backpacks, Schoonover said.

A less expensive option is to use different colors for each day, such as red for A and blue for B, said Jan Rowe, an educational coach with Educational Connections in Northern Virginia. The professional tutoring company’s educational coaches help students who struggle with organization, time management and other study skills. Buy small binder clips in each color, and attach them to everything the child needs for those days, including books, binders and folders. That way, your child can quickly scan his locker between classes or at the end of the day and grab everything he needs.

Lock(er) it up

The locker is near the top of the list of new, and potentially scary, challenges, but practicing over the summer can relieve a lot of the stress, Rowe said. Set up a basket or small space in your house with all of the supplies your child will need, then have her practice opening a combination lock and getting what she needs until she can do it in a couple of minutes.

She can keep everything straight in her school locker by using a small shelf to separate books and supplies, either by A days and B days, or by morning and afternoon classes, saidChris Dendy, the author of several books about attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A message board on the inside of the door can help her keep track of her assignments, Dendy said.

Play the accordion (file)

A traditional three-ring binder is fine, but many students struggle with loose paper, Rowe said. If your child has a surplus of stray papers floating around in his backpack or locker, consider an accordion-style file. That way, he can just slide his papers in and retrieve them quickly.

Label the tabs for each subject — and you can reserve one section for his agenda if your school uses a written calendar to keep track of assignments. He can tuck his folders inside, too, so everything is in one place.

Getting organized is homework, too

At the end of each day, Rowe recommends having your child take five minutes (or longer, if necessary) to organize her notebooks and folders, Rowe said. If she has any papers that she put in the wrong place in her rush to get packed up and to the bus, she should file them correctly. She should also take out anything that she no longer needs and throw it away or file it. Rowe said it may help to have a second accordion file at home to organize papers that the child may need later.

Schoonover agreed that a daily organizing session can help keep your child on track. She suggests having your child empty her backpack each evening and sort through everything. Set a deadline, such as 9 p.m., for having things organized and packed up for the next day.

More from The Washington Post:

Back to school, with a food reboot

More back to school coverage

More On Parenting coverage

Let your middle schooler be risky

Best backpacks for back-to-school

Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle