I’m sure this scenario is familiar to many parents of high school students: your teenager needs something from their backpack, goes to open it, and when they pull back the zipper, KA-BLAMO! An explosion of stray papers, half-eaten snacks, errant writing utensils, and random flotsam and jetsam erupts from within. And then once the searched-for item has been found, odds are the rest of the stuff gets shoved back in and zippered up to await the next explosion.
“Effective organizational behaviors can make the difference between competent and inefficient school performance,” writes Dr. Mel Levine in his book, Educational Care. There are many different brain functions that go into organization — temporal ordering, spatial ordering, working memory, numerous aspects of attention and executive functioning, to name a few — and if there is a “glitch” in any one of these areas, organization may suffer. Many students (and many adults) are simply not neurologically hard-wired to be organized. Interestingly, often the very same neurological mechanisms that can lead to disorganization also lead to some very positive things, like creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking/problem solving.
Disorganized students are often criticized for their “careless” ways, and come to see their lack of organizational ability as a chronic shortcoming. It is important to note that most kids aren’t disorganized on purpose — that organization is actually a skill many students need to be explicitly taught.
There are three main types of disorganization that cross my path in the school setting. The first, materials management, is very common and the most recognized type of organizational issue (I’m sure you can still visualize the backpack disaster described in the opening of this post). Students with poor material management frequently lose things, don’t quite know what books to bring home, have untidy work spaces, and resist using an assignment book. These kids may spend a great deal of time getting set up to do work (searching for a pencil, hunting down the reading material). And, once the homework is complete, they may stash it in a totally illogical place in their backpack or on their Google Drive and then not be able to find it the next day.
Time management is another common type of disorganization seen in high school students. Kids with weak time management aren’t able to predict how long an assignment should take, and may leave large projects to the last minute, unaware of how to break them into smaller, more manageable chunks. They may consistently be late in completing tasks, as well as being physically late themselves due to losing track of time. These are the kids who tend to procrastinate and then feel overwhelmed by their workload. A common adult response to this type of disorganization is exasperation (as the student seems to accomplish so little), and these kids often label themselves as “lazy.”
Finally, many students struggle with informational organization, which can be tricky to pick up on. When these kids read or hear complex information, they may well understand the content but they lack an internal mechanism to categorize and store the facts and data in their memory — sort of like a memory filing system. They take information in as a big gestalt which makes retrieving the information later extremely difficult. Weak informational organization leads to forgetting (or not knowing) to do homework, being surprised by scheduled assessments, and not recalling where to be. Students with this difficulty often struggle to know how to study, or how to approach any complex task. It can also greatly impact academic output; for example, students with this type of disorganization may feel overwhelmed by the process of writing, not knowing what to include and exclude, how much to elaborate on what they are writing, and how to cohesively piece together random strands of thoughts and information.
The good news is, there is hope for even the most disorganized student! Learning strategies and structures to help keep disorganization from impacting academic achievement is important — not only for life at Solebury, but also in life after high school. Generally speaking, folks who aren’t wired to be organized will likely always have to be deliberate in their organizational attempts. While there is no one-size-fits-all “cure” for the disorganized student, there are many things parents can do to help their children learn organizational strategies. Here are a few:
- Have them set up a well organized work space. Location is important — often a bedroom is not the optimal place for effective studying due to the amount of distractions. Wherever the space, they should equip it with writing utensils, paper, post-its, a glass of water — anything that might help make it easier for the student to launch into actual work.
- Large wall or desk calendars can be a great tool in helping them to manage their assignments. Students should get in the habit of writing daily assignments in a planner (as opposed to relying on a Moodle/Google Classroom check every time they sit down to work), but it helps to also have a monthly calendar to map out what is due when, which shows the bigger picture. This allows students to develop an effective plan of attack for larger assignments, and to see when there might be a pile-up of work coming due in their different classes.
- I’m a huge fan of checklists (The Checklist Manifesto, incidentally, is a must-read!). Every time your child sits down to work, they should create a checklist of what needs to get done (HINT: always start with the hardest or least fun task). Once listed and prioritized, the workload often feels immediately more manageable. It’s also very satisfying to check off accomplished tasks. My daily checklists always start with “make today’s checklist” so I get to check something off right away! It is also helpful to have students estimate how long each task on the list is expected to take, to help them build a sense of time management.
- Students who struggle to keep their school materials organized can feel embarrassed or exasperated with the state of their binders and notebooks. It can help to encourage them to set time aside every Sunday, before the school week begins, to get things organized. They should take the loose papers and find them all a home (can they live in a file in their room? Can they get recycled? Should they be three-hole-punched and clipped into a binder? Or maybe they were supposed to be turned in to the teacher last week!). Stick pencils in their case. Make sure the planner is as up to date with assignments as it can be. It feels great starting the week with everything in order, knowing exactly where to find what is needed. There is a great deal of technology that can aid in organization, as well. Online planners, apps for creating timelines, alarms and timers, apps to screen out distractions, and even effective use of GoogleDocs (which needs to be organized into folders as well) can really assist the disorganized student.
Okay, confession time: for me, helping to turn the opening paragraph’s nightmarish attack-of-the-killer-backpack into a tidy, orderly, efficient learning tool is one of my favorite things to do. The faculty in Solebury’s Learning Skills Department are all well versed in helping students navigate the path towards getting organized, so if you want to talk about more strategies for home, or what more we can do to help your student here at Solebury School, please do not hesitate to reach out!
Kristy Raska joined Solebury School as the Learning Skills Department Head in August 2018. Prior to Solebury, she was the Director of Learning Support at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, NY for 10 years.