From Chaos, Order: How to help your tween reap the benefits of getting organized

Jonathan Hill illustration

The benefits of organization are well documented at this point, and reports on new studies only seem to underscore the results of previous ones. Being organized — habits like decluttering, calendaring, keeping to-do lists, tracking progress on projects and tasks — tends to lead to lower levels of stress, creates a stronger sense of wellbeing and even leads to increased productivity.

As elusive as organizational skills can be to many adults, they can prove doubly elusive to children who are in the thick of the preteen-to-teenage transition.

"To the kid that's disorganized, the kid that is organized looks like a unicorn, something magical," says Patti Goeller, a seventh grade teacher at Chase Middle School in Spokane. She estimates that she sees around 300 students per year on a regular basis, few of whom arrive with carefully honed organizational habits.

That lack of organization can certainly be frustrating to teachers and parents. It's also immensely frustrating to the students themselves, who haven't necessarily learned how to apply their still-developing organizational skills to a school day with different periods and regular reshuffling.

"Students don't know what they don't know," Goeller says. "They come in [to middle school] trying to use an elementary system that they spent six years fine-tuning, and hopefully maybe it's been working for them. The problem is that they're entering an industrialized model of education, so where in elementary school you have shared school supplies, maybe more flexible deadlines, you don't get that at the secondary level. They're somewhat ignorant of what's going to work best for them."

The typical result of that adjustment period will be familiar to many parents of middle-school aged students: last-minute scrambling to meet assignment deadlines, backpacks overflowing with mystery contents, binders crammed to bursting with old papers. That constant state of disarray can have a negative effect on students' school performance and even their attitude toward school in general.

"Without a structured method of organizing what it is you have to do next, lots of kids get overwhelmed," says Robert Reavis, director of Career & Technical Education at Spokane Public Schools. "And it's particularly noticeable in those transition years... because they go from a self-contained environment — same teacher all day long, all their stuff in their desk — to an environment where you have six classes, six different teachers, six different sets of expectations, six different books. We shake them up like a bag of bees every 52 minutes or so, throw them out into the hall and say, 'Hurry to your next class.'"

In Spokane Public Schools, a district-wide program called Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID), which Reavis oversees, aims to create a foundation for good organizational skills by putting binders and a long-range planner in the hands of students in grades three through nine. Similar initiatives are in place in districts across Washington state.

But a binder and planner alone aren't enough to create order out of chaos. They're tools that young students need to be taught how to use.

During his time working at Spokane's Gary Middle School, Reavis says that they held advisory sessions almost every day to guide students in using the binder effectively. Yet the success of that effort often depended on involvement from parents or guardians, who can help reinforce and, where necessary, adapt whatever organizational methods that students are learning at school.

Ongoing communication is fundamental to that process. Asking a child about his or her day at school is a good place to start, but the real rewards come from taking that conversation a step or two further, such as following up with questions about homework assignments and discussions about time management.

"Honestly, I think parents should meet once a week with their kids for at least the first quarter, if not the first semester of middle school," says Goeller. "And make it fun: 'Alright, we're going to get doughnuts and go through your binder and your backpack and see how things are going.'" She also recommends setting limited expectations of privacy where school materials are concerned. Her own children understand that their backpacks are subject to casual inspections to make sure that assignments are being turned in and permission slips are getting signed.

"I'm not suggesting coddling, because that's one of the biggest battles we face as teachers, but you need to model organization and anticipation with them. Eventually, you can back off."

That step away is perhaps the most important, because developing deep-rooted, lifelong organizational skills ultimately depends on self-sufficiency. Fortunately, middle school might be the best place to experiment with removing the training wheels, so to speak, because the consequences for stumbling aren't quite as severe as in later education.

"It's that gradual release of responsibility: I do, you watch. We do. Then you do," says Reavis. "And it's not to add stress. People think, oh, that's going to stress kids out when they see that big list of stuff. Well, kids have the list of stuff anyway. Is it more stressful to see it and know what you're planning for, or is it more stressful to be rushed because you forgot to put it on the calendar?"

Goeller agrees, encouraging parents to work with their children to create a shared "family culture" of being organized.

"It's a huge life skill — just as much as it is to learn your math or your grammar," she says. "And just because something works for you doesn't mean that style of thinking, categorizing and tracking information will work for your student. Make suggestions in small doses at appropriate times to avoid a big blow out every time a project is due. Be flexible but persistent. Be hopeful."

The 7 Habits of (Mostly) Organized People

1. You don't always have to splash out for every last piece of kit when back-to-school shopping. Help your child develop an organizational system that works for them and gradually buy supplies that support it.

2. Keep the lines of communication open. Have regular sit-downs with your child to discuss schoolwork, and don't feel guilty about taking it upon yourself to check the state of binders and backpacks.

3. Remember that kids in middle school have a wide range of mental and emotional maturity. Not all of them are immediately able to grasp the benefits of good organizational habits or practice them consistently.

4. Involve your child in developing a culture of organization. Maintain a family calendar together, keep joint chore lists and have them share responsibility for keeping the house tidy.

5. Don't be too afraid to let your child deal with adverse consequences. Of all the phases of education, middle school is one of the safest to let children learn from their mistakes.

6. Model and reinforce organizational habits and celebrate the results — not just good grades but also meeting deadlines and staying on top of tasks.

7. If all else fails, encourage your child to use a simple two-folder system: one for pending work, one for completed assignments.

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About The Author

E.J. Iannelli

E.J. Iannelli is a Spokane-based freelance writer, translator, and editor whose byline occasionally appears here in The Inlander. One of his many shortcomings is his inability to think up pithy, off-the-cuff self-descriptions.