My youngest stomped into the living room last Monday and dumped his pack on the floor.
(Are YOU busy with a short attention span? Skip to the bottom of this page for a concrete list of tips that really help If you've got the time for the background, read on.)
The Organizational Demands Of Middle School
Sound familiar? Five assignments. My son had only remembered one. And given that up to 75% of his grades are based on homework, not remembering to do it - or to turn it in when it's complete - can cause major problems for kids, failing grades, and even retention in middle school,
Middle school differs from elementary school in many ways - one of the most important, but underestimated, is the increased pressure it puts in kids' organizational abilities. Take the above example. Not only does it show off my son's not atypical difficulty keeping track of his work. It also shows up just how COMPLICATED the work is that he has to keep track of.
Cognitive Development In Middle School
Although kids make major gains in cognitive ability as they enter adolescence, often the demands of school outstrip them. As I wrote in my previous post: What MIddle School Parents Should Know: Adolescents Are Like Lawyers, middle schoolers make five major gains in their ability to think:
The misfit on middle schools to early adolescents' development
A positive side of this development is that they are capable of much more abstract, multidimensional thinking.
Unfortunately, these new abilities often put them in conflict with the demands of middle schools.
The responsibility for completing their work lies in your child
It is important to remember that the primary responsbility for completing work well is with your child. But it's also really easy for us to believe that when they don't immediately do that well, it's from stubbornness, or laziness, or lack of effort.
Begin with the assumption that it's not. Most kids want to do well. They certainly don't want to get in trouble and don't want to spend more time on their homework than they have to. Giving them the tools they need can improve homework quality while at the same time reducing the time it takes to complete it.
Some strategies that work
Parents can help kids get organized by focusing on the PROCESS and LOGISTICS of school and not just 'helping with homework' and working on content. By focusing on HOW they do their homework (what time, what conditions) not the content of it, you let them keep control over it while giving them tools to manage it effectively themselves.
In addition to these suggestions, go to this page on Children With Special Needs for a wealth of additional information. A list of strategies for both teachers and parents are available here at Intervention Central.
Where things fall through the cracks.
When my son and I went through his problems with completing and turning in his work, we came up with five key points where things fell apart. These were the principles we arrived at:
Make things automatic. The single most important thing you can do is to help your child make good organizational skills AUTOMATIC.The less they have to think, the less likely they are to make mistakes. The goal is for good organizational skills to become habitual so your child doesn't have to think about and remember what to do. They go to class, sit down, and open their planner and check the board for assignments.
Organize all materials together in one place. When my son got his supplies list at the beginning of the year, he was asked to get 7 folders and 7 spiral notebooks, plus two three ring binders. The idea, I know, was to minimize what the kids had to carry back and forth to school. Kids are supposed to bring home what they need and leave the rest at school. This only works for organized kids. For my son, it meant that he'd always be home without the notebook he needed to do his homework.
A few years ago we had solved the problem by putting everything into one humungous three ring binder.
Last year, that didn't work, as the folders and notebooks were just too numerous. After six month's experimentation, we finally got a new system: a large expanding accordian folder that took file folders and spiral notebooks alike. It even took his assignment book.
This year EVERYTHING went on an iPod Touch. He takes pictures of the assignments the teacher writes on the board. He takes pictures of the worksheets so he can't lose them. He takes pictures of his assignments so he can print them out again if (when) he loses them. He enters his assignments in an app that is fantastic for keep track of assignments. He does his writing assignments on Google Docs, which are accessible from anyplace that has internet. He shares them with his teachers or can access them from his iPod and print them out. His teachers (bless them) will also let him just show them the picture and give him credit.
Which system works for your child may differ. But the idea is simple: if everything is in the same place and goes back and forth from home to school, materials are at home when needed and completed work goes back to school where it can be found. It's one less thing to remember. If you buy thinner notebooks and eliminate completed work, it isn't too much to carry.
Assignment books are the critical first step in making sure that homework is done. Many kids' metacognitive skills haven't caught up with the fact that the complexity of their tasks has outpaced their ability to keep everything in their heads.
What they can do:
What you can do:
Make sure needed materials are home when they're needed. One of the real challenges of getting homework done is making sure that each of the books, handouts, and assignment lists are home when they're needed.
What they can do:
What you can do:
Still not working?
Turning in Completed Homework
Maybe it's just my family, but both my sons and two of my neices complete their homework and then never get credit for it because they (a) leave it in their locker (b) can't find it when they teacher asks for it or (c) forget to turn it in. Because teachers are trying to reward good homework skills, this often means 0's entered into their grades or, when we're lucky, losing half the credit or more. Frustrating.
What your child can do:
What can you do?
Essentially nothing. You can teach your child strategies and give them the tools they need to do their work. But ultimately, once the homework is done and they are off at school, they're on their own.
The Disorganized Child
The New York Times published a piece today by noted psychologist, Alan Sroufe, about the long-term problems of relying on ritalin to help kids who have problems with hyperactivity and concentration in school. Bottom line: it doesn't work. Whatever your feelings about the diagnosis or over-diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, ALL of us need tools to help us stay organized and on-task in this very demanding and multi-tasking world.
Middle school is a great place to learn skills that can carry kids forward into adulthood. Some kids may develp those skills naturally. Other kids need some help. But all of us can benefit from making good strategies automatic, so can work more effectively.
Check out the comments section! We've had some good suggestions added.
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