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Why are Teens and Tweens so Bad at Getting Organized? How to Help Them

I got the cry for help when I was in the middle of getting my hair cut. My 7th grader had forgotten to take his middle school choir concert apparel to school. It was an outfit I had gone to great lengths to secure at the last minute — black shirt/black pants/blue tie aren’t typically in most middle school boy wardrobes. Just last night, we discussed what he had to do to get organized so he’d be ready with everything he needed in the morning, and I had recommended he set his outfit by the door. Did he do that? In my rush to sign a science field trip permission form, I hadn’t double-checked.

So now I was stuck with the choice of being the bad guy, by making him suffer the consequences of failing this one simple task, or helping him out. I am sure you can guess what I did. And it probably won’t surprise you that I complained the whole way to school.

Why are teens and tweens so bad at getting organized? Turns out they lack sufficient executive functioning skills; fortunately, there are ways to help your child bolster them.

What are executive functioning skills?

Executive functioning skills are self-management skills that help students (and adults) pay attention, get organized, make plans, and achieve goals. They include the ability to account for short- and long-term consequences of their actions, make real-time evaluations, and adjust if actions taken are not producing the desired result.

In my example, I may have placed too much reliance on my son’s organizational skills, trusting that he’d remember to take his choir outfit to school.

Organization is a key skill that is particularly challenging for teens because there are so many layers to it, notes Robb Ristau, sixth grade science teacher at Beachwood Middle School in Beachwood, Ohio. “Learning how to get organized is more than just having a neat and clean locker, backpack, and binder, but includes time management, prioritizing tasks and setting up routines to be successful.”

Why are executive function skills critical for success in middle school and high school?

As students progress from one grade to the next, they’ll gradually get more homework assigned and be tasked with more responsibilities. The goal is for them to become more independent by moving away from constant support from teachers and parents toward completing tasks on their own.

For example, at the beginning of middle school, teachers might check their assignment notebooks daily and have them check their grades weekly, gradually putting more of the responsibility on tweens as they progress.

Suzanne Tucker, sixth grade intervention specialist at Beachwood Middle School adds, “As they segue from elementary school, students move from just one or two teachers and keeping materials in their desks to changing classes up to nine times throughout the day and needing to know what to keep in their locker and binder.”

What are some common struggles associated with executive function?

Almost universally, students need assistance with prioritizing and planning.

“They have to understand the importance of using a method to keep track of assignments, especially longer ones, such as creating a plan for doing smaller pieces, one at a time, rather than feeling overwhelmed by doing an entire large assignment the night before it’s due,” says Ristau.

This entails learning to use their time wisely — for example, beginning their assignments in class, then figuring out how to divvy up their homework, taking into account how much time they can spend on it between their sports, music lessons, and family obligations.

How do you know which executive functioning skills are challenging for your child?

Tucker recommends talking to your kids about it. Ask them about what they consider to be their strengths and the areas where they need to improve.

Questions to ask your kids about their study habits:

  • When and where do you study?
  • How do you study?
  • How do you organize your materials?
  • What do you do to manage stress when you need to study?

“Every year in the first week of school, I have students complete questionnaires about their own organization and study habits, such as how they manage their materials, where and how they study, and what they do when they become stressed,” she says.

How can parents foster their child’s executive function skills at home?

While teachers will help kids develop their executive function skills, Tucker believes it’s crucial for parents to be part of their child’s educational team and reinforce their skill-building at home. But do parents know how to teach executive functioning skills?

Parents can support the development of their child’s executive function skills by providing:

  • A stable environment.
  • Distraction-free places to study.
  • Daily routines.
  • Modeling of those routines.
  • Honest and sensitive conversations when issues arise.
  • A flexible and open mindset about those routines, because your child’s needs may change.

Ristau says it’s vital to be flexible and open minded about your child’s routines because what works for you might not work for your child. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some students need to get school work completed right away, while others would benefit from a break.” Sometimes it’s a journey of trial and error to find a method that works.

Cathie Ericson

Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, and mom of three teen boys. Read more about Cathie at CathieEricsonWriter.com.

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