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Get it Together! Helping Your Middle-Schooler Get—and Stay—Organized

When my friend Lisa’s son started middle school, she worried about how he’d keep his binders, assignments, and schedule organized—with good reason. “The first two weeks we were running to the store every night for another folder system he thought would keep his classwork organized, says Lisa. “He definitely struggled with keeping everything together.” In frustration, Lisa even considered calling an organizational consultant for help.

How to stay organized

First, you’ll likely need to fine-tune your approach. “As kids become older and crave more independence, they respond less to dictation about how they should keep their things organized, which may have worked just fine in elementary school,” says Vonceil Strobel, coordinator of academic support and a learning specialist at Hawken School in Gates Mills, Ohio. “It helps to approach kids this age more in a spirit of collaboration, as they become more self-aware and independent.”

That means having an ongoing conversation about what works and what doesn’t, especially since kids’ organization skills are still evolving. “Executive functions—like planning, paying attention, managing time, and organizing materials—are quite weak in middle-schoolers,” says Katie Davis, a clinical child psychologist in New York City. The brain’s frontal lobe, which controls these high-level skills, doesn’t fully develop until our twenties. The good news, says Davis: “Organization skills aren’t innate abilities. They can be developed and practiced.”

Keep It Simple

The school supply aisle, with its bevy of colored folders and binders, beckons with so much promise. But there’s no need to go overboard filling the shopping cart. “I find that when families try to be too fancy and have really intricate and complicated organization systems, things fall apart,” says Davis. “The best system is one that’s streamlined and easy to stick to.”

A good first step is a planner. “It can be paper or digital and is something that students can view each evening to help prioritize their work,” says Strobel. Your student may not want you looking over what’s in it, but you can help scaffold their planning skills by sharing the family calendar with them. That way they’ll know what commitments they have, whether that may be a birthday dinner at Grandma’s or family tickets to a basketball game.

Be Flexible

Middle-schoolers seem to have a special talent for misplacing their assignments—even the ones they’ve completed. While you may have organizing strategies you swear by, what works for you may misfire with your student.

“Use a flexible approach, like ‘What could you do that might work better for you?’” advises Strobel. Some students might prefer a separate folder per subject. For others, one accordion folder with a homework section for each subject may work better.

When it comes to project management, parents must learn the art of the gentle nudge. “Encourage them to start something the day a long-term assignment is given,” says Strobel. “Then plan backwards from the due date so they don’t run into a time wall.”

It also helps to model good habits at home by cleaning out your own basket or folder of paperwork at the beginning or end of each week. Then suggest that your teen do the same with their backpack and locker.

Digital Solutions

Our kids live in an age where most of what they need is online, including assignments and grades. Your student might consider using a separate Google Drive for all their schoolwork. Auto-saving platforms like Google Docs make it far less likely your student will lose their work.

Gail O'Connor

Gail O’Connor is a mom of three in Westfield, New Jersey. She can be found writing about kids or feeding them. Follow her on Twitter @GailWrites.