Has this happened to you? Your once-thriving elementary school student hits middle school and starts to stumble. She forgets to hand in homework. Or, doesn’t bring the homework home or doesn’t know where or what the homework is. It’s the evening before a test, but your teen left his textbook in his locker. Or, on a Sunday afternoon, your daughter announces there’s a project due Monday morning. Teachers complain. Grades suffer. Chances are, you’ve got a disorganized student on your hands.
A disorganized student is struggling with some aspect of executive function. Executive function is a relatively new term, at least to most parents, and it refers to a variety of activities in our brains that are important for academic success.
“It’s the group of different abilities that makes us able to plan, organize, prioritize, focus and keep attention to the right task at the right time,” explains Dr. Trysa Shulman, a clinical psychologist in the Cleveland area.
Note: executive function is not what we tend to mean by intelligence. Rather, it’s how our brains take what we know—say, how to solve an algebraic equation—and put it into action, like completing your algebra homework in time to hand it in the next day.
“It’s nothing a parent is doing. It is nothing the teen is doing. It’s a function of the frontal lobes. It doesn’t mature until you are out of college,” explains Marcella Moran, co-author of Organizing the Disorganized Child, who also works with students out of her office in Hartsdale, New York.
Increased Chaos of Middle School
The transition to middle school is not easy, even for the most together of teens. In elementary school, most children spend their days in one classroom, with one teacher, at an assigned desk. In middle school, it’s multiple teachers, multiple classrooms, multiple homework assignments. Combine that with a developing brain, and it’s no wonder so many parents discover their teen is disorganized at this stage.
Take Atlanta-based mom, Britt Menzies. “When my son was in elementary school, he was an A-plus student,” she says. “He was very diligent and always used the agenda they gave them. That changed almost overnight when he was in seventh grade.”
Stories like these don’t surprise Jennifer Hatfield, owner of the Indiana-based Therapy and Learning Services, Inc. “Middle school is the peak of when my referrals begin to happen,” she notes. “When you think about middle school, you’re going from being with one or two teachers to having six teachers, six different classes, six differently structured classrooms, and you have to figure it out for yourself.”
That includes how to get where when, juggling multiple assignments each night, remembering your locker combination and a lot more. “The list of cognitive tasks is long,” Hatfield stresses. “And, we don’t prepare students well enough in elementary school.”
How to Help a Disorganized Student
Indeed, most adolescents will experience hiccups with executive function in middle school, or beyond, from time to time. That’s normal. But, for a subset of these students—including the majority of students with learning disabilities and other brain-based disorders, like ADHD—these challenges are much more frequent, if not all the time. Sound familiar? If so, experts say, it’s time to step in. Here’s how to get started helping a disorganized student:
1. Be wary of “natural consequences.”
Many parents with a disorganized student respond by allowing their middle schoolers to bear the brunt of their disorganization on their own. “You leave your homework on the table, you’ll have to turn it in late,” for example. Or, “No, I won’t run out to the store and buy you a tri-fold board the night before your project is due.”
For a student experiencing the normal growing pains associated with maturing executive function, this is acceptable (and even preferable). You’re teaching responsibility (and resilience and self-sufficiency) and chances are, your adolescent won’t make that mistake again (or not more than a few times). But, for students with chronic issues, this cold-turkey approach won’t work.
“It’s so rare for natural consequences to work for kids who are smack dab in the middle of an executive functioning disorder, whether it’s mild or they are having trouble across the board,” Hatfield explains. Instead, she says, take charge of keeping your student organized and on-track, then gradually withdraw support as your student becomes successful at handling it on his own (but be ready to step back in if necessary).
2. Pinpoint exactly where your disorganized student needs help.
Assess where your disorganized student needs help. Is it using a planner? Time management? Remembering to bring materials back and forth from school? Getting started with homework? “Break it down, so you can understand where the strengths and weaknesses are,” Hatfield says.
Also, talk to your teenager. “A lot of times, a child who struggles with this may feel isolated and try to cover it up. They always tell you, ‘It’s okay,’ and then you get the grade and it’s not,” Moran says. “Have a conversation about their struggle.”
3. Set up a system.
An organizational system that works for you may not be the right one for your disorganized student. Be willing to explore different strategies until you find one that works. Some tips:
- Use the Internet. There are hundreds of articles and websites devoted to this topic. Or, try these ideas from our experts (and also see our Advice from an Expert and Top 10):
- Put books back in the backpack right away. And, if possible, have a second set of books at home, Hatfield advises. (Note: Many publishers now allow online access to school books… ask your teacher).
- Use a homework folder. Establish that the “homework is not complete until it is in the folder and in the bag,” Moran recommends.
- Use a calendar and put everything on it, including extracurricular activities. Review it with your student every day. You can also use the calendar to help your students break down larger assignments and help them get jump-started on assignments that they need to work on but that aren’t due for awhile.
- Use technology. This should include your school’s online system—Blackboard, Progressbook, etc.—to track your student’s assignments and whether he handed them in. Don’t hesitate to check in with your student’s teacher via email or even text, if that’s an option.
- Get creative. “We were advised to minimize distractions for our 13-year-old son, who has ADD and was struggling to complete his homework,” explains New York City’s Betsy Smith. “The doctor told us to set up a homework spot. Living in New York, we have very little “spot” to spare, so we started waking up early and getting in the car with him to do homework. There is no TV or other distractions and it has worked incredibly well.”
4. Take a look in the mirror.
Parents, how are you when it comes to being disorganized? Are you constantly hunting for your car keys? Or digging through a mound of papers to find that permission slip or bill or whatever? If so, you also have some work to do.
“It’s hard to have a child learn organizational skills if they are not in a home that is structured,” Hatfield says. If this makes you wince, take heart. Many successful adults struggle with some aspect of executive function, so be honest with yourself about how you can be more organized in ways that will help your adolescent. If it doesn’t impact your adolescent—like, say, your messy bedroom closet—don’t worry about it.
5. Keep your cool.
When your disorganized student hasn’t handed in her homework for the umpteenth time or gets frustrated when you ask to see his planner every single night, it’s easy to get upset. Take a deep breath.
“I always say, approach it from a team perspective,” Moran says. “Tell your child, ‘We’re going to work together on this. I understand you are not doing this on purpose.’”
In other words, remind yourself that your adolescent isn’t trying to drive you nuts, her brain simply isn’t there yet. “Accept the moment as it is,” Dr. Shulman stresses. “’Okay, so my son didn’t bring home his books again. That’s life right now.’ If we feel overwhelmed by emotion, we’re not going to be able to figure out what our kids need from us. And chances are, if we’re overwhelmed, they will be too. Keeping a learning perspective is really helpful. Think of everything as learning. If you make a mistake and yell at your kid, you’re still learning. When your kids make mistakes and leave a mess all over without cleaning it up for the tenth time in a row, they’re still learning.”
6. Know when you need expert help.
If you’ve been unsuccessful in helping your student improve, and/or your relationship with your adolescent has turned into a never-ending battle—and especially if your teenager’s self-esteem is suffering—it’s probably time to call in an expert. Most students with modest executive functioning issues will, with time and help from their parents and teachers, move past them. But adolescents with severe executive functioning issues, what’s called an executive function disorder—including many students with learning disabilities—need professional support, says Moran. “If you are really fishing for strategies and trying a lot of different techniques, and it’s not working, there might be more of an issue going on.”