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Why your middle schooler sucks at being organized and what to do about it

Once upon a time I was a middle schooler with HORRIBLE organization skills. I vividly remember opening my top locker to have books and papers rain down on my head. Forgetting to bring home gym clothes for weeks. Constantly forgetting to turn in homework assignments. Eventually my locker BROKE because it was so filled with unorganized papers.

My story isn’t unique in any way. I’ve known and taught many middle schoolers with the same problem. You may even be shaking your head in recognition feeling like I’m talking about your child right now.

The question is…why are middle schoolers so bad at staying organized? And what exactly can we do about it? Because for most of us yelling and nagging isn’t working well.

Just like babies aren’t born knowing how to walk…kids aren’t born with the skills to stay organized and manage their time well. It is very typical for middle schoolers to have poor executive functioning skills. It becomes more apparent in the tween years because more is expected out of them when it comes to remembering, organizing, and managing their time. In elementary school, your child likely had a lot of hand holding from their teacher. Once in middle school the supports are lifted away and pre-teens are left to their own unorganized devices. This transition can be rough for the pre-teen who must figure out how to meet the expectations of their teachers and parents.

Over the middle school years, pre-teens will be given the opportunity to grow and hone their executive functioning skills through the challenges that they face in the classroom. So the question is…how do we help them with their executive function and organization skills?

  • Set aside organization time each week

    • Setting aside time each week for your child to organize their binders and backpacks is a great way to keep things manageable. Set aside 15-20 minutes on a designated day each week for your child to go through their things and get organized. Make sure to check off on their organization at the end to make sure everything is good to go. This is a great opportunity to walk your child through the skill of sorting and organizing their papers and materials.

  • Help them start and maintain a planner

    • Most adults use some form of calendar as they move through their work and personal lives. Middle school is a great time to introduce a planner to your child and teach them how to use it. The type of planner doesn’t matter as much as the time spent learning to use it. Show your child how to map out commitments and assignments on their weekly and monthly calendar. Do a quick check in daily to see if assignments were recorded and encourage your child to look ahead to future tests and projects to see how much time they have to get the requirements done.

  • Introduce checklists

    • A big part of executive functioning is working memory. Students who are struggling to remember all the things they need - either going to or coming home from school - might benefit from a checklist that prompts them to remember important items or steps. Checklists can also be utilized for the before and after school routine. After teaching your child how to make a complete checklist you can challenge them to make their own for different routines they are struggling to complete.

  • Let them flounder a little

    • It can be really tempting to swoop in every time your child forgets their homework. Or to constantly remind them that they need to get started on their science fair project. When it comes to mistakes that will lead to natural consequences it is extremely helpful to let your child face the music whenever possible. Will it be incredibly cringey and hard for you to stomach while you watch? Yes. Could you end up with some of the emotional backlash? Also yes. But allowing your child to experience first hand what happens when they procrastinate on a project or forget an assignment will teach the lesson faster than your lecturing ever will.

  • Help them set small goals

    • Goal setting is a skill that helps preteens feel in control of their progress while learning how to prioritize things that matter to them. Help your child learn how to set small goals that help them work toward what they want academically. Let your child steer the ship and decide what they want to accomplish and be there to guide them in the process of writing the goal. Continue to support them by checking in on their progress and celebrating when they make progress. If you don’t know where to start with goal setting, check out our goal setting guide for parents and kids.

What do I do when it all hits the fan?

  • We all know that things will get messy at some point. Your child may flunk a class or get way too in over their head with late assignments. When things go awry try to keep your reaction calm. You didn’t get angry at your child when they were a toddler and fell down as they learned to walk. Your job is to be there to listen and help them devise a plan for moving forward.


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