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Some of the schools near me start in two weeks! It is hard to believe the summer is almost over. If your child is disorganized and has trouble keeping up with everything and managing his time, you might be able to help. While shopping for school supplies, keep in mind that a strong organizational system is important. Tabbed dividers, labeled tabs, zippered pockets, and time management apps may help. Consider the following.

  • Students in middle and upper school are often told by each individual teacher how to organize for their class. These kids are trying to manage five or six different “systems,” and it is very hard for them to keep everything straight. You can help by looking for ways to create consistency across subjects. For example, each binder can have tabs or divider pages to mark specific places to put today’s homework, graded work that needs to be saved (including tests and quizzes), and a place to write notes. An earlier blog, A Notebook System That Aids With Organization, offers more information about coming up with a notebook system. If your child receives accommodations, this system can be included in his IEP or 504 Plan.
  • When I ask my students about how they use their locker, they frequently answer that they don’t use it at all. My students prefer to carry everything they need in their book bag. If your disorganized child does this, she may need assistance keeping the bag organized with necessary supplies handy for class. Depending on how much of a problem this is for her, you might need to set aside a daily time to reorganize the book bag. Her binders for every class must fit into the bag. She needs to have a specific place for her pencils, calculator, and whatever she uses every day. Some small zippered bags or plastic boxes can help with this.
  • Your child needs to know how to use an electronic calendar to help manage his time. This does not have to cost money if he already has a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. He needs to record which classes will meet each day and whether there are special assignments due soon. This is another area where many disorganized kids need help. He can learn to use Google Calendar or try an app such as those described in A Free App To Help With Time Management. If a tablet or computer are not available, your child will need a planner where he can write upcoming assignments and events.

Keep time management and organization in mind as you and your child shop for school. Purchasing the right organizational supplies is important and can lead to success, but using these tools does not come naturally to many students. It takes some time to learn how to use them and a considerable amount of time before they become habit. For truly disorganized kids, a daily routine of going through the book bag, each binder, and checking the planner/calendar will likely be necessary. Parents should gradually turn over this responsibility to their child, but in the beginning will need to be very involved.

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The ability to plan, initiate, and carry out daily activities takes place in the part of the brain just behind the forehead. We call this ability executive functioning. It involves the ability to be flexible, to control one’s behavior, to hold and use information in working memory, and to be self-aware. Executive functioning tends to improve with time and does not fully develop until age 25. Adolescents need to have practice that develops these abilities. Allowing your children to plan family events and vacations provides great practice.

It is probably wise to start with something simple like planning the evening meal. You can provide guidelines, such as how to make it a healthy meal that doesn’t cost too much, but then allow your child to decide what to have, check the groceries in stock, decide what needs to be purchased, and go with you to the store to buy the groceries. He can cook, serve, and clean up after the meal. This is great experience for him. Not only is he getting excellent practice using his executive functioning ability, but he is also learning important life skills. In the beginning, he might need considerable help doing this. With practice, he should be able to manage this pretty much on his own.

Another idea might be to allow your child to plan a family outing. She could research options in the area, pick somewhere interesting, find out how much it costs to go, figure out a time when the family is available, suggest when to go, and decide whether to ask a friend to go along. This could be a simple outing to the movies, a trip to a nearby town for the day, or a weekend adventure for the family.

Many parents are uncomfortable allowing children to make important decisions. Parents plan every minute of their children’s time to make sure there is no time to get in trouble. It is good to be involved and to know what your children are doing. It is important, however, for kids to have some unplanned time. This is especially true in the summer months when they are not busy with schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Kids can learn to manage their own time, plan events, and entertain themselves. If children are allowed to make more decisions, they will learn how to make decisions that have good consequences. They will develop the executive functioning ability they need to be successful in school and life.


> Executive Functioning: How It Affects a Student in School

> Homework Binder: A Strategy That Helps With Executive Function

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Many children tend to be impulsive and have trouble planning ahead, keeping up with long-term projects, making thoughtful decisions, and turning in all of their homework. These abilities are all a part of executive functioning. (See Executive Functioning: How It Affects a Student in School.) Most of the thought processes involved take place in the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain just behind the forehead. This part of the brain is not fully formed until students are out of high school, which explains why adolescents often have trouble making decisions.

Students vary in their ability to manage their day-to-day life because they do not all develop at the same rate. Nearly all students get better as they get older. If they are struggling with executive functioning in school to the point where it is affecting their success, they need additional support until they can manage their schoolwork by themselves.

If your child has trouble turning in all his homework, a good starting point for help is to set up a homework binder. This binder should be a bright color that is easily spotted in his book bag. The binder should contain the assignment sheets from each of his classes, any handouts that relate to that night’s homework, and a place for completed work to hand in the next day. As he completes the homework for each subject, he should cross it off, making it clear that assignment is finished. The completed work goes in its own section. If there is a question he cannot answer, he should highlight it so that he can ask for help with it the next day. (He needs to understand that he should finish everything else on that assignment.) The binder should also house special notes or permission slips that need attention from parents.

Your child needs help learning to use a homework binder. It will take time before she sees it as her “survival guide” to school success and using it becomes a habit. Once this organizational skill is mastered (she uses it without you reminding her), select something else to start working on. It is best to work intensely on one student skill at a time so she will not feel overwhelmed.

For a thorough discussion on executive functioning, read "What is Executive Function?" by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. They also have a free ebook with explanations and strategies for ways to help.

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Do you allow your children to watch TV or play on the computer before doing their homework?