Mastering Organizational Skills

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

My child’s grades are suffering. He is acing all his tests but is getting marked down for not turning in homework. He forgets to bring home the assignment or the book that he needs to do it, or he leaves the homework at home or in his locker.

The dilemma you face is not unique, nor is there one best cure for the“I forgot it” blues. One of the most difficult transitions for students is the move from a self-contained classroom, or a setting with very few teachers, to a more flexible arrangement in which they have six or seven teachers, who often use different procedures. The simple truth is that some children are organized, while others are not. Usually, disorganized students have not been shown how to be organized. Here are a few suggestions that may help you and your son tackle this situation with a minimum of tears and angry words.

Encourage Small Steps

Have a conversation with your son—a talk over an ice cream sundae may lessen the stress each of you feels. Together, you should decide on a few important, attainable goals and chart specific steps to reach them on a timeline. If you have a conference with his teachers, explain these plans to them and ask for their assistance (and patience) as your son works through each step. Depending on how he reacts to such a process, you may consider a “celebration” when certain goals are met.

Reinforce Routine

Routine is a partner of organization. If your son can get into the habit of packing his backpack and leaving it in the same place every evening, he should feel more in control of his school materials. The same is true for putting his homework in the same place (such as a binder, folder, or textbook).

Teach Filing Skills

Assist your son in organizing a binder. Although it may seem as if he should know how to set up a file system, he may not. Be sure to take his wishes into account. For instance, he may want a separate tab for each subject or a separate place for all homework. What is most important is for him to recognize the advantages of a file system.

Keep on Task

Other helpful suggestions include establishing one specific location and time for studying, developing checklists of tasks that need to be completed, conducting a weekly cleanup of backpacks and notebooks, keeping a master calendar, and creating a household schedule. Constant variation only causes more distractions.

Use New Technology

Many students find an electronic organizer or a handheld computer helpful. Because today’s students are growing up in an age of electronics, paper and pencil tasks are often challenging for them. Getting organized electronically might appeal to your son.

No matter what steps you take to assist your son, please remember that he will need continuous backing. Getting organized may take just a brief time, or it may be a lengthy process. Remember also that your son will be trying to change ingrained patterns. Sometimes he may take a step or two backward while trying to move forward. Your support and encouragement will be essential to his gaining and mastering organizational skills.

—Deborah S. Delisle

Deborah S. Delisle is associate superintendent for the Cleveland Heights–University Heights School District in University Heights, Ohio.

Suggested Reading

Growing Good Kids: 28 Activities to Enhance Self-Awareness, Compassion, and Leadership, by Deb Delisle and Jim Delisle, edited by Marjorie Lisovskis, Free Spirit, 1996