Unfortunately, being intelligent and being well organized are not always mutually occurring traits in teenagers and, having taught teenagers for over 20 years, it’s surprisingly common to see even the most able of students fail to achieve their potential through being disorganized.
Life as a teenager is hectic: greater demands from family, friends, school, clubs and, for many teens, even part time work. Fitting it all in can be difficult; doing it in an organized way takes work.
What are the signs of disorganization?
You can tell the very unorganized students right away; they arrive to class without a pen; they either forgot to bring their school bag altogether or they haven’t put today’s books in, whichever, the notes they take on paper today will be lost before they get home. Their homework, rushed and lacking in detail, was done on the back seat of the school bus when they overheard someone mentioning it. They hadn’t looked in their school planner to check if they had any homework because they aren’t quite sure where they left it.
With habits like these, students’ grades start to get worse. They get into trouble for being unorganised and falling behind. Their parents start telling them the teachers aren’t happy. The next thing that happens is that they begin to lose motivation and become demoralized – and this is where some students just give up.
How do we improve a child’s organizational skills?
Here are some tips that I’ve used successfully with children I’ve mentored over the years.
1. Tell them they are disorganized
Many children don’t actually realize they are disorganized – tell them, but in a positive way. ‘If you’d organised your time better, I think you could have taken that paper a grade higher.’ Many students will respond to this straight away and will start to become more responsible for their own time.
2. Do a ’Time Audit’
I like to take a weekly calendar, like you would find on Outlook or Google and ask the child to go through with me what they do in a typical week. Fill in everything they do and how long they do it for from the time they leave school to when they go to bed. Then do it for the whole weekend as well.
From this, you’ll get a fairly accurate picture of what they actually spend their time doing and how much of it they actually allocate to studying and getting organized for school. From here you can begin the discussion of what should be happening. Prioritise with them what they need to do, then add in what they like to do later.
Make sure that there is time in there for all the things children need – time for family and friends and time for just relaxing – but make sure that time is allocated for study and getting organized. To make this more achievable, break it up into smaller chunks and spread it evenly across the week – preferably at the same time each day to give the chance for routines to be built in.
One way to ensure you do this properly is to ask them how long it would take them to write a paper or complete a piece of homework if they were going to get the best grade they could. Make sure adequate time is given over for completing these tasks in any week.
If you have a technology savvy child then the new weekly plan can be created as a set of reminders on their phones, computers or iPads. They can download apps with ‘To-do’ lists – and you can put recurring events in that send them reminders when something is scheduled – ‘Sunday Evening 7PM: Pack your sports kit for school tomorrow!’
Even if you’re not so technically inclined, you can still stick a timetable on the bedroom wall somewhere.
In order to be fully organized a child needs a study place at home, somewhere where they can keep all the things they need without having to spend half an hour looking for that text book or piece of equipment. There needs to be a desk or table, a drawer for all the equipment, a storage space for books and so on.
Children also need two other types of space for working well – personal space and head space. Personal space means giving them somewhere in the home free from family distractions and other people. Headspace means not having other distractions such as a phone constantly buzzing messages or Facebook on in the background. An organized child will put these distractions to one side and focus on the problem in hand – no matter how good a multi-tasker they are.
4. Check your child’s school planner regularly
Most children are given a planner or a diary at the beginning of each school year. It contains their time table, so you can find out what lessons they have on which days. It also has a diary section where students write down what homework they have to complete and when it needs to be handed in.
Check this frequently to make sure your child is filling it in. The simple fact of checking it shows them you are interested in their school work. It also means you have an idea what work they should be doing and when. Once you know, you can make sure that it gets done in adequate time and not left until the last minute.
If you want your child to take more responsibility, rather than check it for yourself every day get them to tell you what’s in it – this means you are making them more accountable for their own organization. (Though do check it at least weekly in case there’s a note from the teacher or you suspect there is not enough homework being given.
5. Praise and reward
All children respond well to positive encouragement. Praise your child when they are organized, reward them when they prioritize study over seeing their friends and thank them when they get their books and equipment prepared the night before. It works wonders, builds motivation and empowers them to take greater responsibility for their own learning.
6. Finally – Teach by example
If you are unorganized yourself, then your children will pick up your bad habits. If one of your most used phrases before you leave for work in the morning is ‘Has an anybody seen my…” then you know what you need to do.
I’ve seen these small steps turn student’s lives around. Simple changes in habit, an understanding of the need to be more organized and taking more responsibility for doing it can have a hugely positive impact on progress, achievement and morale. Good luck.
Kevin O’Hara is an Assistant Headteacher in the UK and has been teaching for over 20 years. His main areas of expertise are in developing teaching and learning in schools, improving literacy and in post 16 education. He also has considerable experience in teaching English and Drama. He run the blog verybestforkids.com which covers range of educational and lifestyle topics for parents.