Put your typical middle school boy on a daily schedule with multiple classrooms to visit, a locker to stock and replenish, four or five academic subjects in which to hand in homework, and shoelaces that need to be tied. Add a lunchbox, water bottle, and a backpack. What do you get? The term paper that ended up under the egg salad sandwich. The math homework that disappeared for five months. The locker that exploded open—all by itself.
It's all very funny—except when it’s your kid, and academic standards loom.If your son is feeling the stress, he’s not alone.“For reasons we do not entirely understand, many, many boys struggle with the organizational demands of middle school," says renowned child psychologist and author Michael Thompson, PhD. “They flounder when they have lockers and have to move from room to room throughout the day.”
This is not to say that some girls don’t feel the challenge too. To ease the load, some middle schools have turned to block schedules, or combined subject classes, to lessen daily transitions. But generally speaking, by eighth grade, all kids are expected to be able to change classrooms smoothly several times each day, and manage their homework after school as well.
So, does that mean parents are doomed to gnashing their teeth for the next several years? Not at all, says Ana Homayoun, M.A., founder of California-based Green Ivy Educational Consulting and author of the recently published That Crumpled Paper was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life.
Homayoun says that over many years of working with middle and high school students, “I saw many boys who were capable and intelligent, but really struggling in school. They were feeling that they just couldn’t do it."
While individual tutoring helped somewhat, Homayoun quickly discovered that there was something even more important: kids, especially boys, need explicit help getting organized. “Give them the right system,” she says, “and you can see transformation across all aspects of their lives. They become even more motivated that I would have expected.”
So, parents, where do you start? While it’s tempting to race to the store for the latest color-coded binder systems, beware: None of this will work unless your kid is on board. Here are Homayoun’s top tips:
- Start with goals.This step may sound obvious, but all too often we skip right over it. Instead, says Homayoun, we need to sit down with kids and ask what they want. Go ahead and be a secretary: write a list of hopes and dreams. “When boys, especially, see a goal,” says Homayoun, “they’ll really go after it.”
- Think win-win. While many organizing systems look great at the outset, they can fall apart with teens who don’t see a good “fit” with their needs. Instead, says Homayoun, “present being organized as a way them to meet their goals, not yours.” After all, being organized means that your son will be faster at doing what he needs to do—and he’ll end up with more free time to do what he likes.
- Focus on process, and the results will take care of themselves. One common, well-meaning mistake is to set goals like “all A's next semester.” Watch out, says Homayoun: your son may have taken on a great class and made huge progress, but the final grade might be less than perfect. Instead, she says, set goals like keeping a planner up to date every day, and keeping a regular homework block four nights a week. With such an approach, says Hamayoun, “I consistently see students go above and beyond what they would have thought possible.”
- When it’s work time, minimize distractions. Watch out, says Homayoun, in today’s technological world. If you keep a cellphone around, you can get ready for an endless texting stream. Instead, says Homayoun, try an old fashioned strategy: during homework time, put all cellphones and iPods in a “technology box,” to be retrieved when work is done. And don’t bother with the bedroom, where a computer beckons; try working at the dining room table!
As we all know, everyone has a setback now and then. Even though it’s upsetting, says Homayoun, don’t panic. "Just get back to basics. Where’s that planner? Are binders organized? Try scheduling a weekly re-group time, maybe on Sunday nights, for everyone in the family.”
Above all, don’t forget to share your messages of support. “In the end, it’s not about us,” counsels Homayoun. It’s about helping our kids recognize their true goals, and find the clearest path possible to achieving them. And parents, it sure beats gnashing your teeth!