Recently I spoke with Janet Bernstein, a Certified Professional Organizer and founder of Janet Bernstein Organizers, about the importance of keeping middle and high school students organized. Here are some of her thoughts on how parents can help their children stay organized to stay successful in school.
How do you recognize if your child’s organizational problems are affecting their academic performance?
JB: Warning flags should go up if a student is testing well in school but is getting reports from their teachers that they are consistently late handing in assignments. These teachers will be satisfied with the student’s work, but the work will always come in late. This is the biggest sign.
Loads of kids will have a complete disaster for a backpack. And in other cases, students can’t find a project they were working on, they have no organizational structure for papers and notebooks, and they just keep losing things all the time. They have no idea when an assignment is due the next day, and it happens all the time. They are not using any executive functioning.
What are the first steps a parent can take to help their child organize?
JB: When parents start nagging and it turns into a negative experience, their children rebel. Even if the student is sabotaging their own education, if they feel their parent nagging and pressuring, they will not respond.
A parent can start by calmly saying, “I see what is going on,” and seeing how they can help. Parents can find out their child’s schedule. They can go and see the teacher: What are the big projects, when are they due? Even if parents are checking grades online, they don’t necessarily know when certain assignments are due.
Most kids are not taking advantage of extra help. Teachers are so willing to help, and they will show students how to organize to succeed. They don’t have the time to do that in a class period. I have always found teachers that will go step-by-step and show students the way.
What if different teachers are sending mixed messages about organization?
JB: Students have to find out what each teacher wants and requires. Students’ grades will go up just by them asserting themselves and asking, “How do I organize this?” It’s about taking initiative. As a parent, you are teaching students independence that they can use in college and beyond.
How do you ensure that these organizational habits are ingrained for life?
JB: I do not know too many parents who will sit down with their kids and show them how to manage and pace themselves. Pacing is key. Some people have an innate skill, but the average student–especially those with ADD–does not know how to pace themselves. They need to plan: Week 1, this is due. Week 2, this due. You can teach pacing, and that is the No. 1 key.
How do you teach pacing?
JB: For an example: You have a paper to write and you have a month before the due date. To a kid, that may as well be next year. They don’t think, “I have to read the book, then take notes, then write.”
Parents can find out when larger assignments are due and show their students what needs to be done. They can break it up into manageable pieces so it’s all not being done the night before. Mini deadlines are key.
Kids want to be in control, but you need to show them how to get there. You want them to feel like they are running the show and you are the supporter, and not the dictator. What are the long-term benefits of organizational skills beyond school? Why make a point of it now at an early age?
You are ingraining and teaching principles that children will need for the rest of their lives. People will always have bosses and deadlines, so if you teach organization as early as possible, it becomes part of a natural thought process.
What do you tell a student who insists on working at the last minute?
JB: I hear it all the time. There are a lot of students who thrive on the adrenaline rush of the last minute. They put out good work, but they are extremely stressed. And when you ask them if they want to do the work this way, they will always say “No.”
I try to push deadlines forward. They feel like they are on deadlines, but these new deadlines have cushions. You are training them so that when they are in college that system works for them and they never have that last minute pressure. You can also create a rewards system to incentivize them to meet earlier deadlines.
To learn more about Janet Bernstein and Janet Bernstein Organizers, visit jborganizers.com or call (610) 331-2087.