Conquer Disorganization and Homework Angst This Year 
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UPDATE 1/29/18: The ideas below totally worked. For the first time ever, my son had strong finish to semester 1 with a 3.6 grade average. Scroll to the bottom to read the updates.
All I want to do is climb back into bed and veg. It has been a great summer, but I am wiped out. My stomach feels like a pretzel as I worry about my two oldest boys going to middle school.
Most of my worries are centered on my oldest son. In years past we dealt with disorganization and homework issues all too often.
Worries That Make My Stomach Twist:
- Will this year be a repeat of the last two?
- Will he stay on top of his work?
- Will he ever put that phone down?
- Will we battle more than I care to?
- Did I prepare him enough?
Before I share how we prepared, I want to travel back in time and share with you the last two years have been like for our family.
Smart but Scattered
My son is super smart and homework doesn’t reflect what he knows as he performs well on all of his tests.
There would be times I didn’t worry or check in on his grades as he would come home and happily report he got an A on his math test.
But then I’d be so frustrated because I’d log in to check on his grades only to see a bunch of zeros and 100% on tests. Keeping my botox brow intact at moments like that was impossible.
Disorganization and Homework…just…SUCKS!
One could argue that homework is a waste of this kid’s mental capacity (science is backing me up on this). He absorbs a lot of information by listening and seeing, which means he doesn’t need a lot of time for practice.
This combination of strengths though leaves him vulnerable in the traditional school system where grades are based on homework and tests. Instead of viewing a test score as a reflection of his ability, my son looks at his overall grades and thinks he isn’t smart–even though all his testing says otherwise.
It’s frustrating that my kid is punished because of poor habits. When he doesn’t turn in homework it reflects in his grades even though we all know he is smart, but scattered.
We use a lot of humor to deal with difficult situations. As I pondered our problem this school year, I thought of Steve Martin’s El Guapo speech in Three Amigos!
Each of Us Has an El Guapo to Face! Ours is Time Management & Organization
Our Plan to Overthrow El Guapo:
Over the past two years, I’ve noticed some patterns:
My son doesn’t like traditional binders. For some reason, if it requires two hands to get the paper put away it won’t happen. His binder was a mess. Right before the end of the year, I went through all of the papers and organized them according to the subject. I saw duplicates and partially completed homework. He had no clue what was in his binder!
Solution: Accordion File Folder
This year he opted for a folder system with an in/out section for each class period with the exception of PE and Lunch. The ability to drop in a slot and go appealed to him.
In the front of the folder, he has his schedule, monthly planner, and some lined paper for notes. I worry that he won’t take the time to really pay attention to what piece of paper goes where and he will shove them all in as he gathers his stuff to head to the next class.
But the goal is for him to put all papers he receives during that period in the IN section. When he gets home, pulls out this pile for each class and goes through to do homework, get papers signed and such. When an assignment is complete, he’ll put it in the out folder so that all he has to do is grab it to turn it in.
Problem: No-Name Papers
Another big culprit last year was writing his name on papers. As I was sorting, I also saw that he struggled to write his name on everything. In an effort to avoid summer school, I wrote his name on all papers.
Solution: Name Stamper
We opted to get a name stamper so he could just quickly stamp all the papers that come to his desk so he doesn’t have to overthink it. I like the idea as it has a ritual and sensory input too, but I am not sure this teenage boy will be able to not be obnoxious with this stamper. I’m envisioning he will be tempted to stamp his friends or his arm a bunch of times. Stuff like that means he is going to get it taken away. Hopefully, he will just be chill about it.
Problem: Backpack Clutter
Last year, his backpack had things molding at the bottom, a fine dust that I couldn’t identify, and crumpled papers in every pocket.
Solution: Backpack with Fewer Pockets
By having fewer places to put things, it will be less likely items will get lost and hopefully cleaned out more often. We almost chose a simple sling backpack, but ultimately chose not to as the bottom wasn’t strong enough to handle textbooks. I knew we would be replacing it too often during the year.
Problem: Tracking Assignments
Even though he had a planner last year, he didn’t write much down and his teachers were not good at keeping their website up to date with assignments.
Solution: Simplified Planner
Instead of buying the school planner, we bought a leather-bound monthly academic planner. This way he only has to worry about the information on a two-page spread instead of keeping track of items by the week.
We ripped out pages he didn’t need and then marked days off from school and other vacations we had planned for this year.
Finally, I taught him some shorthand for writing assignments.
The Genius Behind these Changes
All of these suggestions we are taking directly from Seth Perler, executive function coach. I met with Seth at the end of last year because my son was on the verge again of failing his classes which meant summer school. None of us wanted to do summer school.
His ideas and suggestions for avoiding summer school totally worked! My son even earned “Most Improved” in his English Language Arts class which embarrassed him big time.
Seth also gave us an attack plan for this next school year so we can start strong and avoid the dip this year. (Watch Seth’s video about the dip.)
Providing Support and Feedback to Defeat Our El Guapo
You may be wondering how we’re going to support our son in doing this? I’ve set some alarms on my phone to help me mentally check-in and give feedback. All of my time of support will be spent inside of his homework area.
A Dedicated Study Space
Seth recommends creating a dedicated study space. We bought him a desk with no drawers (just like a backpack, it gets unruly) and a chair that swivels so he can move while working. Above his desk is a large monthly view calendar to help him see at a glance bigger items like appointments, projects, tests, and sports.
Even on his desktop, we chose to keep it simple with a jar for his pens/pencils with a lamp as well.
First few weeks of school:
- Check folders each night
- Go over planner
- Clean out backpack each Saturday
- Check assignments against grade book on Saturdays
- Move graded papers to each child’s done box
My plan is to stick with this pattern for the first three months of school as it takes usually 66 days for a new habit to form.
Then slowly remove me from constant support. In the first few weeks, I’ll be right there by his side but over time I plan to be in the room so it gets done and he stays on task.
While my stomach is still in knots as I finish writing this, I know that we’re gonna make it.
Thanks to Seth Perler, we have had an amazing first semester. Confidence is booming! We didn’t even implement everything Seth taught us and we had these great results. Things that really helped us:
- Teaching my son to self-advocate
- Consistently de-junking
- Checking the grade book once a week
- Setting a line in the sand for individual assignments. This means, nothing lower than a C on assignments
Seth recently opened another class, head over to his website to check out Up Grade Your Grades (UGYG).
Pendaflex Folder 🙁
Sadly, this Pendaflex accordion folder with zipper didn’t even make it two weeks before ripping. The actual folders inside were fine and the In/Out system worked well for my son. But he couldn’t easily carry his pencils and such anymore.
Replacing Pendaflex in November
Sadly, we had to throw away the Pendaflex. My son wanted to go back to a 3-ring binder but this one also had an accordion system in the side and was constructed of faux leather. It worked ok and held up for the rest of the semester.
We added graded work to a box. Cleaning it out every week didn’t happen, it was more like every two weeks. But his system made it less painful and papers were not getting lost. SCORE!
A Better Pendaflex
For semester 2, we found ourselves at Office Depot looking for a new folder setup again. They mostly had slippery folders which we knew wouldn’t work. Then I found this green Pendaflex with the same system. My son, however, was skeptical that it wouldn’t work and opted to go back to a three-ring binder with just regular folders inside. But believe me, when that system falls apart we’ll be back to pick this beauty up.
A Funny Thing Happened…
We were doing such a good job focusing on our 8th grader, that we were not checking in on our 6th grader as often. This was the result of that in October:
Papers were falling out, the binder was broken, and his backpack was full of trash. But we were not distressed. We went right into the steps Seth teaches and got this son on track as well.
Owner of Math for Middles
I’m the owner and creator of the math videos here at Math for Middles. I’ve tutored students for over ten years. When I am not creating here, you’ll find me down by the river with my family. You can read more about me here and how I once was a middle schooler too.
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