Dear Mr. Dad: Help! I have a 14-year-old high-school freshman whose room looks like the aftermath of a hurricane. But as unpleasant as that is, it's not what I'm writing about. The real issue is that she is completely disorganized and can't keep track of her homework, school assignments, and project due dates. Up through middle school, she was almost always able to get by waiting until the last second to get her work done. But she's already falling behind – and we're still in the first month of school! I worry that if this pattern continues, she'll never be able to get good enough grades to go to college. What can I do to help her get more organized?
A: Having been through this with two of my three kids I know exactly what you're going through and I feel your pain – and your frustration. Here's the deal: Some children are born with seemingly prewired organization skills. From the time my oldest daughter was able to dress herself, she laid out the next day's clothes the night before. And throughout school, she voluntarily got a calendar and was always on top of her homework and projects. Most kids, however (including your daughter, my two youngest, and millions of others), aren't like that.
The good news is that organization can be learned. The slightly less good news is that you're going to have to help, which means investing time, effort, and maybe even some money. But the following strategies will get you and your daughter pointed in the right direction.
– Get her tested. You want to rule out any underlying medical conditions that might be contributing to the problem, such as ADHD, a learning disability, vision problems, or something else.
– Get connected. Ask your daughter's teachers to keep you up to date on her assignments and grades (my daughter's adviser used to send us a report every week). If the school uses an online system (Schoology is one of several), insist that your daughter give you her login info and check the system every day. This will help you keep track of what's due, when it's due, and when each assignment has been completed.
– Organize. Keep assignments on a shareable calendar app and help your daughter organize her binders so that completed assignments are always in the same place. And make sure pencils, erasers, printer paper, flash drives, and anything else your daughter needs to do her work are readily available.
– Think small. Help her break large projects into smaller, easier-to-manage chunks.
– Encourage breaks. If your daughter finishes one of those chunks or stays focused for 15 or 20 minutes, have her take a 5-minute break to text, check email, listen to some music, or whatever.
– Think backwards. Starting with the due date, how long will it take to research and complete each step? Then set a completion date target for each one.
– Prioritize. Encourage your daughter to complete the most difficult or time-consuming assignments first.
– Remind. If you're like me, you want your child to do all of this on her own. Eventually she will, but for now, she needs your help. Since you know what's due and when, check on her progress and remind her as necessary.
– Establish routines. If possible, homework should be done at the same time and in the same place.
– Be there. Have your daughter sit next to you while she does her homework. Knowing that you're going to be looking at her screen may keep her from getting quite so distracted.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)