Room Seeking Broom: Here’s How to Fight Your Kid’s Mess

By Debby Shulman

Walking by their bedroom door, you get a glimpse of what is actually living in there but it’s hard to come to terms with it. Beyond the aroma is the clutter, the mess, the papers, socks, books, purses, clothes, several items from your closet, and wet towels.  Unorganized, in complete chaos and disarray, it is an act of God that these kids are getting through high school without breaking down and falling through the cracks of disorganization.

But wait … are they?

Have they really been taught how to organize their schoolwork, stay on top of long-term assignments and keep up with daily work?

I do not believe they have.

I think over the years our junior high schools have become increasingly competitive, leaving time for teaching important skills like organizational strategies, note-taking and study habits to be picked up and acquired out of school. While I recognize and appreciate the academic reasons for this, the fact remains that many high school students, particularly freshmen, are overwhelmed and drowning in a pool of messy backpacks and missing papers.  Scrambling at the last minute to finish projects and study for exams, these students are totally unprepared for the rigors of high school.  I do not believe it matters one bit what high school your child attends – the pace is so fast, the classes extremely demanding, and the curriculum incredibly complex.

If you opened that backpack right now, what would you find? Let me guess:  Power Bar wrappers, empty water bottles, gum wrappers, an old lock with no combination, a smelly gym shirt, an assignment notebook that has NOT been written in since August 31, destroyed papers with grades on them, destroyed papers that were never completed, and destroyed papers that SHOULD have been turned in, but were nowhere to be found when they were due.

There are dirty notebooks with broken rings, pencils with no tips, and batteries for the calculator that cost you more than a month of groceries.  I know what you will find.

And this is what I am seeing more and more of in my practice: Major dysfunction when it comes to simply staying on top of schoolwork and having the organizational intelligence to tackle the problem head on instead of waiting to implode.

Last year, I took a course on Executive Functioning through the Rush Neurobehavioral Center with a colleague; it was entirely her idea because her incredible sixth sense was on overdrive.  We had received more calls from parents regarding organizational issues than ever before.  High school students with missing class notes, assignments mysteriously lost after having been ‘turned in’ and frustrated teens not knowing how to outline during a lecture or properly study for a test.  It was pushing a rewind button for me after having had two boys experience the same problem.  Good students, but they were clueless as to how they were going to get it together.  These parents were terribly frustrated and so were their teens.

Executive Functions are the cognitive processes occurring in the frontal lobe area of the brain that allow us to plan, organize, make decisions, pay attention, regulate behavior and solve problems.  When these critical issues of self-discipline are underdeveloped or NOT developed properly, we see long-term problems with academic achievement and a decline in standardized tests and college entrance exams.

Is there anything more compelling than the knowledge that your child may have the skills to perform better in school but can’t do so because they are so disorganized?

Executive Functioning issues are very common, but left unaddressed they can escalate and cause problems throughout school.

I am not surprised by the number of parents seeking outside support for this challenging issue.  It revolves around time management and planning (especially for students involved in after school activities), structuring study and free time, managing materials and creating systems that keep your teen organized.  Most recently, I discovered that some of my students are actually struggling with how to go about studying for certain exams.  For example, math and biology require different strategies for comprehension.

When things get truly out of hand, I make home visits. Scary as that sounds, I need to see how my student is “organized” at home.  Where are they studying?  Where does the backpack get dumped every night?  Surprisingly, not one teen has ever banned me from a peek. I see how they keep their rooms and together we create a system in their ‘area’ that provides them with the materials and quiet they need to get things accomplished.  I work with parents to understand why their teenagers need study breaks but also why it is critical to take away external distractions and help them regulate their social networking and chronic texting.  This becomes a trusting partnership between my student and me and it takes a couple of months of weekly follow-up to make sure that all systems are being used daily and successfully.  Often, we have to readjust and find something else that works – but inevitably we discover a way to keep parents and teens from fighting over grades and homework.

Helping teens to understand why they are struggling and encouraging them to curtail their Facebook use during certain hours of the day is just the beginning…

So, if you are breaking into a sweat because I am describing someone close to your heart, here are a few things that might help:

– Take away the cell phone. Impose strict rules about the phone after school.  I believe it is best to turn it off and leave it where your child will NOT be studying.  Cell phone use and texting can resume later in the evening, long after all work is completed.

No sleeping with the phone or computer in the bed. Not only is it unhealthy, but there is evidence that children who are staring into the stimulating screen of a laptop in a dark room are becoming too engaged to sleep properly. Not to mention the drama that ensues when a text pops up in the middle of the night with an exam the next morning.  

Each class has a separate 3-hole binder.  Every day after school, notes and handouts are immediately 3-hole punched and placed in proper chronological order.

– Lastly, if your teen attends a high school that uses the block system (“A” days and “B” days), use 2 separate backpacks, one for each day.  The only object that ever leaves the backpack is the assignment notebook … which must be used on a daily basis for every class.

How did we get here? 

I suspect that it is a combination of overscheduled, exhausted teens, schools that are consumed with maintaining their competitive edge and the incredible boom with social networking.  There is no right answer except that left without some type of  “organizational intervention” our teens might lose out on gaining some very critical cognitive skills before they go to college.  It is a strange new world for parents out there. Together, we will forge a path that enlightens all of us.

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare:  Debby Shulman is a college essay consultant and academic tutor with a private practice in Northbrook, Illinois.  She also professionally collaborates with Amy Simon College Consulting in Bannockburn, Illinois.  Debby also blogs about Motherhood/Teen issues for Your Teen magazine (www.yourteenmag.com). Check out her valuable advice. You, Go, Girl. 





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