Helping Teens get Organized

teen organization

The abyss. The black hole. These are nicknames I give to students’ binders in middle school.  Who can find anything in an explosion of papers?

You know this all too well.  So what’s a parent to do?  Here are some steps I found that helped my students.

Identify a System they already use (even if it’s not effective)

Have you ever found yourself spending an hour helping your kiddo reorganize their papers by color coding, creating folders for each subject or even binders only to find it was a tangle of papers the next week?  Did you want to tear your hair out? Sigh in exasperation?  You’re not alone; I’ve done it, and seen many a teacher or aide try too. 

So what’s the secret?  Often students already have an organizational system.  They put all their papers in their binder, agenda book, or file folder.  It’s just hard to find. 

Instead of creating a completely new system, work with what they already use.  It’s easier for students to follow through with organizing their things if they already have a routine.  It can take a couple months to develop a habit so tweaking an existing one is likely to see better results than to create a new one entirely.

One student I worked with stuffed everything in her agenda book.  She said it was what she looked at every day, so she had already established a routine for where to find her work.  I didn’t want to change that. 

What we did was organize her agenda using binder clips.  Homework to be done went in the front and work that was done went in the back.  Any other notes or papers she filed elsewhere.

Establish a Weekly Time to Cull the Abyss

A teen’s frontal lobe, which handles organization and decision making, is still developing during school years.  Therefore kids need support to be organized. 

What about those kids that are always organized?  How did they get that way if their brain is still developing in this area?  Routine. 

Getting organized doesn’t just happen overnight after a cleaning session or over a week.  Kids need to make it a part of their routine.  So to help them, establish a time to work with them on this and it can a time to bond with your child too.

Once a student and I each week would sit together on the floor and chat about her after school endeavors while she reorganized her papers and filed them.  I would help her sort into subjects, and she would file it in her binder or toss the paper.  When we were done her binders were neat and organized for each subject.  We just sorted and prioritized. I didn’t comment on why something wasn’t done, what the pile looked like, or any displeasure at all. I feel like this would have brought tension into the situation and kept a bond from forming.

As time went on she sorted and filed on her own, finding her papers for class more quickly.  Once the habit has been established then the time you used to organize can become a time to bond in another way, so s/he can still receive the positive attention without having to have a messy pile of papers. Years later I found out that this time was really special to her and really helpful.

Have a Routine at Home too

A teen’s room can look like an explosion of confetti too.  How do you tame that beast so that your son or daughter can find that overdue book, that missing sock, or the source of that mysterious smell?  How can you help your child not forget his/her lunch or remember not to leave that homework paper on the desk?  I find a clean space can get cluttered easily if you don’t take the time to put things back where they belong.  There isn’t an easy answer to this question but here are some ideas:

  • Work with your teen to create a schedule that works for him/her to clean.
  • Help them create their own daily routine to keep things decluttered and encourage and support them as they work to maintain that developing habit. Start small. For example start with making their bed each day. Then when they get that habit down move onto another. Don’t point out when they miss a day.
  • Girls might find it fun to have a decorating/cleaning party with their friends a fun reward like an ice cream party afterward.
  • Maybe at home they need a reward to clean their room or maybe they need a consequence.  It all depends on your child. 
  • Make it a family event where everyone is responsible for a room and then there’s a reward after like going out to dinner or some other special event that your teen would enjoy, like having a friend over.
  • Maybe each week there’s a cleaning day where they have to clean their room and a consequence if they don’t like losing screen/technology time.
  • Maybe there’s a spot your child always goes by or sits at each day which can cue him or her about bringing lunch or that homework paper to school, so that every day they can associate their morning routine with checking the counter for their lunch bag or random homework paper.

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