Ask the Grumpies: How to teach organization and time management to a middle schooler.

First Gen American asks:

How [does one] teach organization and time management to a middle schooler.

We have had some luck with putting a checklist on the fridge that DC1 has to go through every night, but it isn’t foolproof. If it were, DC1 would be getting an A in orchestra because zie wouldn’t have forgotten to log hir practice.  How do you remember to practice but not remember to log the practice?  It boggles the mind.

Does anyone else have more/better suggestions?

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15 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: How to teach organization and time management to a middle schooler.”

  1. Practical Parsimony Says:

    I have had jobs I liked but paperwork I hated. Maybe if there was a log page near or with her practice so she could immediately log her time she would be more successful than having to walk all the way to the refrigerator to log her practice. Once a week she could transfer her times. Removing screen time from her schedule might keep her on track. I don’t mean to use it as a punishment, just as an interruption to remind her.

    One of my requirements was that my children push up their chairs when they left the table. I would call for my son to return from a friend’s house. When he arrived and asked what I wanted, I told him he forgot to push up his chair. He would groan and slam the chair up. I made him stand still, calm down, and pull out the chair and push it in gently. One day when I did not call him, he came rushing into the kitchen. When I asked him what was wrong, he said he forgot to push in his chair. He calmly pushed it in and ran off to play. My friends said I should have just pushed it in for him. Is your child must take time from a video or an activity she enjoys to go log her time, she might remember better. Of course, at first I had to remind him to push up the chair, but the interruption of his fun was the thing that caused the lesson to stick, not my nagging/reminding/questioning.

  2. Jay Says:

    Depends on the kid, and the reason for the challenges. My kid has a surfeit of executive function and a preference for order, so when she didn’t remember to do her homework on time, our diagnosis was “doesn’t care,” which subsequently proved to be accurate. She did care about her grades, so that was self-correcting. This will not work for all kids – or probably for most kids. It’s worth having a conversation with the kid – not in the heat of the moment – about what hir goals are and what strategies zie thinks would be helpful.

    For neurotypical kids, it’s also worth thinking about parental involvement as scaffolding, rather than solving the problem. The goal is not “manage middle school assignments.” It’s “learn the skills necessary to manage what’s coming next, preferably independently.” Checklists are good. Planners are good – some kids do better with an app planner, and some with a paper planner. Advice about building routines (come home, check planner, etc) also helps.

    Both my spouse and I did our homework first, immediately on arriving home in the afternoon. My kid needs time to decompress, and we have learned to allow that. If she takes a half-hour to eat and “mess around,” then she can sit down and get her work done. So don’t impose your routine – or your idea of what routine should be – on your kid.

    I’m generally a believer in tolerating the natural consequences from school (again, for a neurotypical kid) but I didn’t have to deal with competitive HS admissions, so middle school was a good place to let her struggle and learn the lessons necessary for high school. As a result, we looked up after her bat mitzvah (middle of 7th grade) and realized she was failing science due to the aformentioned failure to get homework done. Families who have to deal with a competitive HS process may not be able to tolerate that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ironically, DC1 lost hir school planner this week and has to buy a new one, which zie forgot to do yesterday despite having the money.

      Poor DC1 had massive planning failures yesterday (DH listed about 7 things DC1 has lost in the past week, though we did find hir orchestra book in with hir piano books tonight, also zie forgot to bring home hir math homework, second time this week). Zie was pretty sad about it. Zie wants to be more organized…

      • Jay Says:

        Poor kid. I presume zie has a backpack for hir school stuff? And the issue is things not getting into the backpack either at school or at home? Would zie benefit from reminders at each transition – did you put books back in your bag? Have you done x/y/z? Have you looked at the checklist? Given the sadness and the desire for more organization, I would not take a punitive approach. This is tough.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        They’re not allowed to carry their backback between classes. It has to stay in the locker during the day. We’re not sure where the stuff goes! Generally zie finds hir stuff a few days later in one of the lost and founds, but not always.

        We’re not punitive at all. Zie is only 10 (despite being in 6th grade) and will probably grow out of it. Even if zie weren’t remorseful we’d still be going with natural consequences because the alternative is to do all the organization ourselves and who has time for that?

      • Rosa Says:

        is that worse than usual? If it is it might be the same kind of thing with infants or toddlers – a big cognitive load in another area of learning, or a growth spurt, or the first signs of an illness coming on or some other big stress thing.

  3. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    I should add we had to disallow video games during the week because zie forgot zie had to do anything before playing. So zie would just forget homework, lunch, etc.

    We are now buying school lunch because making it every night and taking it in the morning was too difficult for hir.

  4. Becca Says:

    Does zie have a phone yet?
    I found a breastfeeding/pumping app that has made an enormous difference (I don’t have to remember what side I fed on, or how long it’s been). I imagine there are time tracking apps that could be used to log practice time. If the band instructor requires a printed log and you can’t print from the phone, it might not help, but it is the kind of “adult relevant life skill” that technology helps with!

    Also, consider narrating the day aloud and asking hir what ze will need for each step- eventually you want hir to be able to plan and have a mental checklist for what to take with hir (as a grown up, I often say “keys, wallet, phone” as I go out the door. Kidlet is now sometimes better than I am at finding phone and keys.). I am trying to insist Kidlet ALWAYS takes hir backpack from the car and ALWAYS empties it first thing upon getting home, but those habits are slow to build.

  5. Miser Mom Says:

    About checklists — some of my kids have loved them (N-son in particular) and some of my kids *hated* them (J-son). For a checklist to work, even with the kids who like them, is that there has to be a trigger to go over the checklist — either a time, or a situation. It sounds like you do your “wallet watch phone key” right as you go out the door. N-son does his room-cleaning checklist each Friday night. He does his back-pack checklist before bed each night (when we remember that’s the “trigger”, but not when we forget to remind him). If I were a better parent, he’d do his backpack checklist before he gets out his phone each day . . .

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ours starts basically when zie gets home. The problem is, of course, that initially the list had “violin” on it but didn’t have “log violin”. Just like last year zie would do reading but wouldn’t log reading. I am SO glad we no longer have to log reading.

  6. Cloud Says:

    In talking to adults who hate checklists, I have found two alternative strategies people use successfully (1) calendars- they just schedule everything onto their calendar, which I would hate, but works for them, (2) routines- they try to make most things routine so that they have very few non-routine things to remember.

    In general, I have found that focusing on time management/organization as a skill to learn and not a character flaw really helps people. I don’t know if a middle schooler would have picked up on the fact that we tend to treat being disorganized as a character flaw or not, but a lot of the adults I’ve worked with have, and getting them to change their mindset to “this is just a set of skills I can learn” really helps. The skills aren’t necessarily hard, but if you’re stuck thinking about it as a personal failing, you will undermine your attempts to learn them.

    The other thing that seems to help some people (again, I’ve only got experience teaching this to adults) is to focus on incremental improvements. Instead of a big bang adoption of an entire new system, some people do better with adding one new tool at a time.

    Final thought: I’ve read that a lot of girls with ADHD don’t get diagnosed because they tend to manifest it as being dreamy/disorganized. I suspect that is not just girls, but any child who has learned not to be disruptive but essentially internalizes their distractions instead. If you have any suspicions at all about this being the cause, it might be worth talking to your pediatrician for a referral to a therapist to see if this is the problem, and who could also help your kid develop coping strategies.

    • gwinne Says:

      This is very timely. I actually had LG take an online inventory for teens about ADHD. She checked most of the boxes…

      We have the did the homework and left it in the backpack problem (and the same thing about the music log). ARGH.

  7. Practical Parsimony Says:

    About losing things–my son when he was ten lost seven coats/jackets in one school year. He grew out of losing things and not doing things in a timely manner and went on to become a responsible adult. My airhead daughter is now so focused its scary. I spent lots of time teaching both of them to focus and think about their actions, each overcoming the habits that I was sure they would never overcome.

    When my daughter was ten, she “lost” all her panties. It turned out all the clean ones she took to her room were just stashed behind the door. As an adult she could not explain that action.

  8. First Gen American Says:

    Late to the game here as work has been all consuming.

    I Like the suggestions. We can’t have gaming at all during the week. It
    Just doesn’t work. I am hearing that some patience is required and hoping that sooner or later they will figure things out.

    Related to time management, older son would game every second of the day, forgoing eating, sleeping, etc if he got to his way. This is one of the primary reasons he doesn’t have a phone.

    I guess it’s a relief to know many kids are flaky at this age (even the super smart ones) and they will eventually grow out of most of it.


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