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You're teaching a lesson on math, and you see Johnny shuffling through his enormous trapper keeper still. Not only can't he find his pencil, but he left his notes in his locker. At the end of class, he shoves all his papers into the trapper keeper, not bothering to look where he shoves them, nearly drops his stack of books at he trips out the door, and you wonder if he'll finally get his homework done tonight. Perhaps "Johnny" describes one student in your classroom or makes up a composite of several students in your room. Either way, you may feel complete exasperation at his lack of organization and wonder why he just can't get his act together (or her act together, as the case may be). You do know this: Johnny's grades reflect his poor organization skills because he either doesn't do his homework or never knows where to find it. He loses instructional time to locating important items. In short, he needs some help!
What can you do? Here are some strategies for helping students with organizational problems:
- Call Johnny's mom and tell her that the big zip-up binder has got to go. If your school has a reserve of binders somewhere, offer them if the parent doesn't have the means to get something else. I do not allow the zip-up binders because they breed disorganization and kids hide the disorganization in them. It's like hiding in a baggy sweatshirt. For the child with organizational problems, I recommend a separate binder for every class. Make each one a separate color, and you're really good. Label the front and the side with the class so the child can pull the correct binder out of the locker easily, and you're doing great.
- Make sure that Johnny has a guideline for how he should have the binder for your class set up. One of the hardest things for a child with organizational problems to do is figure out how to set up a notebook independently. He will just put all his papers in there in no particular order. If you give notes and homework, at least have him separate the binder into notes and homework to have separation between the two.
- Hole punch hand-outs you give to Johnny. How else can you expect him to keep everything in his binders and not lose anything? Never expect a child with organizational problems to keep up with a paper that you did not hole-punch. At the end of the class period, give a reminder to the class to put all of their materials safely in their binders. I make my reminder not-so-subtle, but we're in middle school. "Click-Click - If it's hole-punched, I should hear it go in the binder!" Praise if you hear clicking sounds.
- If getting procedural things are an issue, cue cards often help, but make them really bright. I use neon colored index cards and write out a numbered list of things the student should complete in the order they need to complete them. Switch out the color periodically. Otherwise, Johnny won't notice it after a while.
- If your school has a specific planner that the students all use for writing down homework, require the student to acquire a signature from each teacher once he has written the correct homework assignment down. You can do the same thing without a school wide planner, but either make a planner for the student using a folder and a printed-out calendar or have the student buy an agenda.
- If you find the time, sit down with Johnny and help him get organized. Offer him incentives for staying that way. You can find out a lot about a kid and their willingness to stay organized by how they respond your help. Most of the time, though, you'll find a grateful student on the receiving end of your efforts.
- Post a checklist in Johnny's locker to help remind him what materials to grab between classes. He can refer to his checklist between classes to prevent any memory lapses. Utilize the strategy of using a brightly colored index card and changing the color frequently in this case just like in Strategy #4. Locker time often feels rushed, but stress to the student the importance of taking an extra couple of seconds to use the checklist in order to come to class prepared.
Let's face it. Until he gets organized and has a system for staying that way, your "Johnny" (or Johnetta) will stay lost in a sea of disorganization. You can make a difference with just a few easy strategies. Helping students with organizational strategies takes a little more of your time, but just think of the pay-off.