Q: My son Gavin is now in middle school and totally disorganized. He loses papers, forgets assignments and their due dates. While he's never been organized, it was never this bad. Any tips?
A: Disorganized elementary students often have trouble when they hit middle school. The transition from a self-contained classroom, where one teacher issued assignments and frequent due-date reminders, to switching from classroom to classroom, with different teachers, takes a more organized brain.
When it comes to teaching these essential skills, "readiness is everything," says psychologist Richard Selznick, director of the New Jersey-based Cooper Learning Center, a part of Cooper University Hospital in Camden.
Gavin's middle-school muddle may signal that he's ready to learn some basics. Don't expect, however, that he'll master these skills overnight, advises Selznick, the author of "School Struggles" (Sentient Publications, 2012).
He suggests a "study skill of the month" approach. Make September's skill "learning to use a planner." Talk about a planner's function to record assignments and reminders, and why it's important to update it with every class. Each night, without nagging, review how it went. Offer pointers for improvement and reinforcement for a job well done.
"On a calendar, keep track of times the skill was practiced with reasonable success," says Selnick, "using a plus sign for doing the task and a minus sign when it wasn't done. Offer an incentive for a week of pluses."
Organized students have mastered two kinds of skills -- cerebral and physical, says Donna Goldberg, a learning coach and author of "The Organized Student" (Touchstone, 2005).
Cerebral skills help organize information mentally, Goldberg explains, "filing it in our brain so we can access it, act on it and sequence events over time. Physical skills refer to the way we manage our space and work tools."
Look at the physical aspects with Gavin. Ask yourself: Is there one place for his backpack when he comes home? Is there a distraction-free place for homework that is well-stocked so he doesn't waste time looking for a pencil? Does he have a folder system to hold papers he needs for future review? Does he have a three-ring binder or accordion file, labeled by subject, to carry worksheets, quizzes, spelling lists, assignments and so on?
One important cerebral skill is visualizing time. Many kids raised on digital devices "see 'time' as a number -- not hands going around a dial -- and may not know what practicing the trumpet for 20 minutes feels like," says Goldberg.
For some students, an analog clock can help estimate time.
In addition, "a daily planner can help him visualize his workload so he can gauge how much time he needs to complete it," says Goldberg.
Sequencing, another important cerebral skill, helps establish routines and habits to stay on task, says Goldberg. Help Gavin establish a predictable sequence each day -- come home from school, hang up backpack, grab a snack, do homework, 30 minutes of video games, prepare backpack for the next day, and so on.
Work with Gavin a little each day. "Praise progress and reinforce systems you've set up together until he owns them," says Goldberg. "Expect trial and error. Change what doesn't work, and don't worry when it falls apart. Learning to be organized is a process that's perfected over time."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)