Q: I didn't realize how disorganized my fifth-grade son, Garth, was until his teacher told us about multiple uncompleted assignments he had. He enters middle school this fall. She's urged us to work with him on getting his act together this summer, but how?
A: This teacher gets a "C" for flagging the problem ("better late than never") and an "F" for diagnosis.
Garth's incompletes could be due to weak organizational skills, but that's not necessarily the case, says Donna Goldberg, a New York City-based academic coach.
First have an objective talk with Garth. "You might learn, for example, that all the incompletes are from the last class of the day," says Goldberg. "The teacher gives the assignment just before dismissal, after he has stuffed his planner in his backpack. He relies on memory to recall the assignment then forgets. I've seen it happen."
Another reason could be schedule overload. "Some kids go from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. They get home, eat, do half their homework and crash. They aren't mature enough to say, 'Hey, I need more breathing room.' Or they may fear a favorite extracurricular activity will be taken away," she notes.
Make an appointment to see the teacher. Probe for specifics, Goldberg advises.
"Are all the incomplete assignments in the same subject? Were some partially complete? Garth may lack key skills in that subject," she says. "This is a common reason kids fail to complete work, yet it goes undetected until testing shows what skills are missing. The teacher assumes lack of diligence when really it's lack of knowledge. Find out what the gaps are and consult with the school counselor about summer tutoring."
If he has incompletes in all subjects, discuss how he keeps track of assignments. Goldberg says many schools expect all students to record assignments in planners and use them to schedule homework and other activities. He may not be writing down assignments. Or he may have trouble scheduling time. Some teachers post assignments online, assuming that students will check the school's site if they forget.
"Works fine in theory," she says, "but in practice it's hard for the undeveloped brain to manage multiple sources of information. They think, 'I'll remember,' but don't."
Goldberg says that no matter how much online information a school offers, it's important for students at this age to record assignments and instructions, which "helps them remember homework and give it importance."
If Garth's incompletes are skills-related, use the summer to catch up. "You can hire excellent teachers to tutor an hour a couple of days a week. Schedule around Garth's summer plans so it isn't a punishment," Goldberg advises.
If his problems are the result of poor organizational skills, tell Garth that come fall, you'll help him make a fresh start. Read Goldberg's practical book, "The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond" (Touchstone, 2005). When school starts, be proactive: Check in with his teachers to ask how Garth is doing.
(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.)