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Help Students Rise Above the Clutter

Many children have trouble keeping track of assignments, but get by until the demands of multiple teachers in middle school overwhelm them. Organizational consultant Donna Goldberg explains how teachers and parents can help students better manage their time and responsibilities. Included: Tips for helping students be more organized.

Donna Goldberg

Every teacher has at least one student who leaves a trail of papers and pencils wherever he or she goes, can never find his or her homework among the layers of crumpled papers in a backpack, cannot recall assignments, and could lose the Titanic amid all the clutter in a locker.

Often these children struggle in school, not because they can't do the work, but because they can't find it. They have not learned how to organize their belongings or their time -- not unlike many adults.

Children now are under almost as much pressure to be organized as their parents, and a book by Donna Goldberg, The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Tools for Success in School and Beyond offers a blueprint for helping students identify, prioritize, and take charge of school and personal responsibilities.

Goldberg also is the founder of The Organized Student, a 15-year-old organizing consulting firm based in New York City. Goldberg works with students from middle-school age up to graduate-school level, as well as executives and home-based entrepreneurs who need help getting organized so they can work more effectively and productively.

Goldberg talked with Education World about her book and ways teachers and parents can help children become more organized and efficient, leading to less stress at home and school.

"Recent developments, both in and out of school, have made it more difficult for kids to stay organized. The same advances in technology that fill the e-mailboxes, voice-mailboxes, and regular mailboxes of adults overwhelm students with instant messages, text messages, voice messages, handouts, reading packets, and worksheets," says Donna Goldberg, author of The Organized Student.

Education World: How can teachers use your book?

Donna Goldberg: Teachers will be introduced to the theories that challenge students today in getting and staying organized. Organizational skills need to be taught and reinforced, using methods that correspond to individual students' learning styles, in a way that encourages children to discover the systems and tools that work best for them. The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Tools for Success in School and Beyond introduces these principles, together with hands-on lessons. The Organized Student also offers comprehensive explanations for behavioral and cognitive issues and provides concrete tools for addressing and managing them.

EW: At what age can teachers and parents start teaching children organizational skills?

Goldberg: It's never too early to begin to teach these skills. Even students who are organized and successful in early grades can fall apart when they face the changes of middle school or high school. In [early] elementary school -- kindergarten through third grade -- teachers break everything down for the students and stay on top of them every step of the way. They make sure things are being handed in and create step-by-step procedures for the whole class to follow. By fourth grade, teachers [often] assume students have internalized basic organizational skills and no longer watch closely to make sure everything gets done. They expect students to hand in assignments without being asked, they don't check to make sure everyone's written down the homework, and they stop breaking down long-term assignments into small tasks.

Students can quickly fall apart when school becomes departmentalized in sixth grade. Kids are suddenly expected to manage multiple books, notebooks, and supplies, move themselves and their belongings from one classroom to another, or even one building to another, and transition mentally between different subjects and teachers. The shift is challenging for anybody, but particularly for students who never picked up the ability to get organized or keep track of their time and work.

When a student is lacking basic organizational skills, from keeping track of his belongings to keeping track of time, his ability to succeed in school is greatly compromised.

EW: What are some key organizational skills teachers can help students master?

Goldberg: An organized student's world consists of three main areas: a teacher plays a role in the first two, organization at school and time management, and the last area is organization at home, which is beyond a teacher's domain. However, without organization at home it becomes difficult for students to get work completed and back to school on time.

  • Organization in School. A child needs a place to keep current class notes and handouts, a way to get everything from home to school and from classroom to classroom, and someplace to store everything when he's not using it.
  • Time Management. This encompasses everything from gauging how long an activity will take to mapping out a realistic schedule for completing assignments on time. A student needs to learn how to plan, prioritize, and manage his time, and to develop a sense of accountability.
  • Organization at Home. A student should have an efficient and well-stocked area in which he can do his homework and an easy way to store papers and projects he isn't using in school anymore. He also needs to be able to function both in his bedroom and within the household at large.

EW: What are some simple strategies/tools teachers can suggest to help their students organize their notes, assignments, and homework?

Goldberg: The tools provided in The Organized Student enable students to find what they need when they need it so that their anxiety in school will be reduced and they can focus on learning. Working at home and at school becomes less stressful and more effective, and youngsters can discover a new sense of control over everything from their schedules to their papers.

There are three organizing tools that will help students:

  • A three-ring binder or an accordion file contains all of the loose papers (class notes, worksheets, reading packets, tests, quizzes, and assignments) that a child uses on a regular basis in school and at home.
  • A planner keeps track of all of students' commitments, in school and out, so that they know what their workload looks like, can gauge how much time they have to complete work, and can plan accordingly.
  • A desktop filing system at home holds all of the papers children no longer needs for current class work or homework in a logical, orderly fashion so that they can be accessed immediately in preparation for midterms and finals.

EW: How much or how often do you find that at the root of struggling students' problems is a lack of organizational skills?

Goldberg: This is a difficult question for me to answer; the children referred to me by schools, teachers, psychologists, and learning specialists are struggling with organizational issues. What I have seen in the past 15 years of working with students is the growth of the disorganized student phenomenon, and the need for students to be organized seems to increase significantly every year.

EW: Can you explain your approach to organizing backpacks and lockers?

Goldberg: When organizing backpacks and lockers, there are four steps, which spell out PACK: Purge, Accessorize, Categorize, and Keep it up.

  • Purge. This is different from regular maintenance; the locker needs to be cleaned out thoroughly several times a year.
  • Accessorize. Outfit the locker with accessories, such as an extra hook and an additional shelf, to make it easier to find things.
  • Categorize. As an example, a student can subdivide textbooks and notebooks by subject or by morning and afternoon classes.
  • Keep it up. Regular maintenance is needed; this includes getting rid of garbage and consistently returning items to their proper place.

EW:Why does the need for students to be organized in their academic and personal lives seem more acute now?

Goldberg: Recent developments, both in and out of school, have made it more difficult for kids to stay organized. The same advances in technology that fill the e-mailboxes, voice-mailboxes, and regular mailboxes of adults overwhelm students with instant messages, text messages, voice messages, handouts, reading packets, and worksheets.

Changes in family structure have resulted in students moving themselves and their belongings back and forth between two homes on a regular basis, which means that they have twice as many places to leave things and are twice as likely not to have what they need. The development of new curricula aimed at educating "the whole child" has led to fractured schooldays, with more information being taught in less time. These are just some of the shifts that have impacted students' ability to manage their work and their schedules; if we want kids today to have a shot at negotiating their way through school, we have to arm them with the skills they need to do so.

This e-interview with Donna Goldberg is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World


Updated 01/29/2013