Q&A Wednesday: How can I help my teenager get organized?

Reader Brendalee asked us a question on Facebook that made my heart hurt a little:

My big problem is with my 13 yr old and her school work and getting it organized to where “she” can find things easily. I have tried to divide up her binder, list the classes and get a hole punch so when she finishes her work she can just put it on top of the appropriate folder in her binder, but its not working for her…HELP!

Seeing your child struggle with organization is heart-wrenching, frustrating, and maybe even a little scary.

Organization is a skill that’s essential for academic success – and if the solutions you’re implementing aren’t working for your child, it’s hard to stop your brain from flashing to the negative implications and hitting the panic button. And once that panic button is hit – tensions tend to flare. Right?

I speak from experience on this front — my oldest struggles with attention & organization issues (a prime example of the cobbler’s children having no shoes?). As a mama bear, I want to protect him from the downside of disorganization but at the same time, I really don’t want to make him dependent on me. It is so difficult to know where to draw that line.

One thing that is very tempting to do, but probably should be avoided: leaping right to a product solution, like the binder you described above. Products are definitely great aides, but, the what you are really trying to instill here is a new behavior, and more precisely, a new organizational habit.

So, to address your daughter’s need, let’s take a step back and look at ways to help her adopt the habit of organizing her school work.

The Keys to Habit Formation

To help our son, my husband and I started working with a wonderful psychologist recently who has opened our eyes to the importance of something he calls the “positive opposite.” In a nutshell, the goal isn’t to “punish” wrong behavior into oblivion, but rather to identify and reward positive behavior in such a way that the negative behavior gets crowded off the stage or, in the language of psychology, becomes extinct.

We’ve been experimenting with positive behavioral modification at home and have been absolutely astounded at the results. In our experience to date, it really, really works. And fast! Plus it is a lot more fun.

Embrace your quest to help your daughter become more organized as a journey. She will have good days and bad days, but if you give her plenty of opportunity to practice positive new behaviors and consistently reward progress, it is just a matter of time until they are hardwired in.

Here are some suggested steps for you to try with your daughter.

Step 1: Identify the ideal behavioral outcome positively

What specifically is/are the ideal outcome(s)? Is it for her to get all of her homework done on time, have the right papers & books with her in class, be on time to class? The more specific you can be about the ideal outcome, the easier outlining a course of action to get there will be.

For example, my oldest struggles with writing legibly because he races through things. But that’s too vague to be really useful. So, we identified three ideal outcomes for his writing as follows:
– “a’s” and “u’s” that are clearly identifiable as “a” or “u”
– “l’s,” “t’s,” “f’s,” “h’s,” that go up to the top line on a page
– spacing of a pinky finger between words

Step 2: Pick no more than three behaviors to work on immediately

Think of how hard it is to change one of your habits – (i.e. going from couch potato to exercising regularly). If you try to change too many things at once, success is elusive. Your best bet is to identify one or two behaviors to focus on first. And then build on those once they are cemented in. Think about the behaviors that would have the biggest overall impact on her success – or behaviors that would give her easy wins and get momentum working in her favor and start there.

Step 3: Develop a practice plan

Once you identify the specific behavior you want to reinforce, map out how to provide your daughter with ample opportunity to practice the desired behavior. The more opportunities she has to practice it, the better. Work WITH her to map this out, too. The more she helps shape the process, the more likely she is to stick with it over time.

Step 4: Reward her progress consistently

Once you map out your practice plan, it is essential to establish a highly visible tracking mechanism. Tracking ensures consistency!

Be sure to consider how you can reward her progress vs. having a black-or-white, all-or-nothing goal. As a rule of thumb, your daughter should have an 70-80% chance or better of succeeding at the desired behavior, so you may need to figure out the baby steps she should take on her way to a more global change.

For example, we have a chart on our fridge with M/T/W/Th/Fri as columns across the top and the writing goals mentioned above as rows. If our son gets at least 75% of his “a’s” and “u’s” written correctly on his nightly homework, he is rewarded with lots of praise AND a star in the appropriate column AND 5 extra minutes of play time that evening. Ditto if he makes at least 75% of his tall letters properly tall.

If he gets at least 8 out of 10 stickers on his chart each week, he gets $1 to buy ice cream at lunch on Friday. When he gets 8 out of 10 stickers on his chart for four consecutive weeks, he gets to bring a good buddy to the dinosaur museum on a Saturday.

Since your daughter is older, she will obviously need different rewards. You should consult her on what she’d find meaningful (provide her with a few suggestions and let her suggest some as well). They don’t have to be things.

Step 5: Keep a big picture map & celebrate mastery

The visible tracking mechanism is key. Once your daughter has mastered a behavior, celebrate it. When our oldest gets to take his buddy to the dino museum, that will be our celebration of his mastery of these two skills.

Step 6: Rinse & repeat for the next set of behaviors

Once something becomes second nature, it’s time to repeat this same process with the next desired baby step change on the list.

Brendalee, I hope this helps and please keep us posted! We’re cheering you both on from here.

Do you have a child that is struggling to stay organized? What tricks have you used that work?