Why and How to Teach Organization Skills to Middle School Students
Organization is arguably the most underrated yet among the most important skills we can teach our students to equip them for success in school and beyond. Yet, in my experience, it is the most overlooked and least taught strategy in schools.
As teachers, we often expect our students to know how to be organized before they enter our classroom. Consequently, we’re frustrated when they can’t find their assignments or when they show up to class without their basic supplies.
And when it’s time for them to clean out their desks or lockers, we cringe as we watch the avalanche of loose papers, binders, notebooks, and items of unknown origin plunge onto the floor.
The truth is, many students don’t know how to be organized.
Why Do Students Lack Organization Skills?
- They may have poor role models at home or in school—they have not been taught by way of example.
- They have not been intentionally taught organization skills.
- They don’t think they need to learn to keep their things organized because in the past somebody else has always done this for them.
- They don’t see why being organized matters.
Transition From Elementary to Middle School
The transition from elementary school—where students are in the same class with the same teacher all day—to middle school—where students switch classrooms and teachers each period—is overwhelming for many students.
Not only do students now have to adjust to a new classroom and teacher for each period, but they also have to adapt to not having the same desk throughout the school day, and they must remember to take all their materials with them before they leave each class, stop at their lockers between classes to drop off what they don’t need, and pick up what they need for their next class.
In addition, they have to remember where each of their classes is located throughout the building, and they must stay on top of all of their teachers’ individual nuances in terms of class rules and expectations.
If the transition from elementary school to middle school is challenging for students who have learned how to be organized, imagine how much more challenging it is for students who have not learned how to be organized!
Why Do Teachers Neglect to Teach Organization Skills?
- We expect our students to already know how to be organized when they come to school.
- We have so much academic content to cover that we “don’t have time” to teach our students organization skills.
- We don’t think it’s our job to teach our students to be organized.
- We have given up on teaching our students to be organized because our past efforts have produced little, if any, results
The problem is that our reasons for failing to teach organization skills to our students don’t change a basic point: Being organized helps students be successful in school and in their lives beyond school.
If strong organization skills help students be successful, we must teach and encourage our students to be organized, regardless of how challenging this may be.
What Does Being Organized Look like for Middle School Students?
- having a pencil box or pouch to keep all their writing tools (pencils, pens, highlighters, etc.) as well as other supplies they use regularly such as scissors and glue sticks
- having a designated binder (or section of a binder), notebook, and/or folder for each academic class, based on the requirements of each teacher
- keeping their papers for each class in their designated location (binder, folder, etc.)
- having a locker that is free of clutter—papers and other materials that are irrelevant to school or otherwise not needed for the remainder of the school year
- staying on top of due dates for assignments as well as upcoming quiz and test dates
Organization Strategies to Equip Middle School Students for Success:
- Intentionally teach students how to keep their locker free of clutter. Lockers are often very narrow which makes it difficult for students to keep their belongings organized. If lockers don’t have built-in shelves, introduce students to expandable locker shelves and hanging locker organizers, which give students considerable more space for their materials. Keep in mind that for many less privileged students, these add-ons may be commodities they can’t afford. Does your school have a budget set aside to help meet the needs of underprivileged students?
- Provide each student with a school agenda and teach them how to use it. The agenda's main purpose is for students to record due dates for assignments, quiz and test dates, and other important events throughout the school year. Throughout the first month of school, use a document camera to model how to do this every time you give an assignment with a due date or announce an upcoming quiz or test. Make sure you show students how to navigate through their agenda to locate specific months, days and class periods. Many school agendas have the name of each academic class, such as Language Arts and Math, printed along the side margin on each page. Don’t assume students will independently know how to navigate through their agenda because chances are, many of them don’t.
- Offer incentives for coming to class prepared. For example, stamp students' agendas for each day they show up to class with it and with their other basic supplies (pencil, binder, etc). At the end of the week, students who earned stamps during the week get fake money (the more days they come to class prepared, the more money they earn) which can be used to purchase items from a school store on Fridays. Alternatively, offer an intangible reward such as free time on Fridays (the more days they come to class prepared, the more free time they earn).
- Give each student a two pocket “Take Home folder.” Label the left pocket “Stays Home” and the right pocket “Return to School” to facilitate organization for students and to ensure a higher chance of parents receiving and returning important school information. Ask students to take their folder home and return it to school daily. In my experience, a “Take Home folder” has been a lifesaver for both teachers and parents, while at the same time enabling students to keep their papers organized.
- Provide students a regular time to clean out their lockers. For example, 2:45 pm every other Friday will be locker clean-out time. Make clear to your students what they should keep and what they should take home or throw out.
- Model organization in the classroom. This includes having a designated location for all materials throughout the room, as well as how you maintain your desk area. Students are watching you and if they see that you don’t practice what you preach, they likely won’t take you seriously when you talk to them about how important it is to be organized.
- Teach students how to use dividers. If you ask your students to use dividers in their binders, make clear to them whether their paper should go in front or behind each divider for each section of their binder. Believe me, if students are not used to using dividers, let alone binders, they are not going to automatically know this. This simple instruction can save them a lot of stress and confusion later.
- Tell students where to place their papers at the end of class. At the end of each class, make it a habit to instruct students on where to place their papers/work. For example: “place all your work in your Math binder” or “keep these handouts in your Language Arts folder.” Watch them to ensure they follow your directions!
- Encourage students to prepare their backpacks each evening. This means making sure their folders, binders, pencil pouch, and anything else they need for school is in their backpack and ready to go in the morning. This simple habit can make all the difference in how successful a student is in the classroom and will also serve to alleviate a lot of unnecessary daily stress.
How Does Being Organized Help Students Be Successful?
- Students can easily locate assignments or supplies—for any given class—when they need them because they know exactly where to find them.
- Assignments easily located means fewer assignments turned in tardy, fewer assignments not turned in, which means fewer points lost and higher scores on assignments.
- Students are less likely to “forget” about or be unprepared for upcoming quizzes and tests because they have recorded assessment dates in their agenda.
- Students’ self-esteem rises as they experience pride in turning in work they invested time and effort in, and students receive scores that reflect this investment without a deduction of points for tardiness or for not turning work in.
- Increased self-esteem leads to continual success in the classroom, as students learn to take pride in their work and in the fruit of their labor, as evidenced by higher scores.
Organization breeds confidence. When students know each of their items has a designated “home” where it belongs, they know where to keep it, which means they know where to find it when they need it. This gives them a sense of security and confidence.
In the end, as we well know, we can’t force our students to be organized. However, there are many ways we can motivate and encourage them to be organized. Remember that organization equips them for success in the classroom and beyond!
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Geri McClymont