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Making the Middle School Transition

Tips On Helping Your Child Get Organized and Ready for Middle School

When my kids went from fifth grade to sixth grade, it was a shocking transition. Virtually overnight, we went from a very communicative home/school connection, where parents volunteered frequently in the classroom, to only hearing from the school at report card time. There were no more class parties, no more casual conversations with the teacher as we helped with various crafts or activities and no more notes in the "Friday folder" letting us know what they had done that week.

For my daughter, it was no problem. She sailed through middle school just as she had done through elementary school. Two years later, my son fell apart. His grades dropped, and he seemed to be forever bringing home slips saying he hadn't done his homework even though I knew darn well that he had.

Finally, I called and set up an appointment with the teacher. What I discovered was not that the work had suddenly become too challenging but that there was a much higher expectation of responsibility on him, and it was overwhelming. In other words, he was just disorganized.

A Tough Transition

Carol Utay, executive director of Total Learning Centers in Wexford, Pa., says that sixth grade is a difficult transition for many children.

"Most schools try very hard to make kids independent before they reach middle school, but some still can't handle the increased responsibility right away," she says. "Part of the issue is that they go from having maybe two teachers to having five or more. It may seem like a given that they should know that certain books and materials need to go with them to certain classes, but some kids still aren't capable of dividing everything up and getting it to the right classes."

Utay, who gives seminars on organization and study skills at her local school district, has found that about 30 percent of students going into middle school are perfectly well prepared for the increased responsibilities – while 30 percent need some support. The final 30 percent need significant support. Because most teachers are busy with 30 kids each in eight or nine class periods a day, parents can't expect too much of that support to come from teachers.

When Susie Glennan's daughter, Jaime, started sixth grade she was coming from a homeschooling environment, so the transition was doubly difficult. "After meeting with the teacher and principal, it quickly became clear that the teacher had all she could do to keep up with 30 kids and keep them from being unruly," Glennan says. "I also realized fairly quickly that it was an organizational issue and not an issue of her abilities."

Ultimately, Glennan, the founder of the Busy Woman's Daily Planner, helped her daughter solve the problem by working with her to purchase organizational accessories and advising her on their use. Now it's become a tradition in their family for her to give each of her children a set amount of money at the beginning of the school year to purchase the organizational supplies of their choice. Glennan thinks that giving them that hands-on involvement makes them more apt to stick with an organizational plan.

Top Advice

Don't yell! It's not always easy to stay calm, but this is the first bit of advice that both Utay and Glennan give for parents.

The second is don't belittle the child by saying she's a slob or by pointing out that he can't keep track of anything. This type of reaction merely makes them feel bad and doesn't really help to solve the problem.

"This is not about intelligence or laziness or unmotivated kids," says Utay. "I find for the most part that kids want to be successful, but they may give up if they don't have help figuring it out."

Jessi Morgenstern-Colon understands the challenge of being an organized kid. Morgenstern-Colon is the daughter of organization guru Julie Morgenstern. With her mother, she co-wrote Organizing From the Inside out for Teenagers: The Foolproof System for Organizing Your Room, Your Time and Your Life (Owl Books, 2002).

A preteen not too long ago, Morgenstern-Colon has some excellent advice for helping children get organized. "It's very important for parents to do this as a side-by-side activity with their children," she says. "There are as many organizational systems as there are people, so you just have to find one that works for your child. My personal way was to have a separate binder for each class. Each of those binders was divided into three sections: one for homework, one for things to be handed in and one for class notes. However, I have a friend who likes to have one huge binder. You need to analyze their class schedule, their locker location and their personality and find what works best for all those needs. Most important, parents need to keep a positive attitude so the child feels like he can succeed."

Morgenstern-Colon also recommends getting organized at home to make it a constant habit. In her experience, parents can also be quite disorganized, and setting up a system can help the entire family.

Utay agrees with the total-family organizational approach. She also suggests trying a variety of methods to see what works. She has found that there are some kids who need to literally carry everything with them all the time until they feel confident that they can follow a routine.

Honing Study Skills

Learning effective study skills is another challenge for middle school students. "In middle school, kids are really learning information; it's no longer as much rote learning," says Utay. "A lot of kids think that if there's a test, it's best if they just sit and read and reread, but that's not a good way to retain important information."

Utay suggests the child supplement their reading by highlighting and summarizing in writing the main points of whatever they're studying. When there is more than one test coming up, such as at midterm time, she suggests making a study schedule to devote an appropriate amount of time to each subject.

Utay also notes that while developing study skills can be difficult for any child, gifted children often have even more trouble simply because middle school may be the first time the material challenges them. They have to learn to learn at a much later time than their peers who may have had to always work hard.

"We like to teach kids how to be a student," says Utay. "Some kids get it. They want to sit up front, ask the teachers questions [and] be an alert, engaged student. On the other hand, there are students who are surprised that they have to listen to the teacher when she stands up to talk. We teach the kids cues of when to listen and how to ask questions."

Organizational Tips

Here are a few tips to help your child get organized from the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities:

  • Use checklists.
  • Organize homework assignments.
  • Designate a study space.
  • Set a designated study time.
  • Keep organized notebooks.
  • Conduct a weekly clean-up.
  • Create a household schedule.
  • Keep a master calendar.
  • Prepare for the day ahead.
  • Provide help and support while your child is learning to become more organized.

These tips were adapted from "Tips for Developing Organizational Skills in Children" by the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities (CCLD). Call 1-888-478-6463 for important resources and information about learning disabilities.

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