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Sympathetic Advice for the Organizationally Challenged

Most disorganized students aren't lazy and unmotivated, but they need help finding a system that works.

This may come as a shock to anyone who knows I make my living helping students with organization and motivation, but I am organizationally challenged.

The people who know me are not surprised by this declaration at all. They have witnessed firsthand the hours I spend looking for my glasses (usually on top of my head), keys (usually in the door), and hearing aid (usually in my ear). It takes me at least three tries to get out the door. If I’m going to the gym, I have to run back home for my water bottle, if I’m going to a meeting I have to run back home for my iPad, if I’m driving carpool I have to run back home for my son.  

So, how is it that I'm able to help students in the one area I struggle with myself? To successfully further my education, I had to find a system to keep myself organized and accountable. It wasn’t easy. There was a lot of trial, error, and frustration, but two master’s degrees later, I think I did a pretty good job.

People who are naturally organized don’t get it. They tend to see a disorganized student as lazy and unmotivated. Students sometimes appear as if they don’t care. Trust me, they do. What they don’t know is what to do about it.

Students who struggle with organization often start the school year with great intentions. They go shopping for school supplies with their parents, who buy whatever they feel will help their disorganized kid stay on top of things, convinced this year will be different.

School supplies are color-coded, labeled, and alphabetized with military precision. Students begin school feeling confident and they do stay organized for about three weeks before it comes apart at the seams. These bright students slip right back into bad habits and grades begin to suffer.

The reason this happens is really not so hard to figure out. It’s because it's  very hard to break bad habits. If it were easy there would be no one with a weight problem, no smokers, and Las Vegas would be a theme park.

The very first time I meet with a student with organizational difficulties, we go through their backpack together. I have found some crazy items at the bottom of backpacks: Axe cologne, a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich, sunglasses in the shape of shamrocks, permission slips from 2009, every school supply under the sun, and inevitably, the assignment they swore they turned in but the teacher lost. 

Sometimes I will open a backpack, peek inside and see perfectly organized folders, binders and notebooks. These are the worst. They appear to have it all together but open any binder or folder and it’s a hot mess. I have filled many a trash bag from kids like this.

Once all the junk is cleared out, we get down to business — finding and maintaining an organizational system that works. Sounds easy, right? Well, not so much. Next week I will explore systems to stay on top of school work. In the meantime, if you have any great tips, please let me know!

About this column: Susan Schaefer, director and founder of Academic Coaching Associates, is an academic coach, student advocate, and certified teacher. We encourage you to visit her website: Academic Coaching Associates. You may email Sue at susan.schaefer@academiccoachingct.com. You can also follow Sue on twitter: @sueschaefer1

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