Have you ever opened a middle schooler’s backpack to find a mess of papers, crushed pencils, and uneaten snacks? That emoji-themed folder that your child was so excited to pick out in the beginning of the year torn to shreds? The ‘Math’ section mysteriously also being the go-to folder for notices about PTA potlucks, field trip reminders, and returned quizzes from history class?
The transition from elementary school to middle school can be a big one that’s full of exciting new opportunities for kids. Transitioning from a single classroom to multiple classrooms, teachers, and possibly classmates can be a fun and welcome change. However, this change is often accompanied by increased independence and the expectation that folders and backpacks will be managed by the student themselves. Gone are the days of a cubby in the back of the classroom where all those documents live. So, what is a parent to do? Follow the guidelines below to increase your child’s likelihood of staying on top of their assignments and clearing the clutter in their backpack.
1. Start with a filing system
Invest in a filing system, like this one from Amazon. Create a tab for each subject. For instance, a 6th grade math class would be called ‘Math 6’, whereas homeroom or advisory would be marked ‘HR 6’ or ‘Advisory 6’. This filing system will live in a visible place in an area where you and your child (or their babysitter, tutor, etc.) go through the backpack together.
2. Schedule a backpack clean out
Pick one time during the weekend to initiate a backpack clean out, ideally on Friday afternoons after school. The weekend is ideal because there is less opportunity for pushing it off should homework or a basketball game end up taking over the normal Tuesday time slot, for instance. Any time between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning is preferred over any other day because the assignments and papers in the backpack will be fresh in your child’s mind, and will set him or her up for success whenever they do decide to sit down to do their homework (hopefully not after dinner on Sunday night, but more on that in another post).
3. Incentivize the chore
Grab the timer on your phone and set it for 45 minutes for the first time, and then 15 minutes every week after that. Decide on a reward together. “If we can do this in 45 minutes or less, I’ll let you have a treat. Would you rather have X, Y, or Z?” Incentives can be hugely helpful in ensuring that you’re not doing this on your own with apathetic participation from your middle schooler. You’ll need your child’s full attention, since they’re the expert on what they are working on in school.
4. Remove distractions
Eliminate distractions so that there is no TV on in the background and no other people nearby. Clear off a space, like the kitchen table, and roll up your sleeves. Have your middle schooler open their backpack and take everything out- every pencil, every folder, every smashed paper at the bottom. Lay all items out on the table. Make sure that the folders or binders they have are free of loose paper. Everything that can be removed from them should be placed on the table.
5. Sort out the paper
Start to organize everything into the following three piles:
- Keep: These are all documents related to the units that your child is currently working on in school. If they’re reading The Giver in ELA class, all documents relating to The Giver should be in this pile, for example.
- Toss: All newsletters, reminders, and documents related to past units that are definitively over. Class worksheets, study guides, and reminders related to earlier units or marking periods will likely fall into this category.
- File: All quizzes, tests, and graded work from past units or marking periods.
6. Now, organize
File away the File pile, and recycle the Toss pile. Then, take your middle schooler’s now empty folders and start to fill them with the Keep pile in the following way, labeling the folders with the following words in permanent marker:
- Hold: All classwork, study guides, and pending/returned homework.
- Return: All completed homework goes into this folder, including tests/quizzes that need to be signed and returned. This will help to avoid the moment when you find out that despite watching your middle schooler complete homework for hours every week, their homework average is mysteriously low and those assignments they spent hours on are among the crushed at the bottom of the bag.
7. Incentivize the chore
Collect all writing utensils and place them in a pencil case or zip lock bag. Grab a dust buster and clean out the crumbs in the backpack.
8. Reset the backpack
Place the folders back in the backpack, or next to the notebooks or binders that they go with in your middle schooler’s organizational system.
The first time you do this, it’s best to give your child some space and not ask them to start on homework right away, as this might end up being a fairly overwhelming task to complete. However, once you get into a weekly 15-minute habit of going through these folders and notebooks, the amount of energy expended will decrease and you’ll find that it can be a great way to jumpstart homework for the week.
Next time, I’ll discuss pairing this organization system with a weekly planner. In the meantime, enjoy the satisfaction of a clean backpack and a happier homework routine!
Interested in connecting with Becca for middle school mathematics support?