Teacher says: Want your child to succeed in school? Help them clean out their backpack.

One of my high school students had asked for help with his homework. “Of course, I’ll help,” I answered.

I told him to find it and watched as he hauled his heavy backpack onto one of the classroom desks and started to dig.

I allowed him a couple of minutes of futile search before asking him to take everything out to see whether he could throw anything away. He claimed he didn’t, but proceeded with enthusiasm.

I wasn’t surprised.

Students love to clean out their backpacks as they believe they get to dodge work. My years of experience as a classroom teacher, however, have taught me that spending time now allows students more time on task later. The student might have thought he was getting away with something now, but I knew I would win in the end.

We found plenty of interesting things in his backpack: stacks of handouts from the previous school year, pencils, old tests and report cards as well as empty chip bags and candy wrappers, all of it covered in a disturbing orange dust.

“Cheez-It crackers” the student explained before he, with a triumphant yell, pulled out what looked like a failed origami project from his backpack.

Locating his homework had taken about 20 minutes.

All parents know that students receive enough handouts to wallpaper a house, and unless they use an organizational system, their backpacks will soon resemble an experiment in hoarding. While students might want to do their homework, they often give up if they can’t find it within a reasonable time.

Cluttered backpacks are overwhelming and it’s easy to miss something in the chaos. Students’ failure to do their homework might be due not to inability or laziness, but to a lack of organizational skills.

There is a simple fix so they will do it themselves.

Use the following five steps to help students to get organized and they might become more engaged in their homework, and in cleaning out their own backpack. If not, at least, they can no longer use the “I can’t find it, I probably left it at school” excuse we all know so well.

  1. Check your kids’ backpacks once a week. I picked Fridays for my own kids, but any day will work. We started as early as fourth grade, but don’t worry, you won’t have to organize backpacks forever. If you start early, they’ll develop the skills and habits to manage on their own.
  2. Ignore protests. Your kids will object; they’ll claim that they need every single piece of paper in the backpack. I’ve seen students cling to their papers as if they were life rafts from the Titanic. Stay firm and make sure you involve them in the process. They’ll enjoy it for a few minutes, tossing and sorting with abandon.
  3. Recycle everything that is obsolete. I’m no Marie Kondo, but a certain amount of ruthlessness is required to make a dent in the endless cycle of handouts. This is a tricky stage. Your kids might not be sure what they still need and worry about throwing away something important. Check the date on top of the paper, if it’s more than a month old, they don’t need it anymore. Work that has been completed and graded should never be returned to the backpack. You may keep some of the finished work in your home, but beware: papers will try to take over your house unless you show them who’s in charge. Save a couple of pieces of stellar work and toss the rest. Remember this, and teach your kids: OLD STUFF DOES NOT RETURN TO THE BACKPACK.
  4. Sort by subject. I don’t care whether students use folders, binders or something else, but separating papers according to the subject makes it easier to locate work both at home and in class especially for middle and high school students. Ask your kids what they would like to do. They’ll be on board and feel liberated by the entire process.
  5. Keep it up. Unless tidying the backpack becomes a habit, you’ll soon have the same mess on your hands. Luckily, keeping it up requires less time and your children will be more skilled at identifying what they can keep or toss. If you get a good start, you can step back in a while and let them manage on their own.

Many students find doing homework easier and much less time consuming after they have tidied their backpack. Once they get their work organized, they feel more confident. In addition, not wasting time looking for their work leaves them more time to study. I have been through this process many times with students and they all end up making the same delighted comment in the end:

“Feel how light my backpack is!”

 By Daniela Loose
Loose is a teacher and a writer. Find her on Twitter.

Top 10 skills middle school students need to thrive, and how parents can help

In elementary school, I was too shy to address my teachers by name. I would hover nearby, hoping they would realize I had a question. I also was the new girl, and the existing cliques seemed impenetrable. To make matters worse, I was a late reader and had difficulty articulating half the alphabet. Family members would euphemistically say I was just “slow out of the gate.” I had my work cut out for me.

By middle school, I was ready to throw myself into the mix. It wasn’t always pretty. I got tossed out of classes for giggling uncontrollably. I navigated earning my first “D” and getting demoted in math. I had a knack for choosing overly dramatic and bossy friends, and I accidentally dyed my hair brassy orange. I agreed to go to a school dance with a boy, only to panic when I realized this involved actually going to a dance with a boy. I got busted for passing notes in class and for finishing overdue homework in the girls’ bathroom.

On the plus side, I figured out how to connect with teachers, and I learned I could solve math problems when I made an effort. I discovered that books kindled my imagination and provided a mental escape. Sports played a useful role too, allowing me to burn off excess energy and improve my focus. I shifted social groups more than a few times. Overall, it was the typical junior high experience, one I relive frequently as a middle school counselor and as the parent of kids in the seventh and eighth grade. Long before social emotional learning became a buzzword in education circles, I was stumbling along, acquiring self-awareness and problem-solving skills.

There is no manual to develop “soft” skills like perseverance and resilience. Just as I did, most kids learn through trial and error. As parents, our quest to protect our children can be at odds with their personal growth. It can feel counter-intuitive, but we mainly need to take a step back. I have come to believe that certain social-emotional skills are particularly useful as kids navigate middle school and beyond. Here are my top 10 skills, and ways parents can help without getting in the way.

Top 10 Social Emotional Skills For Middle School Students

1. Make good friend choices. This typically comes on the heels of making some questionable choices. Kids figure out quickly which friends instill a sense of belonging and which ones make them feel uncomfortable. It can be helpful to ask your children these questions: Do you have fun and laugh with this person? Can you be yourself? Is there trust and empathy? Common interests are a bonus.

2. Work in teams and negotiate conflict. I don’t think many students get through middle school without feeling like they had to carry the load on at least one group project. Maybe they didn’t delegate and divide the work effectively at the onset. Perhaps they chose to take ownership to avoid a poor grade. Help them understand what happened and consider what they might have done differently.

3. Manage a student-teacher mismatch. Unless there is abuse or discrimination, don’t bail them out by asking for a teacher change. Tell them they still can learn from a teacher they don’t like. Let them know it’s a chance to practice working with someone they find difficult. Remind them that if they can manage the situation, they won’t feel powerless or helpless the next time. Focus on concrete barriers to success in the class, not the interpersonal conflict. Is it miscommunication? Study skills?

4. Create organization and homework systems. Make sure they are the architects of this process. Encourage them to come up with solution-oriented plans and tweak them as needed. Do they need to use their planner? Create a checklist? Their motivation will come from ownership. If they say they don’t care, remind them that they don’t have to be invested in a particular outcome in order to change their behavior. People who hate exercise can still choose to lift weights.

5. Monitor and take responsibility for grades. If you care more than they do about their grades, why should they worry? Let them monitor their own grades, and if they don’t do well, don’t step in to advocate for assignment extensions or grade changes. Let them carry the burden and experience the connection between preparation, organization and grades.  Conversely, if they are perfectionists, they will learn they can survive and manage the disappointment of a low grade.

6. Learn to self-advocate. By middle school, they should be learning how to ask teachers for help or clarification. This may be in person or through email. When students bond with teachers, they connect more intimately with the material too. Unless there is no other option, try not to reach out on their behalf.

7. Self-regulate emotions. Children often need assistance labeling strong emotions before they can regulate them. Help your kids identify any physical symptoms that accompany their stressors. This may help them know when to take a breath or hit the “pause” button before reacting. In real time, point out when they handle an emotional situation well. Discuss the strategy they implemented—maybe they took a break or listened to music. Also, help them make connections between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Are they stuck in all-or-nothing thinking? Are they consistently self-critical?

8. Cultivate passions and recognize limitations. When your children are fired up about something, run with it and encourage exploration. Seize the opportunity to help them go deep. Get books, go to museums and be supportive even if the subject does not excite you. In the process, you will help them figure out what drives them. On the other hand, it is okay if they struggle in a specific area. That too is useful information. No one needs to be good at everything.

9. Make responsible, safe and ethical choices. Teach them to respect their bodies, and to make safe and healthy decisions. It is equally important to talk about how to avoid putting others at risk. Have open conversations and discuss plans for different scenarios they may encounter. Try not to be overly reactive if they ask shocking or distressing questions. Keep the lines of communication open.

 10. Create and innovate. Our changing world needs imaginative creators and divergent thinkers. It also can build confidence to think independently and outside the box. As your kids do their homework, read required texts and take standardized tests, remind them that these benchmarks are not the only ways to measure success. Encourage them to make connections across material from different classes, and to build, write, invent and experiment.

Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor and school counselor in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.

Valentine’s Day books for kids (and parents)

It’s almost time for kids to choose a box of valentines, address them to each classmate and deliver them to desktop mailboxes. Before the big day, though, grab one of these books and spend some heartfelt time reading together with your littlest loved ones.

Here Comes Valentine Cat, by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda

The cat isn’t in the mood for the fun of Valentine’s Day. For one, Cat doesn’t have a friend to make a card for. Making matters worse, a new neighbor has moved in Dog. Soon, bones are flying over the fence and hitting Cat in the head. Can these two be friends? Throughout the story, a narrator converses with Cat and asks questions. Cat’s answers are sometimes revealed in signs he holds up, like a not-so-sweet valentine created by Cat for Dog: “Roses are Red/Violets are Blue/Who’s the Worst Neighbor?/I think it’s You!”

Cat’s facial expressions perfectly mimic those of a toddler’s and are captured within a pleasing soft-palette of ink and color pencil drawings. Wry humor and a twist ending make this book a charmer.

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I Love You Already! by Jory John, illustrated by Benji Davies

Duck really wants to spend the day with his neighbor, Bear. Bear, though, really wants to spend the day alone, lounging around in his robe, with a cup of tea. Can Duck pester his friend enough to get him to play with him? He gives it his best shot, offering all the ways Bear will like him more if he just goes for a walk with him. Bear tells him he likes him “already.” Says Duck: “I’m not taking no for an answer, Bear. We’re having fun, whether you want to or not.” Bear’s response: “Ugh.” Throughout the day, Duck keeps asking for reassurance that Bear likes him.

The fast-paced interplay between the relentless Duck and curmudgeon-like Bear translates to a lively and humorous story complemented by richly drawn illustrations that precisely represent each character’s personality. Kids will want to read this again and again, and will look forward to the pair’s next adventure.

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Mr. Goat’s Valentine, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Kevin Zimmer

Mr. Goat needs to buy a gift for Valentine’s Day — something special for his “first love.” That “something special,” though, turns out to be a little unusual. First stop for his gift: Miss Nanny Goat’s weed stall. He places his order: “Crabgrass, pigweeds, and ragweed in that nice, rusty can. They are for my first love. She’s fond of ragweed salad.”

Mr. Goat continues creating the perfect gift — perfect for a yucky-food-loving goat, that is — until the end when we get to see who his first love is. There’s just the right amount of eww factor in the gift ingredients to make kids laugh, and readers will be surprised to find out who the gift-recipient is. Along the way, bright and bold illustrations provide plenty of reasons to capture the attention of those who enjoy a sillier, less sappy take on Valentine’s Day.

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Ollie’s Valentine, by Olivier Dunrea

The adorable Ollie, known for his adventures with his fellow gosling friends, is on a search. It seems everyone except him has received a valentine: “Gertie gave it to me!” says Gossie, holding a silver foil heart. “BooBoo gave it to me!” says Gertie, clutching a red heart. And so on. But who will be Ollie’s valentine? A surprise mirror on the last page holds the answer.

The colorful foil hearts incorporated into the watercolor drawings add an enticing texture that kids will want to rub their fingers over. It’s all wrapped up in a sturdy board book format, making it a perfect gift for a little one.

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Love from The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle

Everyone’s favorite caterpillar is back in this gem of a book. Sized for little hands, this small book speaks directly to tykes, telling them why they are special. The first pages contain the words “You are …” and feature whimsical floating hearts, setting the stage for the rest of the tale. The next pages read “… so sweet” and show the caterpillar making its way through a strawberry. Next is “… the cherry on my cake,” followed by more sentiments. Parents will enjoy taking their time reading the very few but impactful words and soaking up the vibrant collaged artwork that sends a warm message.

Mia Geiger is a writer in the Philadelphia area. You can find her atmiageiger.com and @MiaGeiger.