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We’ve all been there. That balled up paper that needed to be signed last month. The homework assignment the teacher “forgot” to tell them about. The “surprise” quiz everyone else studied for. The rotting banana in the backpack. For parents struggling with kids who are organizationally challenged, there’s help for every academic stage. Like any skill or ability, the sooner you implement routine and rigor to organization, the quicker good habits come naturally. It’s never too late to get it together.

LAY A SOLID FOUNDATION

“Elementary school is when the groundwork should be laid for forming healthy study habits,” says Mallory Seidman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Montclair. Developing executive functioning skills such as planning, organization, time management and self-monitoring is just as important as mastering fractions and phonics, and kids need a predictable system they can count on, she says. This includes a comfortable workspace and distraction-free blocks of time, along with gathering supplies, reviewing assignments, deciding what to tackle first (usually what’s most taxing) and checking in between assignments. “Do they need a quick snack? Or can they keep going without a break? Have them practice checking in with themselves to develop self-monitoring and awareness,” she recommends. Once daily work is completed, upcoming projects and exams should be discussed to plan next steps and a study timeline (a whiteboard calendar or sticky notes can help kids who need a visual reminder).

Naturally, the youngest students may need help staying on point, as will kids with attention issues. Seidman advises parents to ask confidence-building, guiding questions (What should you do first? What do you need in order to complete your math homework?) to foster self-sufficiency. You may also need to teach your kids how to study. Deciding when to start (hint: not the night before) and how much time to devote each night (even if it wasn’t formally assigned) is critical. “Most importantly, be consistent! Routines help children remember,” Seidman says.

Of course, an organized study system won’t help much if your child forgets something at home or buries that thoughtfully completed assignment in a folder. If forgetfulness and messiness are issues, Seidman recommends carefully packing backpacks the night before; making reminders and chalkboard to-do lists; cleaning out binders quarterly (or even weekly), and devoting weekend time to catching up, getting ahead and confirming everything is on track.

THE GOING GETS TOUGHER

The transition to middle school is major. Going from a single teacher to multiple instructors is rough, let alone drama with friends, hormones and smartphones. “Kids are asked to juggle six to seven different classes all with different expectations, along with extracurricular activities, sports and family obligations,” says Ana Homayoun, an organization expert and author of several books including That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week. “At the same time, many of them are experiencing puberty,” she adds.

Fortunately, good habits developed in elementary school with organization continue to work in middle school, albeit with more balls to juggle. “When I speak with parents, I discuss a three-step method: awareness, compartmentalization and consistency. Awareness is all about knowing what needs to be done for each class in terms of organized binders. Compartmentalization is encouraging them to break down their assignments into one task at a time, write everything out and focus on that one task, even for 15-25 minutes. Consistency involves doing the strategies that work on a regular basis,” Homayoun says.

Should you expect your tween or young teen to manage their own workload? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you should step away altogether. In fact, “that may be when the students fall apart, especially since so many are over-scheduled, exhausted and juggling so many different obligations,” says Homayoun. Though older and more competent, the expectations and demands are greater—most parents will need to support time management and organization by, for instance, reviewing their planners and helping to get ahead of assignments. “During such a big transition when demands are increased, it’s okay for parents to provide more support and then wean it again once they’ve gotten the hang of it, which might not be until eighth grade, ninth or even older,” says Seidman.

Remember that middle school is primarily a time to learn how to be a student—not necessarily a straight A student. Raymund Mantes, a sixth grade social studies teacher at Maplewood Middle School, has been educating students there for nearly 20 years. What “grinds his gears,” as he says, are parents focused on how their child is doing academically instead of how they can become more capable learners. “I believe that middle school is a time where students develop their work ethics and study habits. Rather than focus on grades, it’s important to focus on seeing improvement. During a student’s three years here, it’s the teachers’ and parents’ duty to foster and develop habits that students will use when grades do count…high school.” In other words, focus on the process, not the GPA—for now.

STAY THE COURSE

After middle school, one major change is the expectation of self-advocacy. Seeking out teachers for extra help, clarifying project requirements, coming prepared with questions, asking about extra credit and negotiating bad grades are a few things parents can expect kids to handle, along with studying independently and managing their time wisely. That’s great, but some kids still need a bit of hand-holding. “Overall, there is a big jump in independence,” says Seidman, “but, it’s okay to provide more support early on, especially in ninth grade during such a big transition year when they are getting used to a more rigorous schedule.” What’s acceptable at this stage? Monitoring that the work is getting done, providing daily check-ins, asking questions about upcoming assignments, quizzing them after they’ve studied for a test, nudging them to attend extra help sessions, hiring a tutor if needed and generally keeping an eye out for trends (like a string of zeros on homework assignments).

As for good study habits, your know-it-all teen will assure you that it’s fine to study in their bedroom surrounded by their tech. Don’t believe it. Boost organization by silencing their tech (at least while they’re working) until they develop intrinsic motivation to minimize distractions, Homayoun says. “Simply telling them not to use technology doesn’t work, especially with high school students who are often smarter than you around technology.” But not smart enough to put it away—that’s why they still need us.

—Jennifer Kantor is a lifestyle and parenting writer. She lives in Maplewood with her two kids.

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