How can I help my students keep organized amidst so many distractions at home and at school?

This is part 4 in “Mentor Me” questions about Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). There are five components of SEL: self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, social awareness, and self-management. Classrooms where teachers both overtly and organically teach these crucial skills give students the tools they need to be successful.

When I get anxious, I write things down. I make lists. I make lists to go with those lists. I make calendars on paper, electronically, and for home and school. I send my husband those calendars. Organization is the key to my self-management, both in the “get things done” way, but also emotionally, as I juggle the same types of lives many of you do. If I feel overwhelmed, it helps me keep all the balls in the air.

I don’t know when this habit was formed exactly, but I remember folding a piece of paper into quarters to plan out my week as early as middle school, which makes sense given the added responsibilities and activities that come with that territory. Simply writing down what I need to do releases endorphins that have gotten me through the rough patches. It’s my means of self-comfort when others can’t possibly understand what I am feeling because, well, they aren’t me.

Many schools use a planner simply as a matter of fact. How many times have you written the assignment on the board, given the kiddos time to copy it, only to receive emails from parents who want to know what the homework is because there’s nothing written in the planner? Despite my initial hesitation, I now teach students to set Google Calendar Alerts and reminders on their phones. When something is really important, I advise them to take a picture and message it to their parents. I know the cell phone issue is a double-edged sword, but if they have this powerful tool in their pocket, I might as well teach them how to use it the way adults do instead of abuse it.

It is so important for educators to acknowledge and honor the specific emotional situations that our students are facing, ranging from test anxiety to peer pressure or all the way to trauma. My solutions are not right for everyone, and until recently, it had never occurred to me that I might actually make matters worse. It was a turning point in my thinking as I realized that my solutions can be someone else’s stressor. Imagine how often that translates into issues in the classroom! It occurred to me that I had scheduled, listed, and calendared my students into anxiety on more than one occasion. As teachers, we must realize that our role is to facilitate the social and emotional growth of our students through added responsibility and complicated new peer interactions.

So many of the organizational tools we provide students or demand of them are meant to help students “keep all the balls in the air.” We can’t stand in for them and do the juggling that is required of them, but rather, we need to teach them how to do it themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I love an organized binder as much as the next middle school teacher, but I’ve also watched some people cling to the organization as if it were the learning itself. In the same way, if we are requiring excessively specific management tools, aren’t we contributing to the problem of students who can’t figure out how to do things themselves—a sort of learned helplessness that grows from our good intentions? We might think we are doing the best thing for students, but if we don’t seek their input and tend to their social and emotional needs, we might actually be contributing to our students’ future struggles.