Tucker (not his real name), a 14-year-old boy, struggled with organization and planning; and for good reason: his brain’s executive functioning skills will remain under construction for about the first 25 years of his life.
When I met with his parents, they admitted that they often let him off of the hook for organizing and planning. Tutors tracked his homework and their domestic helper cleaned his room each day.
They knew that he was disorganized, but did not realize that they were helping him stay that way.
Inability to organize and plan could lead to demotivation
Not only was Tucker disorganized, he often felt demotivated too. In this regard, Tucker is not alone – students who don’t practice organizational and planning skills at home often end up being highly demotivated at school too.
This is because fundamentally, Tucker’s motivation towards any goal is directly related to his belief that he can affect that goal’s outcome; however, without organisation and planning, Tucker won’t succeed at any goal that’s even just moderately complex, such as packing for a trip, or completing a research project.
So what’s left for Tucker is a constant feeling that he’s not in control over his world, followed by distraction, boredom and demotivation.
Sometimes, this demotivation causes students to do away with goals altogether. Why set any when I can’t achieve them anyway?
Better grades start with a tidier room
Tucker was one such example: he had no real sense of purpose in his life. And his bedroom reflected that – not only was it a total mess, he had no idea how to begin to fix it.
If you’re spending your day at a desk, that desk probably reflects your mental state. In the same way, Tucker’s bedroom is him; he doesn’t yet have a work identity, so his room is the only place where he physically grapples with the relationship between his things, needs and goals. That’s why a tidy or messy room can have such powerful influence over his mindset.
For example, his pile of laundry asks: “What would I wear those clothes to do? When would I wear them?” Previously, his helper was the one who figured out why, when and where he’d need his clothes. But if Tucker is to start exercising his judgement and decision-making and regain control over his life, he must now be the one who makes these decisions.
Start with the smallest goals
As Tucker moved through the school year, he wanted to learn how to organize his life in a way that made school easier. That meant that he needed goals, but not just any goals. He needed goals so small and easy, that he wouldn’t need to drum up any of his long-lost motivation to achieve them.
When, at first, Tucker protested the idea of organizing his own room, his parents compromised by asking him to straighten up what he could for now. For example, given the bio-hazards posed by Tucker’s dirty laundry, that was his priority; after that came the books he needed for his upcoming exams.
Reducing Tucker’s responsibility to whatever feels tolerable is a noble practice in and of itself – it’s the simplest and most reliable approach to helping him find out how much he can achieve.
Keeping an organized room is hard work; so is having well-organized thoughts
Once Tucker learnt to organize his room, he also learnt to organize this thoughts. Just like the hard work involved in organizing his room, having well-organized thoughts also required a long process of planning and sorting. In turn, his grades improved and his life became less complicated, incrementally, each day.
Tucker’s parents were not doing their child any favours by letting someone else clean his room. In short: when students are cleaning their rooms, they are learning how to make friends with their future selves.
About the author
Dr Rick Smith works with parents and teens as an education consultant with Central Health Partner’s Child Development Team. He helps teens maximize their performance in school. He is also the author of STOP Reading, creator of the Mindset Matters iOS app, and can be reached at Dr.Rick.Smith@Bath.edu