For parents with disorganized sons

Here’s how to get all those bright boys who are failing at school motivated to succeed

For parents with disorganized sons  A former banker turned educational consultant describes a typical scene at her office. A brilliant, thoughtful boy enters the room with a parent in tears. The boy is failing school. The parent is at their wits’ end. “If you’re one of these troubled parents,” writes Ana Homayoun in a new book, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in School and Life, “you know that today’s academic environment is exponentially more challenging than the one in which you grew up—and in ways that tend to be more difficult for boys than girls.” While, she adds, the research indicates “that boys often struggle with certain types of multi-tasking, schools often ask them to juggle seven different classes, multiple sports and activities, all while they are going through puberty. Too often the result is frustration, fights, and, sadly, a bright boy convinced he can’t succeed.”

Homayoun regularly meets parents who feel “personally embarrassed and guilty about their son’s poor academic performance.” And that’s another problem, she says. “By complaining about their son’s shortcomings, they are creating a more toxic environment.”

Instead, Homayoun advises parents to stop focusing on grades, and start focusing on their son’s interests to find out what motivates him. Homayoun spends a few hours with each boy organizing his binders, going through his planner, and filing away papers from the bottom of his backpack. “As we organize, I ask them about activities they enjoy and things they want to accomplish. Often students are surprised that I’m so interested in what they love to do. Once I learn about their individual interests, I explain how they can more efficiently get their homework done so that they have more time to pursue those passions.”

Ask your son to pick a time when the two of you can go through his papers, she suggests. “I can usually get seven binders and a thousand papers organized in a little under two hours working midway through the semester with a thoroughly disorganized kid.” If he balks at the idea of working with you, work beside him, she says. “While he is cleaning out his backpack, you can work on organizing your own piles of paper.” If he refuses, Homayoun suggests outsourcing the job to an older cousin or sister. “As a parent you probably know to whom he will respond best; try enlisting that person’s support.”

In an interview with Maclean’s, Homayoun claims she hasn’t yet met a boy who wouldn’t sort out his binder, but if he won’t, the parent should try again to find out what interests him. If he dreams of being a movie star, the parent can say, “Great, that’s your long-term goal. What is the immediate goal we can work on? You can be in the school play or take acting lessons.” Then tell him, “You’ll have more time for that if you do this.” Homayoun says, “Boys need to see the benefit for themselves.”

Binders are “the single most important organizational tool your son will need,” she writes. He should carry one for each subject; this reduces “co-mingling.” Don’t use accordion files, “one of the worst things for a teenage boy,” writes Homayoun. “They create a black hole of papers, which inevitably end up stuffed into the wrong section and are as good as lost.”

Hamoyoun recommends daily two-hour study periods with five-minute breaks from 4:30 to 7 p.m., and at the dining room table, not his bedroom. Homework blocks should be quiet and free of music and cellphone use. Most boys insist they need a computer to complete their homework. Hamoyoun tells students, “Do homework that does not involve a computer first, and then work on the English essay that involves a computer.”

When his homework is done, give your son free rein, she says. “It’s important for parents to remember that many boys feel a need to stay included in the social networking scene. The freedom to do what they want is the crucial reward and motivation that keeps students wanting to be efficient and organized.”

Avoid getting more involved in your son’s homework, she says, describing certain moms “who come into my office with colour-coded calendars, BlackBerries, hands-free headsets—and they wonder why their sons are so disorganized. Part of the problem is, of course, that with moms so on top of it, these sons have never been forced to develop such skills of their own.”

Never bribe him, she writes: bribery gives a value to grades, rather than learning, “and I cannot think of a faster way to promote cheating and other short-sighted behaviours.”

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