I should never be alone in an office supply store. But every year I have to make a back-to-school pilgrimage to see what the organizational gods have designed for this year’s batch of adolescent frontal lobes. The frontal lobe, which contains the prefrontal cortex, is our executive command center- the place where problem-solving and decision-making occur. It also happens to not be fully developed until one is in their mid-late twenties, so no, you’re not off-base when muttering, “What were they thinking?” as you open your teenager’s backpack. Very little conscious thought went in there.
Everything else did, though.
At least once a week a student shows up at my desk with a binder that easily outweighs my nephew stating, “My teacher said I needed to come see you.”
I live for these emergencies. I’m not sure if it’s my efficiency-loving German roots or that the task is so tangibly satisfying. (I mean, learning takes YEARS, people…you have to collect the fruits of your labor where you can get ‘em.) Whatever the reason, the enthusiasm I possess for binder organization can get a 12-year old to buy-in with the seriousness of a UN summit.
We are going to figure this out.
I ask them to bear with me through a short interview process to explore their pre-existing relationship with paper, working memory, fine-motor coordination, and overall paper goals. There’s always a reason and you have to know yourself in order to adapt:
Not only will they talk to you, I once witnessed a student dramatically reenact looking for their homework with ninja moves and sound effects: worry as invader taking over all thinking! Those antics have shown me that despite the mess, they actually DO care about doing well in school. They just might not care about the paper. It doesn’t have the same meaning it does to us. It’s not personal. Our systems don’t work for everyone, no matter how well thought out they are (which took me a very long time to accept). So we have to work with what we’ve got:
No matter what a student brings to the table, there is a surprising long-term power in this kind of tangible, one-on-one interaction. It matters to them when an adult sits down, tries to help, and attempts to make something better. It also matters that the adult is not us sometimes, especially in moments of crinkled, crushed, should-have-been-turned-in-last-week exasperation. A little distance could result in more consistent work completion over time than consequences do, even if it’s “only a binder”.
We always end the meeting by scheduling a follow-up visit, and reciting the most important piece of all: the mantra. Repeat after me:
I am not dumb
For being unable
To master a system
Someone else created
I love my brain
Now, if you’ll excuse me, my brain just found this aisle and I’m sure something in my life needs glitter on it.