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How to Help Teenagers Keep Track of Their Stuff

After a meeting at my twins’ high school, I encountered a mountain of water bottles, sweatshirts, jackets, lunch totes and more in that lost and found pile. Every year, families outfit kids with new back-to-school clothes and gear. How can we help make sure our kids bring it all back from school?

“It is important for educators and parents to understand that the areas of the brain related to executive functioning do not mature until a person is in their mid-20s,” said Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental behavioral pediatrician in Pleasantville, N.Y.

Adults tend to expect high school students to show a certain level of responsibility that demands executive functioning skills such as planning, organization and memory, which may be developmentally challenging for some. Teenagers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder tend to struggle with executive function, but experts say the strategies intended for them can help other kids steer clear of the lost and found — with or without a diagnosis.

Dr. Bertin, author of “Mindful Parenting for A.D.H.D.,” explained that executive functioning is a developmental path like language that starts in early childhood and changes over time. “The part of the brain that has to do with managing life is the one that matures last,” he said.

“Often there is a perception that teens need to figure things out completely on their own, but executive functioning is like other skills, and sometimes adults need to help teens learn that skill,” Dr. Bertin said.

Take Ownership

Before implementing a plan, your child must want to participate or any solutions will be ineffective.

“When teens create their own system, then they are invested in that system and more likely to use it,” said Susan C. Pinsky, a professional organizer in Acton, Mass., and author of “Organizing Solutions for People With A.D.H.D.”

Dr. Bertin suggested that parents should give teenagers a chance to come up with their own routines and intervene only if there is a recurring problem.

“If you don’t want to fight about it but you want to reinforce a routine, you can still use reward programs,” Dr. Bertin said.

Pay Attention

“Teens need to pay attention,” said Krystal L. Culler, associate executive director of Memory Matters in Hilton Head Island, S.C. “This may sound simple, but it is the crucial first step to memory. If you are not paying attention to where you placed an object, then your brain doesn’t process the information to store within your memory.”

Dr. Damon Korb, a developmental behavioral pediatrician in Los Gatos, Calif., and author of “Raising an Organized Child,” said, “Often the problem is that the information never gets registered in the first place.”

Research shows that one way to pay attention is to avoid multitasking. Our brains lack the ability to do two or more tasks at the same time.

“Mistakes are more likely to occur when our mind is busy thinking of something else,” said Simona Ghetti, a professor at the University of California, Davis, Center for Mind and Brain. “If you put your jacket down while you are talking with your friends, then it might be hard to remember where you put it.”

Create Routines and Habits

“If you give everything a place you don’t lose it,” Dr. Korb said. “When I was younger, I used to lose my car keys all the time. Then I got married and my wife put a basket by the door for my car keys and I never lost them again.”

Forming routines and habits will help teenagers keep track of their belongings and reduce memory “glitches.” By developing the habit of scanning your desk area, you would notice the water bottle you left behind.

“If you are thinking about the text message you just got, it might be hard to remember to bring everything you need for school that day,” Dr. Ghetti said.

Dr. Korb said that if teenagers develop a mantra when they leave a classroom, they won’t lose things. “When the bell rings teens should ask themselves, ‘Is my notebook in my backpack? Do I have my water bottle? Is my pencil put away?’”

Ms. Pinsky recommended using a mnemonic for items you need when leaving the house or school. She offered the example of singing the items to the tune of the song, “head, shoulders, knees and toes,” such as “glasses, wallet, keys and phone, keys and phone.”

Get Organized

When people are organized, they are less likely to lose items. The beginning of the school year is a perfect time for teens to create organizational systems for their backpack, locker and room.

“Teens lose things because they have too much stuff, too many commitments, overcomplicated systems and a lack of routine,” said Ms. Pinsky.

She recommended first decluttering and then using simple organizational systems.

“Teens should use only one binder with pockets on the front and back and dividers with pockets, so they can easily slip in papers,” she said. “It is difficult to keep track of multiple binders.”

Use Color

If your teenager commonly misplaces water bottles, try using a water bottle in a favorite bright color. Research supports the use of color to help with attention, and if the bottle does get lost its color may make it easier to identify in the lost and found.

[Read Wirecutter’s reviews of the best water bottles, the best school backpacks and the best kids’ lunchboxes.]

When to Help Your Teen

What happens when a teenager forgets items at home and asks a parent to bring it to school?

“I think it depends on where your kid is developmentally,” Dr. Bertin said. “By experiencing natural consequences, some kids might be able to develop a better plan. But for other kids it has nothing to do with not caring but with not knowing how to organize,” he said.

“If a teen with A.D.H.D. repeatedly forgets their homework and the teacher lowers their grades without offering a solution to help them remember, then that teacher is punishing the student for having A.D.H.D.,” said Dr. Bertin. “The lower grade isn’t going to help them be less forgetful, since that is part of their A.D.H.D.”

But others say teenagers do need to learn to face consequences for their forgetfulness, and that rescuing them will only foster dependency.

“When parents are responsible for remembering everything for their kids, then our kids don’t exercise that muscle and they become forgetful,” Dr. Korb said.

“The problem with bringing forgotten items to school, especially if a child has a chronic problem with organization and time management, is that each forgotten assignment is an opportunity for learning and communication with teachers who can be invaluable in helping kids come up with their own strategies for doing better next time,” said Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.”

“In the end,” she said, “that should be our goal: helping kids come up with strategies for doing better, and being better, next time.”


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