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Years ago, a parent of a 5th grade boy asked to meet with me.

“My wife and I really want our son to repeat the 5th grade,” he shared. I sat, puzzled, and began to ask questions. I had to admit: I was stunned. Here was a child who was at the top of his class. Having encountered similar conversations with parents who wanted to retain their 4th and 5th grade children so they had an extra year to grow, in hopes of a career as a professional athlete, it was clear this was not the direction this family was going.

“He is our only son, our only child,” the father started. “And he is so disorganized and messy that another year or 5th grade will certainly improve this.”

Hmmm.  This was going to be tricky. “Have you discussed this with him?” I asked.

“Of course we have,” the father shared. “We’ve told him since September if he wasn’t more organized and didn’t start picking up his room, he’d have to repeat the 5th grade.”

Oh geez…it was April. This wasn’t good. I scheduled a meeting with his teacher and both parents a few days later and we tackled this issue as a team because I certainly needed some reinforcement on this one. What I learned in the meantime, both from his teacher and from his desk was that this little boy was disorganized! His desk looked like a F5 tornado had hit and then come back for a repeat attack. But when it came to academics, this was the child who had a pictorial memory of his books, was easily on his way to mastering pre-algebra, and could tell a story with such vivid descriptors that it sounded like he was a high school prodigy.

But was he disorganized! Poor little guy. What I learned from his previous teachers at the school was that his parents had catered to him for years. They helped brush his teeth, helped change his clothes, and laid his clothes out for him daily. At no point in time had they really discussed his disorganization at home, and despite years of teachers’ best efforts, the desk remained in the vortex and his binder couldn’t hold a sheet of paper.

Here’s what I learned from this family. Children are often just who they are. Its that inevitable question of nature vs. nurture. Can we do anything to change the way they are wired? In the case of this little boy, setting some parameters at home and school with clear incentives for meeting certain levels of organization might have been successful. It was possible some help in middle school may have been warranted as well.

I think back to being pregnant with my twin daughters. “Baby A” was in constant motion. She was dancing up a storm in my uterus in every one of the 50+ ultrasounds I had. As a newborn, we called her “Houdini” because no matter how tightly she was swaddled, she found a way to escape (and she needed to be swaddled to calm down and sleep). To this day, her 7 year old body is in a constant state of motion. In class, she often stands next to her desk while writing, while classmates are sitting. When I was frustrated early on with her needing to get up, run around, move move move, I reflected upon my little 5th grade friend and how his disorganization was a characteristic of who he was.

As a principal, it didn’t take me long to learn that parents have high hopes for their children. Sometimes those hopes are a little too high and I had to step in as a calm coach with often unwanted advice that the punishment they were doling out at home didn’t fit the crime at school or the “B” on an exam wasn’t the end of the world, or even the conversation that some children mature at different times and in the best interest of the child, she needed to repeat kindergarten the next year. But coaching parents to try to accept some of the characteristics of their children was a role I played often.

You’re probably wondering what happened to the little boy. To allow his parents to save face, I had a meeting with them and him and let them know that I had to make the final decision and he was going to have to go on to the 6th grade. We set him up with a high school tutor who worked with him on organization and routines that his parents were happy to help with at home. Oh…I have to admit…there was one sneaky thing I also did. I showed the parents this picture and said if it worked for Einstein, chaos might not be the end of the world.

By:  Dr. Lisa Gonzales