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Let’s teach organizational skills!

Is this your child’s book-bag? Overflowing with paper, folders, notebooks, and last week’s lunch. Is your child habitually late turning in assignments, or are they pulling an all-nighter to complete an assignment given to them weeks earlier but due tomorrow?

unorganized back pack

Does your teacher send notes home that you haven’t seen for days or weeks? When you ask your child about it when it accidentally falls out of their bookbag, they respond, “Oh yeah, meant to tell you about that.” If this describes your child, then it’s time for you to do an organizational intervention!

One year, I had a parent of a sixth-grade student send me an email with a snapshot of their child’s book bag. The picture was accompanied by a note telling me to clean their child’s book bag. The parent was concerned their child was not turning in assignments because they couldn’t find them, and she expected me to go through their child’s book bag every day to find them.

I tried to respond as gently as possible, saying that I understood the problem, but I avoided book bag toxic waste hazards. It was the child’s problem, not mine.

Teachers do an excellent job of teaching subjects. Most of us try to assist students with organizing assignments, dates, and supplies. It makes our job easier. Unfortunately, organizational skills are one area many teachers expect students to come by naturally.

Science has yet to discover an organizational gene or DNA – meaning teaching organizational skills is left to parents. With that in mind, here are some ways to help your child organize and avoid being like Oscar the Grouch – the Muppett on Sesame Street who lives in a recycling bin

Focus on Time Management First

Most schools provide agendas for students to write assignment due dates or post them electronically. There is no excuse for a student not to know when an assignment is due. This may seem harsh, but it’s a reality in modern schools.

Think about it this way. Does your boss expect you to attend a meeting scheduled weeks before or finish something within a specific timeframe? Why would it be any different for a student? Being a student is your child’s job.

If your child doesn’t have an agenda, phone with a calendar or task list app, or doesn’t attend a school with the assignments posted electronically, get a planner. I have parents who access the school calendar and copy it to theirs.

That way, they can follow up with their child. Reminder watches are popular options for some students. One parent I know prints the calendar of assignments and then tapes it to their child’s bathroom mirror. Knowing what is assigned and the due date is critical.

Make a time management system a priority. It’s interesting that your child can tell you the date of every important holiday or event they want to do but can’t tell you the day of that math test. It’s about priorities. Managing time is proactive and solves a lot of organizational issues. 

woman trying to time management

 A Place for Everything

Teachers love folders. So it is very unusual if your child’s teacher has no folder for each subject. For elementary students, there is usually a weekly folder that goes home with work for you to sign. Middle and High school teachers keep some work and return completed assignments to the students.

If the teacher returns it to the student, the teacher knows it will end up in the landfill or what some parents call a book bag. There is really no reason for a middle or high school student to keep a graded assignment unless it’s part of an assignment due in the future.

If your child doesn’t have folders, get some. As a teacher, I preferred my elementary school kids to have one large accordion folder with tabs by subject. My middle and high schoolers can keep up with multiple folders.

However, they need a hard case to store the folders. Otherwise, the folders get crunched and destroyed by week’s end. Every time they write notes in class or complete an assignment, it goes into the subject folder when class ends.

When school ends, and they are at home, the rule is ‘Take, Keep, Trash (TKT).’ Take everything out, keep what you need, like class notes, and then throw everything else out. One parent I work with has folders with a transparent plastic sheet protector glued to the front. In the sheet protector on every folder is a calendar of assignments.

Learn to Chunk

Chunking is a common practice in teaching reading comprehension skills. Chunking is breaking reading materials into smaller manageable sections. For example, a teacher will have students read a few pages daily in a novel instead of reading a lengthy chapter.

Chunking begins with the teacher giving the students a statement of purpose for what they should look for before they start reading. The process continues until the chapter and the novel’s conclusion are completed.

Adults use chunking unconsciously. Suppose we want to remember a phone number or password. In that case, the easiest way is to break the nine digits or alpha password characters into smaller parts – memorize each small chunk – then reassemble them in their entirety when we need it.

Break assignments into smaller chunks. Schedule them on the calendar and make a daily list of what needs to be done now and what can wait for a future date. This technique is especially effective for children who struggle with attention, are overwhelmed by multiple assignments or due dates, and can’t prioritize tasks.

This is also a great technique to use with procrastinators. Procrastinators procrastinate because they see a task is so large and far out they can’t envision completing it in its entirety. Chunking allows children to feel the success of completion immediately.

Another tip about chunking: build some time in the chunking schedule for interruptions. Illness, family activities, sports, and other events can throw a schedule off if you don’t account for them in the chunking process.

The key to chunking is to have small enough pieces but not too many that life events completely throw them out of balance. Here’s a fun way to remember chunking. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!

a pile of timers

Prioritize

Children learn the difference between needs and wants at a very early age. It’s easy to slip into the mentality of allowing your child to set the priority. Children should have input or options, but you select the options.

This means you must set priorities for what your child has to complete and wants to do. For example, your child will no doubt try to convince you that once they have played video games for a couple of hours, they will get right to completing homework.

I don’t need to tell you what the priority is and what will not get done. You’ve been there and got the t-shirt!

So, you have to set the priority by providing options. For example, option one is for you to complete a half-hour of homework, checked by an adult for correctness, to earn fifteen minutes of free time. Option two is to complete all your homework and earn an hour of free time.

Again, checked by an adult. Obviously, the priorities and incentives change for older students. But the concept is the same. Regardless of your child’s age, you have to be responsible for prioritizing their needs and wants.

Final thoughts

Organizational skills are learned. Organization is not a natural talent or something hereditary from parents. It takes consistent practice to make organization a habit. Facilitating time management skills using technology is the start.

Prioritizing is the critical component of any organizational strategy. Stephen Covey, the author of the best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Making something a priority is the foundation of organizational skills.

-Written by, Doug Carroll Ed. D