Let’s face it: Some kids are born with secretaries in their heads and some aren’t. Besides, the part of the brain that organizes, prioritizes and plans doesn’t fully develop until we’re in our 20s. When your child grows up, he’ll be rich enough to hire his own organizational help. In the meantime, you need to teach him how to compensate.
Keep big calendars. Calendars are essential to the organized person and home. Place a big wall calendar in a prominent place. Assign different colors to different family members or activities. Dedicate a few minutes to calendar talk each week, so that everyone knows what's going on. Use this time to demonstrate how you handle deadlines. For example, if you have a big project at work, break down the project into small pieces and write your own deadlines on the calendar. Start with the project end-date and think out loud about when you should complete each piece of the project. Children who learn this technique can earn great grades and acquire a strong work ethic.
Keep small calendars, too. At the risk of sounding calendar-obsessed, I think school-age kids should have their own daily planners in which they write homework. If it's in a bound book with dates, like a day planner, it's much less likely to end up as crumpled waste at the bottom of a locker or bag.
Streamline your mornings. Nothing puts a damper on my day like a morning temper tantrum. Make your mornings calm by doing more the night before. While you do your routine, kids can get themselves ready by following a self-created strip of pictures representing each morning task. They may draw or clip the images from magazines. One former student taped himself acting like a DJ. He played music he loved in the background while he talked himself through what he should be doing, allowing appropriate time for each activity.
Attack the school clutter. One thing that makes organization tough is the sheer amount of stuff that comes home with your child from school. Establish a regular time to go through the backpack with your child. Try to have a place for every kind of paper that comes home: artwork, graded homework, school announcements, etc. For example, my daughter adores art but we could drown in the amount she creates. While we frame and hang some, she also recycles her art by using it as wrapping paper.
Buy folders and binders. All kids need a way to sort paper while at school and home. Most do well with a separate folder for homework and school communications like permission slips. This way, everything is in one place. Still, she'll also need separate notebooks or folders for each class. Kids who struggle with organization tend to do best with a big binder with separate folders for each subject, complete with notebooks or loose leaf paper. But you should also have a filing system at home for each subject. Resist the urge to throw anything away, at least until June. Most teachers structure their year so that learning is cumulative. Old tests, quizzes, homework sheets and essays will act as great study guides as the year progresses. In June, sort through old work together and let her create a portfolio of her year's best work.
Create an organized homework space. Ideally, each child should have a designated well-lit work space with a dedicated set of supplies. Many kids prefer to work at the kitchen table or on their beds, and that's fine, but it's also important for them to see that homework has its own space. Establish a set of supplies that are just for homework (and don't get grabbed for art supplies) like pens, pencils, scissors, glue, tape, a calculator and a sharpener. You don't want your kid honing his procrastination skills as he hunts for pens or tape.
Craft a homework routine. Establish a time to do homework each night. First, your child should empty her backpack. Then she can check her day planner and homework folder to get a sense of the night's work. She'll also want to look ahead to see what big projects are approaching. Then she can make a list of what to do that night. Most students like to get the easy stuff out of the way—but then the hard stuff looms and is harder to do. Therefore, I recommend alternating easy and hard subjects.
Feed long-term memory. Studying should be a regular activity. When your child crams the night before a test, he'll probably do well on the test but he won't do well on the exam at the end of the month. To strengthen long-term memory, he needs to study a little bit each day, especially for subjects in which he really struggles. At the end of each day, he might review his notes for that class and create a word, phrase, or picture that sums up his learning for that day. Remember to use the precious time before bed; research suggests that whatever we see right before we sleep repeats itself several times in our head as we drift off.
Involve your children. None of these strategies will work if your kids don't see you using them yourself or if they don't have any say in creating them. You've all been in school mode for a month. This is a great opportunity to sit down together as a family and talk about what's gone well and where you need help. Brainstorm how to handle activity-packed Tuesday nights or the early-morning rush. And remember: While you may need to be their organizational coach, you aren't the player. If you find yourself taking the pen, keyboard or calculator into your own hand, you've gone too far. Assist and cheer, but don't do. They'll thank you for it later.
Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.