When we found out that three local professors wrote a new book about organizing school age children, we reached out to one of the authors for tips. Elana Spira‘s and Jennifer Rosenblatt‘s The Organized Child: An Effective Program to Maximize Your Kid’s Potential — in School and in Life covers how to give your kids organizational skills to last a lifetime.
With my son in second grade, I often wonder how much responsibility I should give him when it comes to school, what is too much, and honestly, what is generally expected of him at the age of seven. For example, should I be packing his backpack every night — or should he? So I asked Spira, who is an assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Rosenblatt, also an assistant professor at the Child Study Center, how we can help our kids get organized. Here’s what they said:
At what age should parents start working with their kids on organizational skills?
Spira: Although all children differ in their developmental readiness, by third grade, most children are increasingly capable of carrying out more complex actions requiring organization, time management and planning. At this point, parents can help their kids learn and practice organized routines by gradually increasing expectations, providing support, and praising kids as they gain more independence. For example, a third grader should be able to complete a moderate amount of homework independently; parents can help their child reach this goal by setting up clear homework rules, minimizing distractions in the homework location, and setting up clear guidelines for when/how the child can seek adult guidance if they get stuck. By this age, children can also take more responsibility for organizing their own things; for example, they should be able to pack their backpack with a specific list of items (e.g., homework folder, planner, lunch box, and snack) and clean out their backpack and folders every week.
Why is it important to teach organizational skills at a young age? Is it important for future success?
Rosenblatt: So much of improving organizational skills involves practicing routines until they become habit. Starting kids early helps them develop those habits from day one and prevents bad habits from becoming ingrained. A sixth grader who is just beginning to learn how to manage papers from multiple classes, for example, will have an easier time getting used to the routine of filing papers as soon as they are received than a tenth grader who has spent years stuffing them into her backpack. And since organizational skills can have such a significant impact on kids’ overall academic performance, teaching them to be organized from the start gives them a really important leg up in school.
One part of the book that spoke to me was that teaching organization is something that kids need hand holding on. Don’t say: Go put your folder in your bag. Go do your homework. It’s guiding them. Can you offer a few specific examples of how parents can “guide” their children to be organized at a younger age?
Rosenblatt: Becoming organized is a learning process, and kids learn best with patient teachers, lots of practice, and good reinforcement. If you were teaching your child how to use a planner for the first time, for example, a good way to start is to sit down with your child and a few blank planner pages, and show him exactly how to fill it out. Then have some practices where you pretend to be the teacher assigning the homework and see if your child can fill in the planner accurately. Throw some curveballs in there, like a teacher talking too fast or rushing the kids to pack up. And as your child starts using the planner in school, check it each evening to see how he did. You can set up a reward chart where your child earns points for each day he comes home with a perfectly completed planner.
You can use this same basic structure to teach almost any organizational skill: teach them the routine, help them practice, monitor their use of the skill, and reward a job well done!
Can you give a break down of what types of things your child should take responsibility for at each grade?
Preschool : Clean up (with adult supervision/guidance) by putting toys and belongings away in designated places
Kindergarten: Follow brief routines independently (e.g., get dressed and come downstairs for breakfast, put on pajamas and choose story for bedtime; put clothes in hamper)
1st grade: Pack snack; put completed homework away in folder/backpack; start homework with adult prompting
2nd grade: Start homework independently, as part of an after-school routine; put away laundry in designated drawers; shower independently
3rd – 5th grade: Complete homework independently and show to an adult for review; clean room (with a clear list of tasks that must be done); care for belongings (e.g., fold laundry, clean toys, arrange personal items on dresser); perform basic hygiene routines (e.g., brushing teeth/washing face in the morning) independently
6th-8th grade: Increased independence and autonomy in household chores (e.g., preparing meals, caring for younger siblings); study for tests and complete long-term projects with some support from adults; manage papers and books for multiple subjects
Any other thoughts about how to organize the disorganized child?
Rosenblatt: It’s important to remember that organizational skills are just that: skills, in the same sense that math and reading are skills. And just like with math and reading, they will come more easily to some kids than others. Kids who struggle with organization aren’t lazy or lacking in work ethic; they just need extra help to develop these skills.
You can give them that help by setting up a learning environment that supports their development of organization. Clear structure and routines are important. It’s also important to provide lots of reinforcement for each small step they take towards becoming organized. If they used to forget things at school every other day and now only forget once a week, that’s progress that deserves acknowledgment.
It’s also important to know when extra help is warranted. Chronic disorganization can be a symptom of ADHD. If you’ve tried and failed repeatedly to help your child become organized and it is affecting her academic performance, it may be time to seek out a mental health professional. There are empirically-supported treatments (such as Organizational Skills Training, which our book is based on) that can help. We and our colleagues at Westchester’s Child Study Center (part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone) offer this treatment and more through home- and school-based services in Westchester County. For more information, or to schedule an evaluation, you can contact 646-754-5000 or visit https://nyulangone.org/locations/child-study-center.