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An education in organization

Tips to make the dog-ate-my-homework excuses obsolete

By Audrey Schewe



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(CNN) -- Ever made a midnight run to buy poster board for a school project due the next morning? Afraid of what forms, homework and other forgotten but important pieces of paper might be unearthed in a thorough backpack search? Have a Top 10 list of excuses for missed assignments?

You are not alone.

In an age of excess information -- where responsibilities and activities proliferate while available time shrinks -- sound time management is important. That sentiment has spawned a cottage industry devoted to organization, rife with self-help books, calendars and planners of all types and a seeming national obsession with containers.

The need to stay organized is particularly daunting for students. While they are inundated with reams of handouts, packets, work sheets and projects, they rarely get advice on how to manage it all.

"I've seen some kids as young as second or third grade use planners ... the very elementary planners," said Richard Bavaria, vice president of education at Sylvan Learning Center. "Letting kids see that a planner can help them get their projects done and organize their time at home can be very helpful." Adults might wax nostalgic for their carefree youth, but free time has become a rare commodity for most children.

A 2004 University of Michigan study found that children ages 6 to 17 spent about 32.5 hours a week going to school and four hours doing homework -- 7.5 more hours devoted to academics than 20 years ago.

This trend could continue as officials nationwide seek more time for academics -- including full-day kindergarten and year-round schools -- in a national education environment that increasingly stresses school and student performance on standardized tests.

Furthermore, extracurricular activities and part-time jobs for the older children consume many more hours per week. Plus there is time spent on cell phones and the Web -- e-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms and computer games -- diversions unavailable decades ago.

The combination of rising academic demands, after-school activities and countless other distractions makes it imperative students have a successful system in place to organize their school materials and their time, according to experts.

"The biggest reward is that the child finished the project without the stress of waiting until the last minute, and that will build confidence for the next major project. Success breeds success," Bavaria said.

Everything in its place

For many students, school papers are like socks that disappear in the laundry: They go into children's lockers or backpacks, never to be seen again.

For kindergartners through second-graders, Donna Goldberg -- head of a New York-based organizing consulting firm focused on students -- suggests a half-inch binder with three transparent pockets labeled "Homework to do," "Homework done" and "Notes to parents."

When students enter the third or fourth grades, Goldberg recommends that they add one transparent folder for each subject area.

Once students have laid the groundwork -- developing a logical, orderly system and (most importantly) the habit of using it religiously -- they can adapt their approach to meet the needs of high school and college, she says.

Another challenge comes when a task is completed, such as after a mammoth algebra test or when a history teacher shifts focus from ancient Greece to the Roman Empire.

To minimize clutter but keep previous papers and lessons handy, Goldberg recommends students keep an open desktop file box at home, with one hanging file folder per subject. After each unit, the student takes the papers out of the current work binder and files them for posterity.

"It gives young people the idea that one does organize one's life," says Goldberg, co-author of "The Organized Student." "It can be used for the students' personal lives as well -- storing sheets of music, schedules, phone numbers or applications."

As those who use file cabinets at work or home can attest, this methodology can apply to all ages -- especially students with busy schedules as they progress from kindergarten through college.

Time crunch

While the system of organizing papers is tangible, the concept of managing time is more abstract.

One month to complete a report on the digestive system, for example, may seem like a lifetime. But a student cannot count on having 28 full days to complete the assignment, factoring in other obligations.

While adults usually drive the organizational process during a student's first few years in school, Goldberg says even first-graders can grasp basic time management skills.

"If the student has 10 vocabulary words he has to know for a Friday quiz, he can be taught to learn three or four a night and review them on Thursday," Goldberg says.

By third or fourth grade, experts say that planning tools -- any means to compel a student to approach a task incrementally (rather than leave it until the last minute) -- can be fully incorporated into the routine.

Over time, the planning process gets more complicated as the size, number and duration of school projects grow, along with commitments to extracurricular activities. Experts recommend a weekly and/or monthly planner to better track assignments amid students' often busier schedules.

"It's very helpful if parents have some sort of calendar that is large enough and is posted in a prominent place," Bavaria said. "In one color you have written when the science fair project is due. And then you backtrack from that date breaking down that science fair project into manageable chunks of time. Great big projects tend to scare kids."

Efficiency at home

Inefficient studying, however, can undermine benefits of sound organization. It is one thing to plan to write a page a day for a 10-page English paper, for instance, but that task becomes much harder if one cannot concentrate at any point along the way.

While the ability to focus, grasp new concepts and expand on existing ideas varies from student to student, experts cite a few helpful hints to improve a child's study environment.

The student's work space should be well lit, with few distractions (such as a phone or television) and plenty of resources (encyclopedias and other reference material) on hand.

Also, students should have a set time each day for homework. Many experts recommend a target of 10 minutes a day per grade level, meaning, for example, third graders would study a half-hour per night, sixth graders an hour and ninth graders 90 minutes.

"Homework routines are important," Bavaria said. "A mistake that many parents want to make is that all their children have exactly the same routine for homework. And any parent with more than one child can tell you that children learn differently from each other."

The first rule parents should follow is to know the best time of day for the individual child to do homework, he said. While some children may do best with a time scheduled right after school, others may need to play games or have a snack first.

Parents can play an important role in keeping their children on the ball, experts say. For younger students, that might mean monitoring assignments and online research or giving practice tests.

"Kids like to see immediate results," Goldberg says. "When you start by setting up a paper flow system, your child can see results the next day."

That said, there's a fine line between supporting children academically and doing their work. While certain tools and methods such as planners, filing systems and set study times can help, Goldberg emphasizes that keeping study and time management skills sharp is a long and evolving process -- one that will unfold differently for different children and that cannot be neglected.

"Organization is a process, not an event," she says. "Your child needs to practice the systems you set up together, and he needs to use them over and over until he owns them."

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