By the end of summer, most parents become starry-eyed about the school year. The romance with open-ended days has long faded, replaced by a near crushing desire for structure.
But, lest we summered-out parents forget, with structure comes the need for organization.
And with organization comes the need for someone to do all the organizing.
These days, there’s a lot of focus on the need for dads to step up and take on some of the homework and field trip form management that makes so many moms so very tired.
But there’s another family member who should also be doing more, and yet rarely factor into conversations about the mental load: our children. With a little fine tuning and encouragement, they can become pretty decent managers of their own lives.
Not only will this offer parents some relief, but it is actually good for their kids, too. Through organization, children learn many important skills including how to manage their time and achieve their goals.
The key is to start small, and scale it to age.
Parents can begin good organization habits with preschool-age children, said Elana Spira, Ph.D., co-author of “The Organized Child” and clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone.
She recommends asking them to do small, simple actions on a regular basis. Maybe they unpack their backpacks and bring their lunch bag to the kitchen, or take their shoes off at the door and put them in a nearby closet. These won’t save parents tons of time, but they will help instill good habits.
Doing small chores at a young age helps children exercise inhibition, discipline and attention, all of which they’ll need later on.
When kids enter elementary school, they’re ready for more responsibility. This is the time to teach them about daily routines, and help them take control over theirs. Parent and child might sit down together and make a list of everything that needs to be done to get out of the house in the morning, or get ready for bed at night.
Together, they should figure out how long each activity takes, and when the best time to do them is. Some kids might want to get their backpack ready and pick out their clothes the night before; others, in the morning.
It’s also wise to create a firm schedule for homework. When do children do their homework? How long do they need? Where do they do it? Where does the homework go once it is done? Figure it out all before, and stick to the schedule as much as possible.
Spira suggest printing up these task lists and laminating them—and then, step-by-step, handing over the execution of these tasks to the children. Children might even check them off with a dry erase marker each morning or evening, as they move through their lists.
Also, make sure the rooms in which these tasks take place are outfitted with easy-to-read clocks. Time management is an important part of learning organization, but it can’t be done if kids don’t know what time it is.
Teens and tweens
All this planning ahead is important to start in the single-digit years, but it works for tweens and teens, too. As children get older and their schedules get busier, they need their parents’ help identifying priorities and understanding what it takes to make it all work. As with younger children, the goal is to help them figure out what will work for them – and then help them stick with it.
“Parents should set up the routine so they are not directing their children, task by task,” Spira said. “The routine creates context for their children’s work, and also a sense of accomplishment” once the children have completed it.
Calendars are also essential for helping families stay organized. Julie Morgenstern, organizing and productivity expert and bestselling author of “Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You,” suggests keeping a family calendar—paper or electronic—and maintaining it regularly. Each family member should have a color dedicated to their activities, so it’s easy to see who is doing what, when.
“You can’t expect people to look at the calendar on their own. You should have a family huddle every day to look at it as part of your routine, and look at three days ahead,” Morgenstern said. “It’s better to find any problems (in the schedule) days before.”
Other helpful accessories include color-coded folders or labeled accordion folders in the backpack to help organize the various papers children bring home for school: one for each type of homework, one for permission slips, and so on.
Also, once a child is old enough—Spira suggests around 3rd grade—they should have a planner in which they write down all school-related tasks.
One organizational style doesn’t fit all
If any of this strikes parents as overwhelming, or likely to make their children’s heads explode, then slow down.
“Set the child up for success by instituting change gradually,” Spira advises. “You don’t have to solve everything at once. Wait until the child has been consistently successful with one solution, before moving on to the next.”
Organization gives children the chance to work on executive functioning, or the skills that make it possible to focus on a task and complete it.
These skills include inhibition (the ability to think before you act); emotional control; task initiation; and time management.
The lessons learned from maintaining a tidy binder or managing their own calendars will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Spira said while some children are more inclined to organization, these are still skills that must be learned. She suggests teaching them with lots of patience, practice, and some positive reinforcement thrown in to sweeten the deal. Maybe a week of a well-organized backpack yields a trip to the local donut shop, or getting to pick the movie on Friday night.
Overall, children tend to be more motivated to learn organization skills if they see organization as a “challenge to overcome, rather than faults to repair,” Spira said.
Forgot your homework? That’s on you
For most kids, part of the learning process is having to face the consequences from an organization fail. For example, if they forget to bring their homework to school, let them, shame-faced, tell their teacher they don’t have their homework. However, if the child doesn’t appear to be modifying their behavior in response to these consequences, that might be a sign of a larger issue.
“Parents shouldn’t jump in the first time around, but if it keeps happening, find out what is going on,” Spira said. It could be that their system isn’t working for them and it needs to be tweaked. Or it might be a sign of a behavioral issues such as attention deficit disorder, and parents should consider seeking outside help.
Investing in children’s organization skills also pays off for parents. It can take a lot of effort to get the systems up-and-running, but once they are, parents will be rewarded with the one thing most of us want more of: time.
“It’s very hard to be present with your kids when you are the only one responsible for that infinite to-do list,” Morgenstern said. But when kids take on more of the mental load, “it creates freedom, space, joy, and more time for connection.”
That includes connection with our kids and – exhale – ourselves.