This is how my first-grader used to arrive home after school: Fling jacket and backpack on the floor. Traipse upstairs. Ditch shoes and leftover lunch along the way. Her attempts to finish her chores and homework were just as haphazard. Like many kids come September, it seemed as though she was a tornado in training. But thanks to a few creative ideas, I was able to calm the storm and bring order to our house and her schedule.
The trick to becoming organized was to make it easy and to set a good example (which can be the biggest challenge of all). Every 15 minutes you spend pulling things together up front saves you 30 minutes of putting them back in their places later, says Mary Pankiewicz, a professional organizer in Morristown, Tennessee. Here, surprisingly simple changes that will get your kids on track throughout their school years:
Make a list and check it twice
You may never deal with forgotten permission slips again if you stick to this routine: Have your child run through a written going-to-school list. Jacket? Check. Lunch? Check. Homework? Check. Goodbye hug? Check. Then teach him to follow a leaving-school list — which includes such items as homework, books, and teacher’s notes — when it’s time to come home in the afternoon.
For younger kids, use visual cues. Andrea Bain of Port Washington, New York, gave her 6-year-old daughter, Julia, pieces of felt, then had her draw pictures on them that symbolized what she needed to do every morning, such as place her homework in her bag and fill the dog’s water bowl. They put the pieces on a felt board, and now, when Julia wakes up, one look at them serves as a colorful reminder.
When she completes a chore, she moves the piece of felt from the left side of the board (marked “undone”) to the right side (“done”). To offer some incentive, Bain gives her a certificate every morning once all the items are lined up on the right side; when she collects 15, she’s allowed a trip to the toy store.
Play beat the clock
Kids often don’t realize how long a task takes from start to finish. When Sharon Mueller’s 7-year-old son, David, began to get homework, he’d put it off, and then frequently be too tired to start it after dinner. But once Mueller made a rule that assignments had to be done within 45 minutes of his coming home, the evenings were much smoother — and “he’s perfectly happy to get it out of the way,” says the Kansas City, MO, mom.
The secret is the time limit — there’s nothing like a deadline to cut down on dawdling. And if the ticking clock doesn’t provide enough of a push, you can add a consequence — for example, a bedtime that’s pushed up by 15 minutes that night — to give it some real meaning.
For short-term tasks, such as getting dressed in the morning, give a time limit of, say, two minutes, then set an egg timer. Or turn it into a race and see whether he can put on his clothes before you finish making breakfast.
Make every date rate
Dianne Ryan of Prairie Village, KS, helps her four kids keep on top of their busy schedules with a family calendar. “It’s in the kitchen, so each of the kids has easy access,” she says. Give everyone a different-colored pen, and once they’re old enough, demonstrate how to enter their own school activities or homework deadlines. Or use a dry-erase board — your children will get a sense of accomplishment from wiping off completed items.
Encourage an older child to use a funky, colorful personal planner. As she starts to receive more complicated projects, show her how to make them easier by working backward from the due date and setting mini-goals — especially useful when studying for tests or completing a big assignment.
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The night before, pack up a lunch bag and place it in the fridge so you can grab and go the next day. Or help your child choose her clothes and lay them out on a chair. Julia Bain picks outfits for the coming school week on Sundays and puts them in her closet in a hanging sweater bag with compartments labeled Monday through Friday.
Once my husband designated a convenient “coat place” (a low-hung row of pegs) and “shoe place” (a plastic bin) for our four kids, it was amazing how much faster we got out of the house in the morning. To create a ready-to-go zone, Dave Hambaum of Casco, MI, built school-style cubbies for each of his five girls, ages 5 to 12. “Every day, they come home, unload backpacks, do homework, and put it all in their cubbies to take back to class,” he says. You could also use inexpensive plastic crates, stacked by the door.
Set up a place to call his own
Creating a work space for your child early on — even before he enters preschool — can help him develop good study habits and organization skills. It can be as simple as a small table in the family room or kitchen, with easy access to crayons, paper, and glue. You might use clear storage boxes or two-gallon zip-lock plastic bags so he can see what’s inside.
Be a smart saver
To cut down on the loads of art projects and assignments your child brings home, help her edit her own work. Hand her a keepsake box that she can decorate with stickers and glitter glue. Every few months, have her put aside her favorite papers and drawings, then toss the rest. Giving her the chance to save her most cherished items will make it easier to say goodbye to the others; if she puts up a fuss, you may want to toss the remaining work quietly, perhaps at night when she’s asleep.
Once the box fills up, explain that for new work to go in, old things must be taken out. Also send some to grandparents or use the back of a picture to write a letter. And show her how to preserve memories in special ways: Laminate a favorite piece of artwork to use as a place mat, or slide letter-size drawings into clear plastic sleeves and store them in a ring binder.
Contributing editor Paula Spencer is the author of the Parenting Guide to Positive Discipline.