How Organization Skills Create Back-to-School Success for Kids

by Laura Ramirez

Organization skills will ease the transition from an unstructured summer to the discipline required for back-to-school success. Although you may not have taken the time to help your children get organized before, organization skills have many immediate benefits for parents as well as kids. Reduced stress tops the list. When you create a system that creates effective daily habits, you can avoid last minute dashes back home for forgotten homework assignments, field trip forms or lunchboxes. Less stress makes for less fighting and a happier, more supportive family atmosphere.

Before I help you to develop your organization skills, let me admit that I am not an organization freak, nor do I keep a spotless home. I see my home as a respite from the outside world, where my family can relax and be themselves. Organization skills are tools to make life more enjoyable, rather than more rigid.

What led us to rethink our organizational skills was something we found while cleaning out my boys' closet for a neighborhood garage sale. Buried beneath a jumble of unrolled sleeping bags and duffel bags overstuffed with sporting gear was "The Backpack." Although it was rather heavy, initially, it looked innocent enough. When my son opened it, however, he recoiled from the smell. Buried at the bottom of piles of paper, forgotten sweatshirts and several large rocks was a plastic bag containing the mushy brown remains of what had once been an apple. The contents of the bag had leaked onto the bottom of the backpack, leaving a tobacco-colored stain about the size of a softball.

"Ooooh, gross!" my boys exclaimed in unison, as they plugged their noses. Yes, I nodded, "Gross!" I reminded them that I had told them to clean out their backpacks the last day of school. As they removed the offending bag to the garbage can outside, I dug through the papers and found a sealed envelope from the teacher that contained my son's test scores for last year. I looked over the scores (which were excellent) and was besieged by a memory from last year--arriving at school with my boys in tow and marveling at all the surprisingly well-dressed kids only to discover that it was "Picture Day." I ventured a glance at my boys--they were dressed in rumpled, over-sized t-shirts and the youngest one looked as though he'd forgotten to brush his hair. This memory was swiftly followed by another: I was on the roadside, flagging down the school bus as it lurched toward me because my son's class was going on a day-long field trip and he had forgotten his lunch again. I sat down, amidst the clutter of the closet and resolved to turn these memories into reflections that would inspire change. I pressed my lips together in a firm resolve: this year would be different.

Rather than regiment my all-boy family, so that they would get organized (by organizing a revolt!), I decided to make some simple, but strategic changes that would make life easier for all. Following are our new organization skills and accompanying family rules:

Organization Skills/Rule Number 1: The Central Station: The boys must deposit their backpacks, lunch boxes and shoes in the "Central Station" when they get home from school. The "Central Station" can be anything: a floor mat, a box, basket, closet or credenza. The key is to make it the single location for all the items that are forgotten in the early morning rush. In my house, I placed a large basket next to the front door for backpacks, lunch boxes and shoes. (Two years ago, we gave my youngest son the name, Coltan-One-Shoe, because whenever it was time to go somewhere, he could only find one shoe.) When the boys finish their homework after school, they place completed assignments in their backpack and place the backpacks in the basket. Once this is done, free time begins. Lunch boxes are also put in the basket, so I won't have to scurry around the house looking for them in the evening when I make their lunches for school. First thing in the morning, I take their lunches from the fridge and place them in the basket, along with their shoes and backpacks. Since everything is placed within plain view, it makes forgetting much less likely. (The Central Station has been in place for two weeks now and thus far, we've been free from incidents of forgetfulness.)

Organization Skills/Rule Number 2: All papers that need to be signed and returned are to be removed from the backpack the day they are received and put in a filing drawer, so I can read them and take action. You can use anything for this-inexpensive file folders, file baskets or purchase one of those hard plastic or wicker paper-sized pullout drawers. You can designate separate drawers for different things. Have a drawer for notes from the teacher (or for anything that requires immediate attention), notices, such as bulletins from the PTA and a drawer for forms that must be returned with money, such as school photographs or field trip forms. If you have an extra drawer, keep number 2 pencils in it, so that when your children run out of pencils, they'll know where to find more. This file system should be considered part of the Central Station and placed in its proximity. A key to success is keeping everything together in one place.

In the beginning, help your child go through the papers that he brings home and talk out loud as he watches you file them. Example: "This is a notice about the luncheon for volunteers, so I'll put it in the bulletin drawer. (This requires that your child read the notice which exercises his reading skills and means he'll have a better idea about what's happening at school.)

To reinforce the idea of removing all papers from their backpacks, I made every Friday after school Clean-Backpack Day. Since there's no homework on Fridays, it is easy to clean out backpacks before weekend play begins. I made this into a family ritual by serving snacks, turning on music and cleaning out my purse while the boys clean out their backpacks. We take turns sharing papers, test scores and artwork that is headed for the recycling bin. Organizing together shows children that this is a skill that they will use throughout their lives.

Organization Skills/Rule Number 3: Homework Before Leisure Activity: After returning home from school and eating a snack, the boys are to complete their homework before engaging in leisure activity. Since my children are involved in after school sports, they often lack the energy to do their homework properly if I allow them to wait until after practice or dinner to complete it. If allowed to do their homework before bedtime, they often forget to transfer their assignments to their backpack, which in the past has meant a mad dash back home the next day to retrieve forgotten homework.

Organization Skills/Rule Number 4: Taking Responsibility: Although I've created new rules for my boys and will remind them until they've become habits, they must assume the consequences for failing to follow through. This means that forgotten assignments are their responsibility. I am their mother and love them dearly which is why I can't rescue them from their failure to follow through. Natural consequences drive home the lesson and help children reflect on how they can do better next time. If I assume the role as the tireless rescuer, then in addition to enabling them, I prevent them from gaining a sense of responsibility.

For my seven-year-old, the rule of taking responsibility began the day we cleaned out the closet. When he requested a brand new backpack to replace his soiled one, I told him he would have to live with what he had. Every time he saw that stain, he'd be reminded of the importance of cleaning out his backpack. It was a natural consequence of failing to heed my request to clean out his backpack the last day of school. (The lesson was short-lived because I introduced my son to the pressure washer which quickly and completely blasted away the stain.)

Whether you use my organization skills or devise your own, make sure to help your child by reminding him of the new procedures for the first four to six weeks. During this time, check his follow through. Remember that it takes about thirty days to create new habits. Compliment your child when he has followed the rules without a need to be reminded. Note his progress. Help him to see the benefits of being organized by saying things like, "It must feel good to know that your hard work is given full credit because you turn it in on time."

Teaching your kids organization skills for back-to-school success is easy if you make small changes that make life simpler and more enjoyable for all. Effective organization skills create lifetime habits and set the stage for success in high school, college and on the job.

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