Many parents of school-aged children complain that their kids lack basic organizational skills—they forget to complete assignments, leave important materials for homework at school, have messy backpacks, take too long (or not long enough) to complete homework each evening, and fail to plan ahead for projects and tests. Organization is not an innate skill; some children easily organize their materials and juggle multiple tasks while others struggle to keep up with school-related demands. If your child shows problems with organization, time management, and planning skills, consider these concrete strategies and routines for helping children stay on top of schoolwork.
Does your child have a clear, organized method for keeping track of assignments?
Help your child develop the habit of using a planner to record assignments. Even if teachers post some or all of the assignments on a class website, keeping a personal record will help your child stay organized. Look for a planner that is broken down by subject, has enough space to write details, and has an easily accessible monthly calendar for recording long-term assignments. A space to check off items that need to come home and return to school can help kids who often forget needed materials.
Does your child often lose papers, books, and other important items?
Think about where your child runs into trouble. Is he constantly misplacing one folder? Does she stuff papers into her bag because punching holes and finding the right section in a three-ring binder takes too long? Think about how you can step it down, or simplify the routine. We have found that an accordion file works well for many children; there are no holes to punch, and papers for different subjects are easily filed within one manageable tool.
Help your child develop a routine for checking that all important items are in the bag when packing up in school and at home. A visual checklist pinned to the inside of the backpack can be a helpful cue so your child doesn’t forget critical items.
Does your child struggle to complete tasks in an appropriate amount of time?
You can help your child gain control over his or her schedule by teaching critical time estimation and planning skills. Set aside five minutes each day to review what work needs to be done (consider what is due tomorrow as well as longer-term assignments), how long each assignment should take, what other events are on the schedule (e.g., extracurricular activities), and what your child would like to do to relax. You may find it helpful to create a written schedule, where your child can map out the evening’s activities in 15-minute time increments.
Does your child have difficulty planning ahead for more complex tasks?
If your child is unsure of how to start working on multi-step tasks or if he or she struggles to produce neat, complete work in advance of deadlines, you may need to work on task planning skills. Start by helping your child state the goal for the specific task, break the task down into steps, order the steps, think about materials that are needed, consider how long each step will take, and fit the steps into the schedule. You can write down the individual steps on a calendar so your child can clearly keep track of what to do and when.
Organizational Skills Training at the NYU Child Study Center
If your child has significant difficulties with organization, time management, and planning, he or she may require more intensive intervention to get on track with schoolwork. Organizational Skills Training (OST) is a manualized, empirically supported treatment that has been proven to improve the organizational skills and academic performance of children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders. For more information on OST, click here.
Elana Spira, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center. She is co-author of the treatment manual for OST, Organizational Skills Training for Children with ADHD.