School Organizational Skills for Kids: A Parent’s Guide

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Patricia GagePatricia P. Gage, Ph.D
School Psychologist
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School Organizational Skills for Kids: A Parent’s GuideAs the new school year begins, minimize stress by organizing your child’s routine. Organization, or lack thereof, is based on executive functions which are natural neurological processes, a group of critical mental skills. Individuals with adequate executive function skills can plan, organize, strategize, and manage time. They know which assignments are on the agenda after school and can prioritize. Instinctively, when faced with an immense task such as a research paper, or a book report, they approach it methodically, one step at a time.

Students with slowly developing executive function skills don’t come by these abilities naturally and face more challenges in school. But, contrary to popular belief, these students are not lazy or willfully disobedient, and their poor performance is not a matter of needing to try harder. Instead, this group of children requires more support than the average student to experience success.

It can become a vicious cycle 

Because being organized is such a crucial part of academic achievement and daily life, it’s easy to understand how students struggling in this one area may be impacted in every subject. For example, if a student with adequate organization skills has difficulty with geometry, he can still do well in chemistry, English, history, and all of his other subjects. But when a student is disorganized, he has, in essence, a disadvantage in every subject. The good news is that with some continuous, direct instruction, modeling, and with age, organizational skills generally improve.

If you want to help your disorganized child, you may want to begin your conversation with something like this: “I know I’ve been on your case a lot about being more organized. You’re getting older, and I want to see you more independent in getting your work done on your own and make it less stressful. I don’t want to nag you, and I certainly don’t want us to argue about it. Let’s get this year started on a good note by setting up an organizational system that works for you. Do you have some ideas? How about we start by having a meeting on Sunday nights to clean out and organize your binders and backpack? (Refrain from being judgmental! Don’t start by saying, “this is such a mess,” that will put your child on the defensive, and you are certainly not going to help your child’s willingness to work with you and develop better organizational skills.

Disorganized children tend to be indecisive 

Disorganized students generally have messy desks, backpacks, binders, and notebooks because they cannot decide what to keep and throw away. They often stare at the homework but don’t do the work because they cannot choose where to start and what to do next. You have to serve as their “coach” and guide them to take control over time, procedures, and materials. Begin by giving them choices appropriate for their age. This helps them feel safe about deciding because you provide the alternatives they have to choose from. Gently coach by your questions rather than tell them the answers to every question. Raise their awareness of making decisions through modeling out loud how you are deciding on something so they can see your inner language script. For example, “That choice means you will be able to do X.” “If I do this, then X will happen,” and “If I do that, then Y will happen .” Show them how to develop a list of pros and cons and help them prioritize and narrow down their choices. Disorganized children also are used to having things done for them because adults cannot wait for them to get the job done. When they don’t have to think and do for themselves, they become less mindful about what they left behind or failed to do. It’s better to reinforce thinking behaviors by using words that guide self-direction like, “You remembered to put your homework in your backpack, you realized your library book was due today,” and “You noticed you didn’t put your name on your homework .” It’s easy to want to rescue them and do it for them but remember that you will be undermining their self-confidence and road to independence.

Designate the right place for your child to do the homework.

It’s essential for each child to have their study place, usually a desk in their bedroom, but for some families having a central location where all children sit, under the watchful eye of a parent, is a good option as well. Make sure that you make that decision together. Don’t allow your child to waste time and engage in all kinds of excuses, which we often refer to as “avoidance behaviors” in tracking down material he/she needs to do their work.

Each child needs to have a bin with pens, paper, notebooks, highlighters, scissors, glue, a stapler, etc. Use color-coded, two pocket folders and a notebook for each subject. One side of the folder should be marked “school” for the completed homework and for the signed forms that have to be returned to school, and the other side should be labeled “home” for assignments that have to be completed and forms that parents have to sign at home.  Avoid buying material made out of plastic. When possible, choose supplies made out of paper or wood to reinforce environmentally friendly choices.

While there are numerous interventions for organization and homework completion, a number of the suggestions below are based on recommendations provided by the National Association of School Psychologists at https://www.nasponline.org and from my own experience working with children for the past 35 years.

  1. A homework session should begin by reviewing with your child what the day’s assignments are. Get an oversized calendar and post it where the whole family quickly sees it so you can view it and review it weekly. Sunday night is an excellent time to update as you preview your upcoming week of assignments and activities. Consider what other obligations your child has that week, sports, after-school lessons, games, long-term projects, or tests coming up that your child should begin studying. For older children, you can also add daily chores that they are responsible for carrying out daily. Please help your child break down the assignments into smaller chunks and add them to the weekly schedule. For example, if they have to read a book and the book report is due at a specific date, add certain pages of reading each night to the list of homework.
  2. In addition to the extensive calendar, you also want to get a good planner for your child and teach him how to use it to record his assignments for each class and check off each project as he completes it. They should also flip ahead in the planner and mark when something is due. If they have a syllabus with the dates of tests, quizzes, and due dates, they should also get in the habit of writing down these dates in their planner. As an alternative to a planner, you could mark due dates on an electronic calendar.
  3. If your child has difficulty remembering to record the homework, ask his teacher to check his planner and sign off for a few weeks until he/she gets into the habit of entering the information on his own.
  4. Consider giving your child a half-hour break and a snack between after-school activities and homework. Sports or after-school care is not really a break. Kids need a little downtime at home in their “happy place” before starting their homework. This is not a time to allow electronics; otherwise, you won’t be able to get them off when the 30 minutes are up.
  5. Once the break is over, make a list of the assignments, help your child prioritize, and decide in what order they will complete the homework. You can guide him, to begin with, what he considers “easy.”
  6. Make sure your child brings the necessary books, worksheets, etc. If your child is disorganized, consider buying a second set of books to keep at home.
  7. Help them estimate how much time it will take to complete the work. Some kids like using a timer when they’re working on each assignment. They want to make it a race by trying to beat the timer. It adds some fun and gets them to do the work.
  8. Let them have a break in between assignments. A good rule is 20 minutes on and 10 minutes off (they must agree to return to work after the break with only one request).
  9. Sit with your child for the first five minutes to ensure they can get started and understand the instructions. You can even walk them through the first one or two problems. Walk away after that and don’t do their work for them. At the end of the homework session, check ifit was completed but don’t correct it. If it is too hard and your child can’t do the homework, send a note to his/her teacher. It’s essential for the teacher to know and also see the type of errors your child is making so they can teach it again or provide more practice. In addition, if the child gets the idea that you will bail her/him out at night and re-teach her the material or help her complete the homework, they will not pay attention in school, ask questions in class to gain a better understanding, and as a result not actively engage in her learning.
  10. Have a big bin at your entry where your children can dump all their school things as they enter your home. This routine will avoid frantic searches for permission slips and messages from the teacher or notices from school.
  11. Teach your child to maintain an uncluttered workplace to complete school assignments. Work with him and show him how to organize his space, then take a picture of what the space should look like and post it near his workspace. Next time you say, “Clean your desk,” and he says, “I did.” You can then say, “Does the desk look like the picture”? If it doesn’t, you let him know he’s not finished. You can use this approach for cleaning his room as well.
  12. Have your child study (spelling words, vocabulary words, review study guides) while he is engaged in some motion, such as a stationary bike. This accommodation will keep him more actively involved in what he’s supposed to be studying and will help with memorization and learning of the material.
  13. For homework assignments that require memory, it helps when you combine seeing it, saying it, writing it, and doing it. The visual, auditory and kinesthetic are all different paths to the brain. Some kids learn better visually while others need more “hands-on” or may need to hear the information as well as read about it themselves. Most textbooks today come in CD form. If your child is not a strong reader, buy the CD version as well and have him listen to the story or the chapter while he follows the text in the book and then reads it as well.
  14. To get your child to complete his homework, set a specific goal one subject at a time and have your child monitor his time (The use of a “Time Timer” for young kids, a timer, or a cell phone for older kids are good options).
  15. Emphasizing the importance that your child avoids multitasking, such as texting with friends, playing video games, or listening to music with lyrics while working on his vocabulary words is not a good idea. The brain is not wired to do multiple things at once. Remind them that when they have competing things going on, they’re creating a bottlenecking effect in the brain causing excessive brain fatigue, lowering their attention, weakening their higher order thinking skills, and increasing the chance of making errors. Multitasking doesn’t work!
  16. Before beginning to read a new chapter, have your child read the questions in the back of the chapter first. This will help guide his attention and ability to select essential from non-essential detail. Furthermore, before introducing a new concept, try to help him make it relevant to something he already knows or more relevant to everyday life. He/she is more likely to remember and be able to apply the information when needed.
  17. Have your child select what they are going to wear the next day and hang it in a convenient place in his room. This will eliminate some of the stress in the mornings.
  18. Designate a mutually agreed-upon time that all electronics will be shut off and placed “on a charger” for the night. This will ensure that your child gets a good night’s sleep and will be much more attentive and productive the next day.
  19. Help your child organize the backpack with the homework folders for each subject and material needed to be brought to school and remind him to place it by the door.
  20. If your child leaves her homework, lunch, gym clothes, or other items at home and calls, begging you to bring them to school, you can consider bailing her out twice each grading period. This forgetfulness is more likely to occur at the beginning of the school year when you are still establishing a routine. If there is a third time and you refuse, usually your child’s memory starts to improve pretty quickly.
  21. You want to get to the point where your child goes through his daily routine with one reminder to no reminders. Remember that if you do something 30 times in a row, it becomes a habit. Plus, the positive feedback your child will get for his effort will only reinforce his success.

If all else fails, your child may need something much more individualized with more frequent reinforcements. Check out the free daily or weekly behavior charts that you can download and look at the instructions on how to implement them on brainsmartacademics.com.

One of the teachers I worked with once said, “I think schools should teach kids how to learn, and parents should teach them how to work.” I took that seriously and have tried to put it into practice in my own home. Getting the kids to perform well in school is not always about studying longer but studying more efficiently. It helps to get to know your child as a learner. Does he learn best through visual means, such as pictures, graphs, charts, and diagrams, or is he an auditory learner who needs to hear the instructions and information and read it to himself? Does he need a hands-on approach where he can explore and manipulate the material to understand the concept? One system is not better than the other, and it’s certainly not related to your child’s intelligence. Each child is wired differently. It helps to know so you can encourage the proper practice and reinforcement for your child’s learning. It’s a trial and error approach when you’re working with kids. We’re all constantly learning!

Additional Resources:

Penaflor, Gina, and Gage, Patricia. Coach Your Teen to Get Organized and Learn: A Parent’s Guide, Brain Smart Academics, LLC, 2020.


Patricia gage

About Dr. Gage

Dr. Gage has been a practicing school psychologist for over 30 years. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Elementary Education and Psychology from Hunter College, a master’s degree in School Psychological Services and a Ph.D., in Child/School Psychology from New York University. She has been an active member of her community as a compassionate advocate for children’s social and emotional wellness and the rights of students with learning differences. She has been instrumental in implementing several successful programs in Martin County, Florida, such as the Mainstream Instructional and Behavioral Consultation Program for the Martin County Schools, “Weebiscus”, a preschool program for Hibiscus Children Center and the Academic Center at The Pine School.

Dr. Gage has served on the Board of the Rotary Club of Stuart, The Pine School, Hibiscus Children Center, and Sandy Pines Residential Treatment Center. She was a tireless member of The Rotary Foundation/ Matching Grants, the Rotary Youth Leadership Assembly, and served as the mental health counselor for the Rotary Student Exchange Program. Dr. Gage is the proud co-founder of a second company, Hang In There, LLC, which writes and produces a series of guides for new parents. The company has already donated over 15,000 guides to organizations serving new parents. She was the 2003 recipient of the Soroptomist International Women of Distinction award and was selected Rotarian of the Year 2002-2003 and 2009-2010.

Pat is married to Dr. Joseph Gage, a local Cardiologist, and is the proud mother of two wonderful sons. She loves photography, gardening, and traveling with her family.

Find her at brainsmartacademics.com.

View all posts by Dr. Gage here.

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