Amanda Morin sighed at the text from her 11-year-old son, Jacob, asking her to bring his tripod to school so he could fulfill his duties as class photographer.
She’d just dropped off his forgotten sneakers for gym class and agreed to pick him up at the end of the day, unexpectedly. This new request showed — yet again — that he needed to get organized.
If you just unearthed last year’s unsigned permission slips from the bottom of your child’s backpack, Jacob’s forgetfulness may seem all too familiar. Indeed, our children need support planning and organizing. These skills, in addition to being able to pay attention and track details, are known as executive functions, and are crucial to success in school and life, even more than raw intelligence.
Here’s how to develop them:
Make it fun
Experts recommend tapping into your child’s interests or love of games to make organization and time management fun. Play the “estimation” game to guess how long it takes the family to put on shoes, gather belongings and get out the door. Then, get them to try to beat their previous record.
Kids also love to be the boss. Invite them to take charge of a family meal or grocery store run. Picking out favorite foods and using a list builds planning skills. Even preschoolers can help chop and cook, which involves them in the many steps needed to get dinner on the table. As they grow older, ask them to plan a family vacation and practice budgeting.
Create a visual depiction of the family’s daily routine with your children. Let them color a picture of each step. Maybe they’d prefer to take photos of clean teeth, a freshly made bed or their organized shoes. You can print the photos and create a chart to hang on the wall.
Play to their strengths
Appreciate your child’s special gifts — they do exist, says Paige Trevor, a professional organizer in Washington, D.C. “Notice their strengths and be curious if they could transfer some of those skills,” Trevor suggests. For example, a child who eagerly plans her social obligations might use those organizational strategies for keeping track of school and family commitments.
Tanya Egan Gibson encouraged her art-loving daughter, Dylan, to submit some of her work to the county art planning month before the deadline, collecting materials and designing a project. This “got her into the mindset of the pressure of a grade, Egan Gibson says. The fair’s show. Dylan had to start a planning ahead and breaking down work,” without routine carried over into schoolwork and activities.
Control the clutter
Prevention is the best cure for belongings. Regularly declutter the home and create a “zero growth” policy. “Parents often relinquish power over what comes in or stays in the house. I say: Take it back!” says Trevor. “We, as the parents, establish what a reasonable amount of stuff is that a child can pick up in 15 minutes. That’s what lives in their room. When a new gift, book, toy, game, craft, goody comes in, something goes out in the donate bag, eBay, trash.”
Take a picture of what clean looks like, whether it’s the common living spaces or a child’s room, and post it on the wall. Limit the amount of books, clothes or toys to the volume that will fit in the storage containers you own, says Dana White, author of Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff. Everyone has their own clutter threshold, the point at which they can manage all their belongings. But avoid a power struggle over your child’s space.
Create an anticipation habit
From an early age, model planning and organization. When you bring in a bag of groceries or stack of mail, immediately sort and put everything away. Talk through the daily schedule, including how long it takes to pack up and to drive places.
Show your children how you organize papers, and ask for their ideas on improving your systems, suggests Manju Banerjee, vice president of educational research and innovation at Landmark College in Putney, Vt., and an education expert with the learning resource website understood.org.
Ask children to anticipate what items they’ll need tomorrow. Don’t tell them. For example, if the schedule lists soccer practice, they should know to pack their cleats, shin guards and a water bottle.
Make it routine to pack the next day’s lunch and bag each evening, so you’re not scrambling to find items in the morning, Banerjee advises.
Teach time management
Have you ever told your child to be ready in 10 minutes, but, at the appointed time, found them still playing, completely unprepared? Studies show young children need practice understanding how long 10 minutes — or two hours — feels.
Experts suggest using a visual timer, such as an analog clock that shows the time remaining in red. The red triangle shrinks as the deadline draws closer.
Older children may enjoy setting reminders on phones or iPads. Experiment to find what works best for your children, and let them choose their favorite methods. Kids who love graphic design and fonts may prefer planning in a bullet journal they can customize, for example.
Above all, the experts agree that raising a planner is a process. Letting your children learn from their own mistakes is more effective — and enjoyable — than berating or nagging. When something does go wrong, whether a lost favorite sweatshirt or missing homework, offer to strategize with them. Ask what they’d do next time, or how they can regroup. Don’t rescue kids from mishaps; they’re prime opportunities for them to learn.
After that forgetful day in middle school, Jacob Morin came home furious that his parents refused to search for and bring the tripod. But it was the beginning of an important change in the Morin household, when the parents stopped rescuing their kids from their errors and oversights. “Now, as a sophomore in high school, he’s realizing that if he forgot something, it’s his responsibility to figure out how to manage without it,” Amanda Morin says. “He hardly ever forgets things anymore and seems to have a mental checklist he’s working through before he gets out the door.”