Coming Clean: Organizational Skills for Kids

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Does your child’s bedroom look like a tornado recently swept through? What about her backpack or school locker? If your little pack rat can’t seem to find homework projects, library books or a favorite pair of shoes, it may be time to instil some organization. Strong organizational skills serve children well through grade school, college and beyond, and help prevent the daily stress of hunting down lost items — not to mention tardy slips, missed busses and late classwork. Experts say that even the most disorderly kids can learn to be more organized, beginning in toddlerhood. Here’s how to get started, at any age.

Ages 2-5
Model Behavior
Do you complain about after-dinner cleanup or moan about making your bed? Your toddler will pick up on your attitude about organization, says behavioral psychologist Richard Rende, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown Medical School in Providence, Rhode Island. Model a positive attitude about daily tidying up to foster cooperation in tiny tots.

Children as young as 18 months can begin learning basic guidelines for organization. (Just don’t expect a spotless bedroom quite yet!) Set a few simple family rules, such as cleaning up one activity before starting another, or always putting dirty clothes in the hamper — and follow through. Young children can learn and sing a "cleanup song" when it’s time to put toys away or create a sticker chart for recognition of a job well done.

Ages 6-12
Schoolwork Shuffle
Homework assignments, permission slips and other school paperwork can pile up for grade-schoolers — and losing track of school papers creates a hassle for both students and parents. Now’s the time to begin teaching children how to keep school items organized, says Karen Meadows, supervisor of grades K-8 counseling for Guilford County Schools in Greensboro.

First, create a spot for school papers at home — a hanging file folder or wall file works well — as well as a special place for your child to put papers that need a parent’s attention, like permission slips or class newsletters. Set a daily time for homework and provide the tools your student needs to stay on track, like a timer and calendar. Help your child develop a few good habits: emptying his or her backpack at the end of the school day, writing assignment due dates on the calendar and chunking up big projects into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Ages 13-18
Schedule Sync
If anyone needs a well-ordered schedule, it’s a teenager. Between academics, after-school jobs and extracurricular activities, a teen’s daily routine can be incredibly hectic. Help teens learn vital organization skills to manage a busy schedule, but make sure they are the ones doing the organizing to keep the focus on skill-building.

"Collaborate with your teen to develop organizational strategies. Their buy-in is important. Teens are more prone to follow through with strategies if they’ve been a part of the decision-making process," Meadows says.

Visual cues can help a scattered teen stay organized, so invest in a white board or a large write-on calendar for a teen’s bedroom. Use teens’ love of all things tech to teach self-management skills, including apps with daily schedule reminders, homework calendars, and task timers. Once teens clean up their act, Meadows says, praise consistent progress. "The best way to always be organized is to stay organized!"

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.