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A Backpack Plan of Attack: Organizational Skills Are in the Bag

by Donna Goldberg, Jennifer Zwiebel and the Staff of the NYU Child Study Center

Organized Backpack

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Great expectations

"This year it's going to be different." This sentence, uttered with a mixture of determination and hope, rings throughout homes across the country as the new school year starts. This year your child will get better grades, start his assignments earlier and, finally, get organized. And so you arm your child with notebooks, binders, pens and pencils, schedules and systems that should make all the difference. And now it's only two days into the school year and some things don't seem to have changed at all.

We all have the best of intentions as we send our kids off to school. Our children have the best of intentions too - no child wants to fail, and no student likes to be the one without her homework, textbook or completed project. And yet, it seems sometimes that no matter how hard we all try, nothing changes: notebooks fall apart, homework gets lost, long-term assignments are left for the last minute.

Why can't some kids stay on course?

Some of the most vital skills needed for success in school are not, for the most part, being taught in classrooms. Organization and time management are skills that lie at the heart of academic success for many students, and they need to be learned, adjusted and practiced. These are the tools that enable students to keep track of their belongings and assignments, both physically and mentally. As children enter middle school and classes become departmentalized, the challenges become even greater and the need for organizational skills becomes even more urgent. When a student misses a lesson on breaking down long-term assignments, for example, or the required notebook setup doesn't match a student's learning style, the proper systems are not in place to support a student's academic success.

Children with learning issues

While any child can struggle with these issues, children who have learning issues face an additional set of challenges. Students with attention difficulties tend to have trouble focusing on the details involved in an organizational system; kids with auditory processing issues often don't take in all of the information as it's being taught in school; and children with non-verbal learning disabilities or executive functioning issues may have trouble with sequencing, priorities and consequences, which are all significant components of organization. In fact, the steps involved in getting organized may seem like a burden rather than a tool - one more place to fail, one more obstacle between your child and success in the classroom.

For some kids, organization actually becomes a coping mechanism. In the case of one young person, undiagnosed dyslexia left her with a sense of failure, and facing that failure five days a week, six hours a day, was so painful that she shut down. She learned to look like she was paying attention in class while she had in fact completely vacated the room mentally. The only way she survived was by being extremely organized, by having control over the few things she did understand in the classroom. But students today live in a world in which staying organized is more challenging than it was when this young woman, who eventually got the help she needed, was in school.

Recognizing pressures

Among the factors that contribute to the organization problem are the rapid development of technology that has vastly increased the amount of paper that comes across students' desks; greater pressure to succeed academically and get into college, which makes kids feel they have no room to make mistakes; changes in family structure and living situations that have led to more unsupervised homework time and more places for kids to lose track of their homework; and crammed schedules, both curricular and extra-curricular, which result in greater workloads and less time for homework. With students facing all of these obstacles, what can parents expect to accomplish by introducing a few simple organizational tools? Plenty.

What parents can do

By helping your child create her own systems to keep track of her work and her workspace, you are laying the foundation for success in school and beyond. The process itself is a wonderful way to let your child experiment with decision-making, trial and error, and learning to trust one's own instincts. It's also a great opportunity to create a non-academic component within your child's school experience that can be relieved of the pressure of grades and judgment. It's an arena where she can find success and build on it. As she sees results in school and at home she will discover the value of the tools and find the encouragement to continue.

Recognize the signs of disorganization

The overall areas you will want to address can be broken down into three categories: organization at school, organization at home, and time management. You witnessed your child's disorganization last year, which means you may have a sense of what is working and what isn't. Some students will lose half of their supplies and a number of notebooks, textbooks and/or assignments; others will carry backpacks crammed with papers that never make it out of the bag to be completed or handed in; still others will forget about quizzes, tests, and assignments or miss appointments they've known about for weeks. Many students will exhibit all three signs of disorganization. Your job is to pick one area and guide your child through the process of creating a new system that will work for her.

The road to success

There are several steps to the organizing process. As with any new skill you introduce to your child, this should be approached with patience and the acknowledgment that the task can be difficult and will take practice. By establishing both your own and your child's expectations in advance, you set the stage for success. You also want to get an accurate sense of where your child is now in order to set reasonable goals. For example, if you're afraid that if you open your child's backpack you'll never be able to fit everything back in again, it's a good sign that it's time for an overhaul, and a good place to start with a broader campaign to get organized and improve time management.

  1. First, explain to your child what you plan to do and why you're doing it: "Let's reorganize your backpack so you can find whatever you need really quickly." Then, with your child's permission, the two of you can empty the entire backpack onto a clear table or floor. Together, sort through the contents, creating separate piles for each category you come across. When you come across a piece of paper, ask, "What is this? Is it homework, a permission slip, a worksheet? Is it something you need to have with you in school or are you finished with it?" Let your child make the decisions. Even if you think she's not categorizing things 'properly,' the categories will make sense to her, and that is what is important. If things don't work out exactly as she imagined, she can make changes as they seem appropriate. She needs to own the process; you're there to be her guide.  And, as a guide, you want to keep your eyes and ears open along the way - very often your child will, unknowingly, provide insight into her way of thinking and why something does or does not work for her. Use that information to help her create systems that correspond to her needs and habits.

  2. Once everything is categorized, including textbooks, class notes, pens and other school supplies, extra-curricular gear, music and snacks, let your child tell you what really belongs in the backpack, what should go back to school, what can stay home, and what belongs in the garbage. Throw the garbage out right away (this includes any paper crumpled beyond recognition and snacks that are no longer in their original form). Set aside the items that will be staying home (this includes any textbooks that can be kept home as well as any papers that are not currently being used in school). Group everything that's going to stay in school together so it can be removed easily and put away in the locker or returned to friends and teachers.

  3. The remaining items will likely include your child's notebooks or binders, a couple of textbooks, workbooks, a book that's being read for school, a planner, some school supplies (pens, pencils, a calculator), and some personal items (cell phone, music, snacks, makeup). These items should be categorized as well and kept, if possible, in separate compartments of the backpack. If your child's backpack has multiple compartments, the largest section can hold notebooks, binders and large textbooks; the next section can hold smaller schoolbooks and school supplies; and the smallest section can hold personal effects. Water bottles and other liquids should be kept away from class notes and books. Whether or not your child's backpack has multiple compartments, everything should be consistently placed in size order. Demonstrate to your child how much easier it is to pull something she needs out of her backpack when she can actually see it.

  4. Now, let your child go to school and use her backpack. If she understands the categories and the purpose of separating her belongings, and realizes how much easier it is for her to find what she needs, she will understand the value of this system and be inclined to keep it up. For some children, the results will be immediately obvious; others will take longer to make the connections. Your job is to support your child by answering questions, helping her if she asks for help and not otherwise interfering. You can make it a regular practice to go through your own handbag or briefcase once a week, perhaps on a Sunday night, while your child reorganizes her backpack alongside you. Do not expect her to do this every night. The goal is for your child to find what suits her, to be able to use her systems and put them back together when they fall apart.

Organizational skills can be learned, and you have all the skills you need to teach them to your child. One step at a time, you can help your child find her path, and with patience, commitment, and an open mind you can provide your child with tools that will last a lifetime.

Getting Extra Help

The NYU Child Study Center offers a program for children who have been diagnosed with ADHD and find organizational skills a particular challenge. For more information, read about our Organizational Skills Training for Children with ADHD.

You can read more about the groundbreaking study that lead to this program in our interview with the CSC's Dr. Howard Abikoff, the lead researcher.  

About the Authors

Donna Goldberg is the founder of The Organized Student, a New York City-based consulting firm. She is the author, with Jennifer Zwiebel, of "The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond."

Updated: September 2010