For Families > Keeping Kids Healthy > Learning and School

Getting It Together: Helping Your Child Organize His Way to Success

by Richard Gallagher, PhD

boy doing his homework

Children's lives are busier than they've ever been. Homework loads are heavier, many kids start extra-curricular activities like sports teams and music classes in elementary school if not earlier, and the Internet and the instant connection to friends that it offers 24 hours a day gives kids few breaks from social demands and stimulation.

With seemingly more activities crammed into their lives than ever before, it's crucial that kids develop the organizational skills they need to stay on top of their schoolwork.

In work completed at the NYU Child Study Center, we've identified three areas that are key to kids achieving their potential in school, and in which kids tend to vary widely - how well they manage their materials, books and assignments; how well they meet deadlines and prepare for tests; and how well they plan their actions to reach their academic goals.

When children have problems in these areas, our research suggests lowered productivity, lessened ability to pay attention, and greater family conflict over schoolwork. For some children, we know that the problem of keeping track of assignments is the single biggest reason they are doing poorly in school, even if they are quite bright.

While many kids will pick up organizational skills on their own - by watching peers or through basic instruction from classroom teachers - others may need guidance ranging from explicit directions to direct supervision and repeated practice.

That's where you come in. Parents can go a long way toward helping kids develop and nurture the organizational skills they need to help them succeed in school and beyond.

While families and kids may ultimately develop an individual approach to staying organized that works for them, there are some simple things every family can do to get started.

Talk to your child about the routines and techniques you use to stay organized. For example, show them where you keep items you need to find quickly on a regular basis, such as house keys, car keys and important papers. Discuss how you manage your time, so your child learns how long tasks take and what you do to fit those tasks into your schedule. Include your child in discussions of family activities and routines, so he can learn that foresight is useful.

Help your child make sure he knows what to do and when to do it. Provide a reliable way to list homework and due dates. You and your child can have fun choosing the right bulletin board or calendar, for example, or whatever system you decide works best.

Include some time in your schedule to review assignments with your child. Ask your child to connect each task with all the needed materials (e.g. books, worksheets, pencils, etc.).

Create a consistent place for your child to complete homework. Stock that location with necessary supplies. Let your child decorate it as he chooses, just as you would your study or home office - just make sure it's clear of anything that might be too distracting.

Help your child find a specific time to study and complete assigned work each day. Although the actual time may change according to the schedule of afterschool activities, a discussion about scheduling a regular time will build time-management skills.

As you and your child make homework a part of your regular routine, consider how long it should take. If you are not sure, ask your child's teacher for an estimate of how much time should be spent on homework and studying.

Discuss long-term projects such as book reports with your child. Children may not know what steps to take and how to complete assignments that take several days or weeks. Help break the work down into smaller chunks and set deadlines on the homework calendar if it helps your child stay on track.

Develop ways to store school supplies and any other school-related materials to help keep your child's workspace neat and free from distracting clutter.

Make sure your child has a way to store and transport papers to and from school that is easy for him to use. Provide the necessary folders, binders or whatever else he finds helpful.

Help your child develop an organized way to transport all of his materials back and forth from school. Consider books, papers, lunch, school bus or subway passes, money, cell phone, and any other personal items when choosing a bag or backpack that will work best for him.

Have your child pack everything up in his backpack or book bag when homework is complete. Doing this the night before school helps avoid mishaps that can happen in the rush to get ready in the morning.

Check with your child's school for courses in organization and study skills, which have been added to many curriculums, especially at the middle-school level. Additionally, your school may be able to offer some degree of tutoring to help overcome problems with these skills.

Getting Extra Help

Some kids may benefit from more help with organizational skills than you may be able to provide at home. If keeping track of papers, homework and supplies proves to be a serious stumbling block to a child's achievement, you may choose to seek help from a specialized tutor. Be aware that there has been little review of organizational skills training for kids by psychological or educational professionals. So, while there are many techniques out there, there is little evidence as to which ones are most likely to be effective.

If your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, or you suspect that your child has the condition, the NYU Child Study Center may be able to offer assistance. During the last few years, we have been exploring methods to assess and treat organizational skills deficits in children with ADHD, for whom these skills are often especially challenging. These approaches have received critical review to ensure that they are useful and effective.

We believe the main challenge for teaching children afflicted with ADHD resides in the frustration these kids have with boring routines. Staying organized requires steps that are repetitive and can seem uninteresting. We work with these kids to help them see the benefits of such routines, and we emphasize how the routines can be completed quickly when they are well-practiced. Our work stresses a collaborative effort that involves children, parents and teachers to help children learn through practice and positive reinforcement.

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. 

Updated Sept. 2010