IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How to get your child organized for school

Keeping track of his things is the key to success says Donna Goldberg, author of “The Organized Student.” Here’s an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

It's time for kids across the country to jump back on the bus and get their heads in the textbooks. But for even the smartest student, poor organizational skills may keep them from making it to the head of the class. The good news is that these skills can be taught and honed and it's all inside a new book from organization consultant Donna Goldberg called, "The Organized Student." Goldberg was invited on the “Today” show to discuss the book. Here’s an excerpt:

Parenting is a humbling experience. You follow your instincts, do your best and just when you think you're on the right track — the phone call comes. My phone call came from my son Noah's sixth grade teacher informing me that my child hadn't handed in a single piece of homework all year. I was in shock. Noah spent hours in his room each night! And this was in the days before kids had computers in their rooms, which meant he wasn't instant messaging, playing computer games or surfing the internet. He didn't have a television or even a phone in his room — what could he be doing for hours on end? I felt like a terrible mother — why hadn't I asked to see his homework? Why didn't I know how he spent his time? And why wasn't he handing anything in?!

It turned out that Noah was, in fact, doing his homework. Upon investigation, I found nearly a semester's worth of completed, ungraded assignments buried in the dark recesses of his backpack. This made absolutely no sense to me. Why would someone go through the trouble of doing his homework and then not hand it in? Thus began my journey into the world of the disorganized student.

Disorganization was unfamiliar territory to me. My problems in school stemmed from a different set of challenges. I didn't learn to read until I was in the sixth grade. When I was little I would cry in my cubby every day before school; when I got older I dreaded the failure I knew awaited me in the classroom. I became a master at looking like I was paying attention when in fact I was in a completely different universe. I didn't want anyone to know how stupid I was, so I did my best to make myself disappear in class and I prayed that teachers wouldn't call on me so I wouldn't embarrass myself in front of my classmates. Unfortunately, I didn't know how to turn off the disappearing act at the end of the school day. A few years ago a former classmate recognized me in a bookstore. "Oh, Donna," she cried. "I remember you! You were so sweet and nice, but you were always sort of ... invisible."

Life is painful for students who don't meet the expectations of their parents, teachers, schools and peers. Some kids suffer from learning issues and others from disorganization. Whatever the obstacle, its effects are devastating to a child's self-esteem. I survived in school for two reasons. First, I had a mother who was non-judgmental and accepting, who stood up for me and was available whenever I needed her. When she recognized that she wasn't equipped to handle my challenges alone, she sought help from professionals. In the days when there was no such thing as a learning specialist she found tutors to help me learn to read. Her tenacity became my model when it was time for me to help my own kids. Second, I was extremely organized. I developed excellent organizational skills as a way to maintain some control over the things I was learning and didn't understand. Being organized not only helped me get through school and adjust to living with dyslexia before it was a known diagnosis, but it enabled me to become a school librarian and put me in the position to help other students succeed in school.

When I received the phone call from Noah's teacher I realized how different a student Noah was than I. I had always assumed everyone knew how to be organized and now I was seeing for the first time that it wasn't true. Noah's backpack weighed more than he did and looked like it was better equipped for a cross-country trek than a cross-town bus ride to school. His homework got done and often managed to make it into his backpack, but that was where the train derailed: his assignments never saw the light of day again. At the age of eleven, Noah was missing deadlines, always searching for school-supplies, running late between classes and, as a result, starting to fail some of his subjects.

When I recognized that one reason Noah never handed anything in was because he couldn't find anything in his backpack, I began making connections between Noah's organizing habits and his academic performance. Once I understood the effects of his behavior, we worked out a system together that enabled him to not only keep track of his homework but to make sure he handed it in.

As a middle school librarian I knew that Noah wasn't the only one having trouble keeping track of his things. Each May I would chase down library books that were taken out in October. The kids who had taken them out always had the best intentions and plenty of excuses -- "I'll bring it in tomorrow," "It's somewhere in my room," "I swear it was in my locker last week!" I began to realize that these same students ran into trouble in sixth grade when school became departmentalized and they were faced with multiple classrooms and teachers. Their names came up in faculty meetings year after year as the symptoms they had exhibited early on with their overdue library books now manifested themselves in overdue assignments, missed homework and deteriorating grades. The root of the problem had nothing to do with the students' intelligence or motivation to do well in school; it had to do with their lack of basic organizational skills.

I began applying some of the lessons I learned with Noah to the students in the middle school library. I helped them come up with ways to keep track of their paper and taught them how to meet deadlines. I developed theories about students and organization and used my friends' kids as guinea pigs. The students I worked with began to find success in school, and in 1990 The Organized Student was born. As a professional organizer I was able to help students from middle school through graduate school learn techniques that allowed them to work more effectively and increase their productivity. Word of mouth helped my business grow quickly, and in 1997 1 left my position as a librarian to become a fulltime consultant.

I've worked with hundreds of students and have certainly learned as much from them as they have from me. In the past few years I've noticed changes-an increase in pressure on students, heavier workloads, and an overwhelming number of distractions-that have made it more important than ever that students have strong organizational skills. I wrote this book to share what I've learned with as many students as possible, and I wrote it for those who are closest to children and who are most invested in seeing them succeed-their parents.

It's important to keep in mind that school today is not the place it was when you were growing up. Students have substantially more work, their days are more fragmented, and there's a pervasive sense of pressure leading students to feel that they can't afford to make mistakes. Advances in technology, overloaded schedules, and changes in family structure mean students are facing a different and often overwhelming world.

Entering middle school has always been challenging. When classes become departmentalized, children suddenly find themselves responsible for organizing their time and setting their own priorities. Over the past two decades the home computer and other technologies have made life even more overwhelming for students (as well as adults). Middle and high school students are drowning in paper, inundated with handouts, printouts, and packets. They lose hours each day to e-mail, instant messaging, and the Internet. The number of distractions available to students has increased exponentially, and their academic performance is suffering because of it. Without some training in how to handle the new paper flow, workload, and schedule, a student is lost.

In addition to these academic challenges, children today face new and often complex situations at home. In many households, both parents work outside the home and are unable to supervise their children as closely as they would like. Children of divorced parents may divide their time between two homes, and many families are headed by single parents or guardians. Even if there are two parents at home the students themselves are often not. Extracurricular activities take up precious hours of a student's study time; she may not arrive home until late in the evening, leaving barely enough time to eat dinner and complete her homework. If she's already struggling in school, having to search for the right notebook or call friends for the assignment may be one step too many.

If you and your child invest the time it takes to organize supplies, homework, and a study schedule, you can create the structure that he needs to succeed. While this book offers many different strategies and systems for getting organized, they will work only if you communicate openly with your child without being critical. Everyone learns differently and each student will come up with his own "right answers." It's vital that you recognize the importance of maintaining a nonjudgmental attitude and that you address each situation with an open mind, a positive approach, and no eye rolling. The fastest way to end an organizing session with your child is to criticize him. Keep your eye on the long-term goal and don't get distracted by a failed test or a notebook full of doodles. When you learn to stay focused and listen for the problems, you will discover that a solution can always be worked out. Keep your ears open and your mouth closed-you never know what seemingly insignificant detail will turn out to be the key to understanding what your child needs.

Learning to be organized is a process. It requires dedication, a little optimism, and a lot of support. It's a skill that needs to be taught, practiced, and honed, and there isn't a child (or adult) who can't benefit from the lessons in this book. Use the Assessment Questions provided in each chapter to pinpoint the places in your child's academic life where the system breaks down and discover insightful ways to rebuild each element, from the backpack to the bedroom. There are countless ways to make things fun and efficient, and as many unique solutions as there are students.

In this book I offer the tricks and tools I've gathered over the years, many of which came from the wonderful students with whom I've worked. You've taken the first step towards helping your child create an organized life. 'With time, patience, and the desire to help, you can teach your child invaluable lifelong skills. I wish you the best of luck as you embark upon this journey.

Excerpted from “The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond by Donna Goldberg. Copyright © 2005 by Donna Goldberg. Published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.