Teaching Organizational Skills
by Tiffany Creager
One of the top ten New Year resolutions each year is to get organized. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t always on my list of things I’d like to change about myself! It’s also been at the core of many of my interventions with students and families seeking support or desiring a change.
It often begins with missing assignments or overlooked responsibilities and leads to children who are distracted, anxious, overwhelmed and feeling out of control. In addition to bringing calm to a stressed student, household, or classroom, teaching our kids how to be organized can build a foundation for navigating their busy lives productively and with self-confidence!
As the world around us gets busier and busier, there is an increased need for understanding how to manage our time and tasks. Below we will discuss why it is important, give some quick tips, learn how to prepare the mind and environment, and discuss how to make the lessons stick!
Organizational Skills: The Beginning
Organizational skills are learned, they are not inherent. With the development of these skills comes increased self-esteem, a sense of independence, an increased level of responsibility, and a reduction of stress for the child and the adults in their lives.
These skills carry them far beyond a tidy desk and backpack and into critical thinking and higher academic achievement. Those of us with our own children can likely recall those days when our two-year-olds insisted on doing everything themselves! Getting dressed, choosing their clothes, putting their shoes on, navigating their silverware semi-successfully – each completed task filled those toddlers with such accomplishment and pride even if, like my younger daughter, that meant going to daycare with two different colored shoes!
We, as parents, may also remember feeling impatient or the urge to jump in and do the task for our child as we had to get to work or to bed and just needed the task to be completed! It is not uncommon to have the same frustrations and sense of urgency with students in the classroom.
Just as we did when our kids were young though, we can meet our students where they are – inevitably at different levels – with interest, patience, kindness, and understanding. The time spent adding these skills to their toolbox will come back to us as we reduce our time with reminders and frustration over missed or incomplete assignments, messy workspaces, or frustrated students.
This begins with firm but kind expectations. Discuss these expectations with your students and let them know that you are confident they can achieve the expected level of independence. Remind them that you are there to support them as needed and that you look forward to them celebrating their successes as their independence grows.
Quick tips before we start
- Be consistent. Routines and predictability create comfort and help build habits.
- Introduce order. Kids need to have a sense that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything. A project isn’t done until it’s finished.
- Give everything a place so that they recognize there is spatial order.
- Practice forward-thinking, which means anticipating, estimating, planning.
- Promote problem-solving, which is imagination, grasping the big picture, and taking perspective.
- Involve your students in the process. Their buy-in will increase the likelihood of their success. They might even enjoy buddying up and holding each other accountable.
Recognize the ready-state
Self-awareness is an important element of learning and development. Empowering students to assess their brain state will allow them to gauge if they are primed for learning or if they need to pause and regulate before tackling a task.
Recognizing the ready-state goes far beyond the classroom and will serve them for a lifetime. Students will become adults who have learned to pause and assess before engaging in tough conversations, approaching work assignments, or making critical decisions. This work starts by pausing and asking, “where am I in this now moment?”
Here are some feelings to look for that will help identify the students’ current state:
As a reminder, younger students or students of all ages who may struggle to name these feelings might start with sensations. Here is a great tool!
If students find themselves in a not-ready state, have options for them to regulate their nervous system and their bodies. Integrating practices like breath, movement, journaling, and other regulatory practices into your daily procedures will better prepare students to know what works for them as individuals and to turn to those practices habitually over time.
You might even build a few minutes into your schedule before particularly challenging assignments to give the entire class time to practice self-awareness and readying the brain as needed. These routines will help build habits that will carry over into their lives outside of the classroom!
The world today has become noisy, busy, and full of distractions. Help students list potential distractions and remove them. Remind them that focused work is more productive work. Really, it is a time-saver so they can return to the distractions sooner if that’s where they’d rather be!
They may need to place their phone somewhere safe, find a quiet space away from friends, use headphones, listen to classical music, or remove clutter. A clear space helps clear the mind. It is a gift and a skill to learn to appreciate and celebrate the tools and resources at our fingertips that are there to help us!
Discuss, also, that different strategies work for different students and it’s important to be respectful of what each person needs without judgment but with openness and celebration.
Finally, remind students to focus on what is within their control. It is easy to become frustrated with or distracted by things outside of their control. Taking time to write down what they can and can’t control empowers them to tune into and strengthen the areas in which they can create change or produce work. This saves time and stress!
- Prepare the space- I mentioned clearing the space of clutter as a way to prepare the mind. Having a designated workspace is also important when building work habits. Encourage students and families to designate a space at home for homework. This does not need to be elaborate. It can simply mean having space at the kitchen table for an hour after school and then returning supplies and work to their backpack.
- Visual Timers- There are a number of other tools that might help students become and stay organized. One of my personal favorites is timers. I prefer visual timers as the noise of other timers can be dysregulating to some. Some students feel stressed or pressured by timers. I find that it can be helpful to teach and encourage on-task work during the designated time as opposed to the completion of a specific task. This helps praise the process. Building good work habits will, undoubtedly, lead to completed tasks.
- Lists- Other tools that might be used to prepare the space could be visual schedule reminders, ready access to supplies needed, or lists with specific tasks broken down. Lists can be extremely helpful in building self-confidence and making a big project seem less intimidating. Teaching our students how to effectively create and use lists promotes independence and helps reduce the number of verbal reminders needed from adults. Lists also act as a visual reminder of priorities and order of tasks, deadlines, etc. Depending on the age, you might start with modeling a daily list for the class or ask students to start each week with their top three priorities and a list of tasks to complete or progress towards their goals. This digital daily planner is a great example.
- 2-minute Rule- One last helpful skill to teach students when helping them get organized is the 2-minute rule – if it takes less than 2 minutes, do it now. We might use verbal cues such as, “don’t put it down, put it away.” For example, if a paper needs to go home or supplies need to be returned to a designated space – don’t put it down, take care of it now. Again, this builds habits that help students stay organized with minimal effort. If modeled and practiced enough, “don’t put it down, put it away” becomes a permanent reminder in their head! This is one I modeled for a long time. I am very open with my students about how difficult it is for me to stay organized. Modeling helps them witness the process and understand that these are skills that are difficult for people of all ages!
Making it Last
Organizational skills are learned and may be more difficult for some students. Regularly assess how your students are doing, meet them where they are, and help them find the tools that work for them.
Things to remember:
- Expect setbacks.
- Allow time every week or every nine weeks to reset.
- Celebrate even the small wins!
- Notice and acknowledge papers put in the correct place, lists created, or the choice to work somewhere without distractions.
- Finally, ask students what is helpful and what isn’t. The more buy-in they have, the more effective and long-lasting the skills they develop will be.
In addition to increasing their success or completion of tasks, students who are better able to manage their time and workload have better self-esteem, reduced stress, a stronger sense of independence, and an increased level of responsibility.
For some, it will come easy and for others, it will be a lifelong process of learning. Still, the more we support our students by integrating tools and strategies into our classrooms that promote organized thought and work, the better able they will be to create lasting habits.
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