You’d think I had asked the kids to pull French fries out of their ears. That’s an ample description of my 4th graders’ response to, “Please put the handout in your binders.” Instead of a flurry of activity, I saw nothing more than a sea of blank faces staring back at me. I couldn’t understand why. I knew these kids had been carrying and using binders since the 2nd grade at our school— at least in theory. Even though I had taken over the class mid-year, I had been there long enough to see students painstakingly pack their binders and haul them to and from school each day.

The look on my face must have been just as blank because before I knew it, a soft-spoken boy in the second row whispered to me, “Mrs. Medisky, we don’t know how to use our binders.”

Organizational skills are basic. They’re so basic that many teachers and parents merely assume children will acquire them naturally.

Organizational skills are also vital to future success. Without organization, belongings get lost, order is lacking and things don’t make sense. We teach children the order in one-to-one correspondence as we point to objects and count the corresponding numbers aloud. We encourage kids to create order by solving puzzles. We even ask them to recognize and anticipate patterns. Teaching children how to organize the world around them is no less important. But where does one start? Here are five key steps to a great beginning.

  1. Start early. Children of all ages (and most adults) crave order. Help young children feel in control of their surroundings by enabling them to create order themselves. Even a youngster in the throes of the terrible twos can appreciate knowing everything has a place. Place shelves at kid level. Supply small plastic bins— without lids— for putting small toys inside. Consider pasting pictures of what goes where in a playroom to create visual cues for your youngster to follow.
  2. Teach by example. No matter what your child’s age, share your organizational strategies. You may not be aware of it, but each time you write a grocery list, jot an event on the calendar and rearrange the closet, you’re organizing. Model this well for your child.
  3. Connect to what they know. Don’t start from scratch. Instead, make connections to things that children can relate to. Whether they recognize it as organization or not, routines help children in their daily life and they appreciate routine, like how they get fed three times a day. A hungry toddler is inclined to let you know lunch is late by becoming cranky. Point this out: Meals are organized at certain times of the day. Similarly, toys need to be put away and organized, too.
  4. Be open to differences. Organization is not one size fits all. If your child seems to be a visual learner, use colors and pictures to assist him in organizing his things. Does your child march to the beat of a different drum? Help him invent songs to remember what goes where. If your child is older, show him that he doesn’t have to adhere to a certain way of organizing. Help children make modifications that work for them. Small pictures that can be recognized at a glance, for example, may work well on divider tabs for visual learners.
  5. Point out the payoff. Explain to your children what they’ll gain from their new organizational skills. Toys that are properly taken care of and put away can be enjoyed for a long time. Homework that is placed in a designated spot means less chance of losing it, along with less stress and better grades.

Teaching children organizational skills needn’t be a foreign and painful process. Show your children how they can create order in their daily lives in ways that work for them. You’ll be giving each of your children a gift that will last a lifetime.

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