Ed Matters: The Best Laid Plans

How to keep those good habits all school year long

If you’re like me, each August you accompany your kids to the back-to-school section of the store, ready to make a fresh start. There’s nothing like a new binder, new folders and a new backpack to inspire neatness and foster strong organizational skills, right?

In September, I’m likely to cross-reference against my multiple calendars, devising dinner menus and weekly grocery lists that take into account sports practices, back-to-school nights, business trips and work events, along with everyone’s food preferences.

The kids do their homework as soon as they get home from school. There’s healthy snack food available. There’s time and space for all of us to do what we need to so we can relax in the evenings and still be ready for the next day.

In September, we are on top of things.

By March, it’s a different story. Everything feels far more catch-as-catch-can.

Many parents struggle with how to maintain good family habits throughout the school year, so that family time is enjoyable, rather than plagued by stress, nagging and meltdowns.

Though keeping our family organization is still very much a work in progress, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

One size does not fit all

Over time, as my kids have gotten older and have had to assume more responsibility for keeping their stuff together, their organizational personalities have emerged. And guess what? They look a lot like my husband and me — two diametrically opposed personalities when it comes to neatness and clutter.

Like me, my older daughter has a busy mind and is messy by nature. If she can’t see something, it’s forgotten, so she needs visual reminders. When it comes to her schoolwork (but alas, not her bedroom floor), my younger daughter is like her father, meticulous about putting papers away.

In the early school years, parents set the organizational tone for the household.

“We have in no way ironed everything out, but two things we have in the ‘win’ column are: homework time right after getting home and having a snack/break, and then a designated time that the Internet is unplugged each night,” says Marrene Franich, a Bellevue high school teacher and the parent of two middle schoolers.

Though habits you put into place early on can last a lifetime, as kids get older, it’s worth tailoring solutions that work best for them.

“Our kids each have a ‘month at a glance’ calendar that they update daily,” says Courtney Beaulieu, a former teacher and the Bend, Ore., mother of two daughters in middle school. “They are responsible for knowing what activities they have and what homeork they have. I keep a family calendar, but it only includes activities that I have to chauffeur them to and from. I think having their own calendar makes kids plan their homework time accordingly. We learned the hard way that the ‘month at a glance’ is the best way to stay on top of long-term projects for school. If they just have a weekly planner, they don’t always remember those later due dates.”

Most middle schools introduce assignment planners to get kids used to planning for a range of projects in different classes with different due dates. At the beginning of the school year, arrange weekly check-ins with your child to make sure he or she is using the planner and is aware of what’s on the horizon.

If your school has an online assignment and grade tracker, check it periodically with your child. If there are no missing or late assignments, congratulate your kid on a job well done. But if you see a pattern of neglect, step up the parental check-ins.

Every year/season is different

Soccer, T-ball and ballet may dictate the family’s schedule and then be replaced by after-school team practices, play practices and eventually, driver’s ed. To compensate, revisit your family’s organizational structure, making any necessary tweaks.

Just keep swimming.
— Dory, Finding Nemo

During the winter months, when it gets dark early, it’s easier to corral kids to do homework and get ready for bed. During seasons with longer daylight hours, when end-of-the year school fatigue sets in, you might need to increase after-school playtime and eat dinner later.

Weekly elementary school homework packets give way to weekend homework and daily assignments. Kids develop new sleep patterns that impact when they are best able to concentrate. The siren calls of friends and electronics change from year to year.

And not only do schedules change, but so does your child’s brain development. That squirrelly boy who couldn’t sit still can morph into a focused math student. That girl who never needed reminders may suddenly have other things on her mind besides school. Start every year with parental check-ins, until your kids demonstrate that they are not necessary. Remember that at some point during the year, your child may hit a new developmental peak. Stay in touch with them and with their teachers to see how things are going.

Don’t beat yourself up

Most important, remember that organizational skills are a lot like healthy diet and exercise regimens. It can take time to find just the right balance and stay motivated. What worked in the past may not work in the present.

Staying organized is the work of a lifetime. Don’t get discouraged.

In the immortal words of Dory, the optimistic blue fish in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming.” 

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