I Have to get Organized

“I have to get organized!”

How many times have you uttered those words to yourself? Teachers know and appreciate the value of being organized and teaching good organizational skills to our students — skills that will stay with them the rest of their lives.

NYU Study of Organizational Skills

Several years ago, a study conducted by the NYU Child Study Center investigated organizational skills in children. Using reports from more than 180 teachers about the ways various children manage their schoolwork, this study examined the organizational approaches of over 900 children from the 3rd to 8th grades in the New York Metro area.

For most experienced teachers, the results of this study offered few surprises. The researchers concluded that“understanding the organizational skills used by children has become increasingly complex and important” and organizational differences among students“play a large role in determining which children get the most out of their educational experience.”

Classroom veterans agree that a primary-grade classroom that lacks good organization is flirting with chaos, and getting a class organized must begin long before the first day of school.

Good Organization, Good Behavior

“If your classroom is organized, your schedules are clearly communicated and expectation levels are established, you will find the behavior in the classroom will be positively affected,” notes Ronda Aboe. A 14-year teacher, Aboe teaches second grade at Corkscrew Elementary School in Naples, FL.

“You need to establish your rules at the beginning of the school year, so that means spending two or three weeks prior to the opening of school getting your classroom ready for the new school year,” she says.

Judy McAlear agrees. A special education teacher in Fernandina Beach, FL, McLear believes early planning pays off throughout the year.

“Your classroom procedures — including where to keep homework, and when a student is allowed to sharpen a pencil — should be put in place the first day. If you don’t, you will lose valuable teaching time and will find yourself repeating the same lessons over and over again,” McLear asserts.

Invest Time Before School Begins

“Before school begins, you should invest time in developing procedures and routines, and should set expectations about how you want your students to behave and complete their work. It may sound tough, but the things you do at the beginning of the year will result in a school year that will be more productive and happier for everyone,” she says.

She adds: “Many second and third graders have difficulty with organization. It simply doesn’t come naturally to them. For a student with an organizational deficit, we need to be very certain that we’ve established patterns and predictable routines. It’s that predictability, that stated expectation, that allows a student the opportunity to make the most of his or her learning day.”

Folder for Every Subject

Many seasoned teachers seem to prefer the use of folders to help teach organizational skills. Take the case of Nancy Boudon who teaches first grade at Prospect Elementary School in Elyria, OH, and who began her teaching career in 1980.

“I think folders are great organizational tools,” she says. “My children have several, including a ‘Blue Dot Folder’ in which they keep important papers and worksheets that I want to use over and over, such as a numbers grid and reading strategies. They also have a ‘Take Home Folder’ with two pockets, one reserved for homework and important notes to parents that must be signed and returned to me, the other for papers that can be left at home, such as graded papers and parental notes that do not have to be signed and returned.”

Aboe’s students have a folder for every subject. This helps them keep their papers organized and helps her as well. At the beginning of each school year, Aboe spends time teaching her students how to keep their papers neatly organized.

“I model everything that is expected of them,” she explains. “I show them, talk about it and write it down so they can see it. But with children in the second and third grades, you have to check on them every so often to reinforce the instructions you have given them. This teaches the child the concept of responsibility.”

Another organizational tool that is used by the three teachers is Seat Sack, the bright blue fabric storage bag that fits over the back of a student’s classroom chair and holds folders, papers, and other items.

‘Soft’ and ‘Hard’ Items

“In our school, the students keep their ‘soft’ items such as folders in them and use their desk space only for ‘hard’ items like books,” McAlear says. “The Seat Sacks eliminate ‘desk stuffing,’ a sloppy practice that inevitably leads to confusion and lost time.”

According to Donna Goldberg, author of “The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Tools for Succes in School and Beyond,” children often struggle in school not because they can’t do the work, but because they often can’t find it.

“They have not learned how to organize their belongings or their time — not unlike many adults,” Goldberg said in a recent interview. “Organizational skills need to be taught and reinforced, using methods that correspond to individual… learning styles, in a way that encourages children to discover the systems and tools that work best for them.” For example, Aboe uses checklists and binders for everything: homework, activities, weekly reading tests and more.

Binders Help

“After the children come in and get settled, they take out their homework binder with a homework assignment sheet that is sent home with the child for parental signoff. Each binder has a plastic sleeve on the cover that contains the homework assignment sheet,” she notes.

“On Mondays, I give them their assignment sheet for the week, with my expectations. On Friday, the homework is due, and both the child and his parents must sign off on the homework sheets,” she says.

In addition, both teachers like to use colored folders for class work.

“As a result, I can say to the class, ‘OK, we’re not finished with this assignment, so put your papers in your blue (unfinished work) folder.’ This teaches them to organize their materials in an orderly fashion,” Aboe notes.

This trio of veteran teachers will tell you that the teaching of organizational skills has the added benefit of imparting other life-lessons as well.

Life-Long Lessons

“By learning how to organize their belongings, students also are learning respect for property, theirs and that of others,” McAlear asserts. “It also shows them how to care for things and the importance of taking time to listen. These are skills that will carry them through their school and social careers,” she says.

She adds: “Organizational skills are not just about being in a classroom… they also come into play when a student is doing something unrelated, such as playing a game with friends.”

Another benefit of good organizational training is its role in helping a child develop greater independence.

Building Towards Independence

“When a teacher says on Monday, ‘Here are your spelling words; on Wednesday you are going to take a practice test, so tonight you will write the words three times each,’ the child is learning what is expected of him on Monday, Wednesdays…whenever. You are trying to build towards a greater independence in the child and, typically, by third grade they are fairly independent, mainly because routines have been put in place the previous years,” McAlear says.

Aboe, McAlear, and Goldberg agree that the organizational skills taught in the classroom should be reinforced at home. Naturally, it is much easier to teach children good organizational habits if their parents model this behavior themselves. However, in addition to serving as role models, parents can take a number of steps to help their children become better organized, including the following.

Organizational Tips for Parents

• Ensure that your child knows what to do and when to do it.

• Help your child to create a way to store and transport papers and other items to and from school.

• Consider using “To Do” lists and “Chore Charts.”

• Create a place for your child to complete his or her homework and be sure that location is stocked with appropriate supplies.

• Be sure your child has a specific time to study and complete homework assignments each day.

• Offer plenty of praise when your child exhibits good organizational skills and remember to reinforce these messages to help establish a routine.

In addition, many teachers also agree that continual communication with parents is vital in teaching these and other skills. Face-to-face conferences, notes sent home with the students and, in the case of Nancy Boudon, a personal Website allow parents to keep current with classroom activities.

Repetition Is Required

Of course, it should always be kept in mind that children learn at different rates and vary in their ability to be organized. As with teaching any set of skills, various degrees of repetition may be required before positive results are achieved.

However, it is equally important to remember that most children respond well to the discipline of organization. And once they have learned these skills, they can begin to appreciate a larger, reassuring life-lesson: that the world in which they live has order and meaning.

John Avitabile is a writer with Castle Rock Communications. He can be reached at 772/287-4668 or johnavitabile@adelphia.net.