Instilling organisational skills

Organisational skills are an often overlooked competency in children and young adults. In this article, a mum of four shares some strategies that have worked for her family, and some tips on how to instill these skills in children.

Before we look at some practical tips for wrangling our boys into being organised human beings, it’s worth being reminded of an old aphorism: “We love our boys and raise our girls.”

Michelle Obama restated this in a 2017 interview, and further observed: “We raise (girls) to be strong, and sometimes we take care not to hurt men — and I think we pay for that a little bit.”

It struck a raw nerve in me having been accused of being softer on my two sons than my two daughters, particularly when it comes to organisation skills, despite my concerted efforts to treat them all the same.

When I talked about this with some other mums, a friend of mine told me how if her son, who attended a boys’ school, forgot his musical instrument or sports equipment, she would be phoned by the school and asked to bring it in to him. Meanwhile her daughter, who attended the sister school, would be told by teachers to make do without the forgotten items.

Back to Mrs Obama, who said that though men may turn out to be flawed, women need to be mindful of their role in that outcome. “Are we protecting our men too much so they feel a little entitled and self-righteous sometimes? That’s kind of on us too as women and mothers, as we nurture men and push girls to be perfect.”

So with that in mind, I’ll share some tips on how to teach all our children, with equal follow-through, those important competencies as they move into and through high school.

With the breadth of the curriculum today, even primary students must now manage different uniforms, slips for excursions and incursions, practice work sheets and formal assignment tasks, library bags, etc.

To start instilling organisational skills in kids and help keep everyone in the family sane, it’s crucial to establish some household routines and stick to them - well at least as much as possible.

Different strategies will work in different families but here are a few tried and true techniques:

Some parents I know have charts, with varying degrees of detail, illustrating children’s tasks alongside golden stars or other types of reward mechanisms in place for children.

I personally haven’t gotten myself organised enough to do this!

However, I do involve the kids in setting up calendars, check lists and a homework station where the school’s and class’s time table is on display. This helps kids feel they have ownership of it.  At their desk, different coloured folders and files for various subject areas also help. A chat from time to time about how the system is working can establish if some part of it can be improved or even eliminated.

One non-negotiable strategy, no matter how tired we may be at night after all the things we’ve had to do, is to set out the uniform and bag packed with all the necessary equipment, forms and homework for the next day. By doing this, we avoid that dreaded mad scramble looking for bits of paper, shoes and dry socks, not to mention materials for ‘special projects’ in the morning. This helps kids gain a real sense of responsibility in learning to manage themselves.

I’ve also learnt to always ask and check for permission slips and notices each afternoon as they come home. Then I try to deal with them each night before they disappear into the messy school bag vortex - lest they come back to bite when you’re two minutes from being out the door.

As in our own adult lives, there can be times when the organisation required for school seems overwhelming, with several projects due to be completed at the one time. This is when we as parents need to model forward planning strategies and break down tasks into smaller pieces.

My elder son had a strong tendency to leave big assignments until the night before they were due. One big win towards the end of Year 8 was him saying - after much micro-managing and persuasion from me - that he had finally learnt the benefits of doing a little work on large projects each evening and not having a “horrible panic’’ just before a task was due!

Keeping shared online calendars is another way in which parents can teach good planning as well as, of course, keeping track of everyone’s activities. Including “down time” such as activities with friends on the schedule will help to teach kids - and remind parents - about balance.

Another tip is to make getting ready a game! Beating the phone alarm or making completion of tasks a race is a great way to get things moving in the morning or at bedtime. I’ve found this especially helpful with my twins - a great way to turn sibling rivalry into a positive!

And while I may not have (yet) made a chart with velcro gold stars, I do make sure I praise the kids and even sometimes offer a small reward when they do well at organising themselves.