Tips to build your child’s time-management and organization skills

Are you exhausted and fed up with the need to remind, prod, and poke your child or teen to get homework and chores done on time? Does the chaos in your child’s binder and backpack drive you crazy? If so, you are not alone. If you want to change behavior, don’t start by teaching a skill or strategy. You need to start first by understanding your brain. If you know “why” you have a challenge then you can figure out “how” to get around your problem.

Your child’s challenges are rooted in their brain development, specifically in that part of our brain behind our forehead. The neuron networks connected to managing time and organization are locatedin this region of the brain.These two skills are just two of what neuroscientists call the “executive functions” in our brain.

The root of your child’s struggles with time management and keeping binders organized exists because the last part of a person’s brain to develop is the area of our executive functioning. This is a huge problem because we, parents and schools, expect our children, teens, and young adults to behave like adults when it comes to time and being organized. You can’t do what your brain can’t do.

Take a deep breath. It takes years and years for this region to mature, all the way into the college years and beyond. Yes, really. It can take people well into their twenties to develop into a functioning adult.

What’s a parent to do? First, stop blaming the child for being a lazy procrastinator and blame his or her brain instead. Do that and you are ready for an important key to solving your conflicts. If a brain can’t internally deal with time, then you have to support that brain externally. You have to use tools and strategies to keep time in sight. In addition, you need to carefully and thoughtfully teach your child to think about time and learn time management skills. It can be done. And it can be life-changing.


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  • teach estimating time
  • teach them how to make a plan
  • use analog clocks
  • use monthly calendars
  • teach how to handle papers

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  • expect independence too early
  • lose your cool
  • assume homework is done in a bedroom
  • forget to ask about projects
  • misinterpret confusion

[publishpress_authors_data]'s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do teach estimating time

Most children don’t have a clue how long it really takes to do anything so they delay starting homework or chores. In their minds time is stretchy. When facing an unpleasant task, they “feel” like it is going to take a long time, so they avoid it, preferring to have fun first. Of course the enjoyable things, like Facebook, YouTube, and video games make time “feel” fast. A little time with these activities can add up to a lot of time.

The solution is to help your child become a “time scientist.” She needs to collect data for exactly how long tasks really take, from start to finish. Create a record sheet for typical activities your child does. Include a breakdown of morning routines, chores,and specific homework subjects. This sheet should have two columns on it. One is for your child’s estimate for how long they think the task will take. The second column is for how long it really takes, from start to finish.

If your child insists that they can multitask while doing homework, make a time record comparing the time required for homework with and without multitasking.

To maximize the benefit of this activity, choose to time only a couple of activities each day and then be sure to take time to discuss the results. You should ask what she noticed or what might have surprised her about the length of time things actually took.

For greater buy-in from your child, you should do the same data collecting for your everyday tasks. You may be surprised too!

Being a time scientist and collecting data will help your child become realistic about the time activities take so that they can plan better. They will realize that getting chores and homework done may take a lot less time than they imagined. This information sets the stage for better time management and less procrastination.

Do teach them how to make a plan

Children and most teens live only in the now. The future doesn’t really exist in their brain. They want their fun right now and put off work for later which often results in meltdowns before bedtime and conflicts with parents.

To avoid this type of procrastination teach your child to create a daily plan or to do list. Here’s how to teach your child the planning process:

  1. Provide a tool on which to record the plan. A small personal whiteboard is a good option. Be sure that it is kept in sight while doing homework.
  2. Set a routine time to plan. Routine is the key word here as making a plan needs to become an automatic habit. Creating a routine is easiest to do if you connect a new habit with an existing habit. For example, snack time after school would be a good time to plan for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
  3. Model the planning process. Show your child how to make a plan by writing down your plan for the evening. What chores and activities do you need to do before you go to bed?
  4. Children should write their own plan. You should not be doing it for them. In the early days of teaching planning, direct your child to open their planner and copy down assignments that are due. Even if the assignments are provided online, your child should be writing it down in one place. If they aren’t clear about homework, assist them in contacting someone, teacher or fellow student, to get the missing information. Your child’s plan should include homework, school projects due in the future, after-school activities, a family chore or responsibility, and something fun to do what’s all the work is done.
  5. Record the actual times for each task on the list. In the early days of planning it is a good idea to gather data by being a time scientist, which is described in the first “Do” of this article.
  6. Encourage your child to cross off tasks once completed. The brain loves the feeling of accomplishment when we cross things off a list. That positive feeling becomes an internal motivator to tackle the next task on the list.
  7. Have your child show you the completed work. While technically not part of planning, it is a good idea to build in accountability by proving that the work is done. You don’t need to correct it, just know it’s completed and praise the effort required.

By teaching your child the process of planning, your child develops the habit of independently getting work done. Planning ahead for how to use your time is a fundamental skill needed in the adult workplace. Planning is the cornerstone of time management.

Do use analog clocks

Does your child spend more time on homework than necessary because they are avoiding it, daydreaming, or multitasking? Part of the reason this happens is that children, and many adults, can’t track the passage of time in their mind. They get lost in time, unaware of it moving forward while they are absorbed in the present.

The solution is to provide an analog clock, right in the line of sight where your child is working on homework. You want the clock to be analog rather than digital because an analog clock shows the present moment of time in the context of the past and the future. It shows a child how long he has been working — the past. It also shows the future — how much time does he have left before he needs to get dressed for soccer? An analog clock helps you judge time.

Having an analog clock in sight will help your child determine his progress relative to the amount of time available to work. Seeing the clock’s hands move forward helps with developing internal motivation to complete a task by a deadline. Keeping an analog clock insight is a habit that will be useful not only as a student but as an adult in the workplace.

Do use monthly calendars

Is your child always waiting until the last minute to work on projects or complex writing assignments? Does this procrastination set up emotional scenes between you and your child? Does this procrastination result in work that is not high quality or lower grades because of missed deadlines?

Once again the root of the problem is based in a young brain that only lives in the present. Most students can only track what is due for the next couple of days, or maybe even the next few hours! An assignment with a due date weeks ahead is beyond the grasp of their brain. They think there is loads of time to work on the project so they put off starting. And then the “future” arrives with a wallop. Suddenly they can see the deadline two days ahead, or maybe it’s not until the night before!

To avoid this problem your child needs to see the future and the best tool for that is a paper monthly calendar. Keep this calendar in sight. If your child is in middle school, or older, I recommend printing off three to four months of calendars and putting them up in order. The only things that should go on these calendars are exams, and assignments or projects that are due in the future, several weeks out. Encourage your child to “look ahead” to the future space of time between now and the next deadline. I recommend making it a daily ritual for your child to cross off each day when it is over. Crossing the days off helps to connect with the passage of time and the approach of the future.

Having this view of the future will help your child develop the skill of planning. Being able to plan and execute projects to meet deadlines is a critical life skill for the adult world. Start now to help your child develop a connection to the future.

Do teach how to handle papers

Does your child constantly loose papers between school and home? Are completed assignments not turned in? Is the backpack a gateway to the black holes of the universe? These behaviors represent a brain that has trouble with organizing things.

To solve this problem you need to teach your child the key principle of being and staying organized: Everything needs a home.

For your child, this means that each piece of paper that he receives during the school day needs to go into just one home location. It should not be stuffed somewhere in a binder or backpack.

Handling school papers requires teaching two separate steps. The first is what to do with those papers that come at you quickly at school. And the second step is handling those papers when you get home.

At school teachers often hand out a pile of papers to students, usually right at a transition time when the child needs to hurry to either the next class or the bus. This rush leads to stuffing the papers somewhere where they may not resurface at the appropriate time.

The solution to this stuff it and lose it approach is to give your student a study, transparent, two-pocket plastic folder that is three-hole punched. This should be placed in the very front of the school binder so that it is very easy to access. It should be the first thing your child sees when opening the binder. During the school day all collected papers go into this folder. Order isn’t important. They just need to go inside this home folder.

It is at home that your child has time to actually organize these papers. The first step is to empty the folder completely. Nothing should be in the folder when homework is started.

You need to teach how to think about organizing this mixed pile of papers. Different kinds of paper will require different homes. As your child sorts through the pile each page will fit into one of these categories:

  1. Recycle. This applies to any papers that don’t have a grade on them such as practice papers you don’t need to see or use again.
  2. Parents need to sign or see this. Do you have a home for these kinds of papers so your child will know where to put them so that you will see them?
  3. Pages needed later in school. These might be rubrics for grading, project descriptions or reference pages. These should go behind the specific subject’s pocket divider.
  4. Store graded papers. Unless required, you don’t need to carry these back in forth to school all the time. You keep these just for insurance, in case the teacher accidentally miss records your grade. All you need is a box or a file to toss them into. Don’t waste time organizing them. Just keep them until the grades come out. Then recycle them.
  5. Pages to work on tonight. If you have a packet to work on over the week do some of it tonight and then put it back into the home folder’s right-side pocket. This way it will surface the next day when the folder is emptied again when your child gets home. He will be reminded to continue working on it.

The final step of this paper organizing process is to get the completed homework back to school. Finished work goes back into the home folder, but this time in a very specific way and place. Put completed assignments in the left-side pocket of the folder, face up, so the child can see them as soon as they open their binder. Assignments should be placed in the order that they will be turned in. Let’s say that math is first period and English is second. The English paper would go face up behind the math page. Students have found this home folder to be a very useful tool.

Teaching this process will help lower your child’s stress and concern over missing papers. Grades will improve as your child learns to manage their papers and assignments. And of course being able to manage papers is another critical skill for adults.

[publishpress_authors_data]'s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not expect independence too early

On Back-to-School Night, usually starting around sixth grade, an authority figure stands before parents and tells them something like this: “It is time for your children to grow up and take responsibility for their homework. You need to step back and let them take charge.” What’s wrong with this advice? It is setting many students up to fail.

This advice is ignoring what we now know about the brain development of teens. Their brain’s development of executive functions, will not be fully mature until somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30+ years old! The problem is that our schools and our culture are expecting our children to be able to use our sophisticated technology tools to complete tasks that adults could do. The demands of multiple teachers and time-consuming after-school activities put a lot of pressure on an immature brain. It is easy to get behind in classes. As a parent, please remember that you can’t do what your brain can’t do.

Instead of backing out too soon, parents of teens need to switch gears from a directing controlling parent to more of a coach model. They need to ensure that their child is taught the skills of time management and organization. They have to support their child’s brain development. By not stepping away too soon you’ll help your child learn to manage the increasing demands of middle school and high school. You will avoid the pain and frustration of failure.

Do not lose your cool

“Young man! If you don’t stop playing that video game this instant and start your homework I am taking away your phone, your tablet, and your computer! Get in here right now!” If any of your child’s behaviors have motivated you to talk (yell?) like this, then you have experienced what I call “the bully in the brain.”

The bully in the brain is how I describe the emotional control center of our brain. When we feel a strong emotion such as anger with your child, then the bully in the brain automatically takes over and we can’t access our calm problem-solving, thinking brain. The danger of this loss of control is that when you lose control with someone, you activate the bully in their brain so they lose their cool as well. Things get ugly fast. As everybody keeps pushing each other’s buttons their brains are flooded with powerful chemical hormones which is what stops us from being able to calmly think and respond.

What you need to know about the bully in the brain is how to cool it down as quickly as possible. How? Take a ninety-second pause. You see, the impact of that emotional burst of chemicals and hormones in your brain only lasts for ninety-seconds if the bully’s button is not pushed again.

To calm the bully I teach my families a strategy. When you start feeling tension or frustration rising, sit down and lean back in a chair with your hands behind your neck, elbows out. Take a deep breath so your belly actually pops out a bit (This is important.). Exhale slowly. Repeating these deep breaths activates a calming set of chemicals in your brain. It only takes ninety seconds to regain control of your calm and your mind! This can be life changing information.

Teach your whole family about the bully in the brain and how to calm it down by leaning back and taking deep breaths. Both parents and children have reported success with this strategy. In fact, for some, it has become a nonverbal cue to everybody in the family that they need to pause and get control of the bully in the brain. This makes for much better family communication and improved behavior.

Do not assume homework is done in a bedroom

I remember my first desk. I felt so grown up. It was in my room where I was to sit down and do my homework. Right? Wrong. Even way back before all the technology distractions of today, I found lots to do in my room instead of homework. For many children like myself, being left alone in a bedroom is not the ideal place to do homework. It takes a very mature brain to be able to start tasks you don’t want to do, like homework. And it takes a mature brain to stick with it until it is done. If your child is out of your sight in their room, then you may be a victim of wishful thinking, imagining them working away at that desk! As a parent, don’t fall into this trap.

If your child is unable to work independently in their room a good solution is to remove them from the distractions. You need a place with no TVs or vocal music in the background. A good location is often the dining room table. Have your child work at one end of the table. You sit at the other doing some of the work that you don’t want to do like paying bills or working on taxes. By doing this you will be doing two very important things. First, your presence will be supporting your child to avoid distractions to get the work done. Second perhaps even more important, you’ll be modeling that all of us, adults included, have to sit down and do things that we don’t want to do. If we do those things our lives will work better. As your child matures you may be able to leave the table once they get into the habit of working away from distractions.

Do not forget to ask about projects

Has your child ever surprised you by announcing a big project that is due in the next couple of days or perhaps even tomorrow? You may want to scream because for days when you have asked if they had any homework they confidently replied that they had finished it all.

Well, in his young mind he was telling at least part of the truth because I think a student’s brain has two separate compartments, one is for homework and the other for projects. We think of them as the same thing, but they don’t.

Projects cause a problem because an immature brain lives in the now. It doesn’t grasp the future. Something due in a month is interpreted as having lots and lots of time to do it. However they don’t actually think to work on it until the deadline is staring them in the face.

The solution for this is easy. Just be sure to ask your child two questions: Do you have any homework to do? Do you have any projects to work on?

Asking about projects will help your child connect to the future. You may need to teach them to break the project into manageable steps to help him meet the deadline. Meeting project deadlines is another important life-skill requirement of being a successful adult.

Do not misinterpret confusion

When a child is constantly dragging her feet and avoiding starting homework, the knee-jerk reaction is to blame her for procrastinating and being frustrated with all of her escape behaviors. While there are many reasons for procrastinating, parents often overlook the root cause of confusion.

The problem develops when the teacher introduces a new concept or idea and the student doesn’t get it. They might ask for help in class but by the time the teacher has walked back to her desk the help has disappeared from the child’s brain. This results in the student leaving the classroom confused. Students believe and hope that when they get home to do the homework they will magically understand what to do. Nope. Learning doesn’t work that way!

You can help your child who is procrastinating by calmly saying, “I can see you are having trouble getting started on your homework. Is there anything that you’re confused about?” It may be as simple as needing your help to understand directions or in clearing up the meaning of the new vocabulary word. Once again you need to remember that you can’t do what you can do. By helping your child clear up the confusion you are helping them understand the value of asking for help. Life is always easier if we ask for help when we are stuck, no matter what our age.


Here are the key points to remember to help your child develop time-management and organization skills:

  1. Blame the brain not the child. Time management and organization are executive functions of the brain and that region of the brain is the last to develop.
  2. If the brain can’t do something, then you must use external supports like analog clocks, calendars, and making a daily plan for homework and chores.
  3. You have to teach about time and organization. That includes learning how to estimate the time tasks take and modeling how to avoid distractions to get work done.
  4. Being organized requires having a home for everything, especially the papers from school. You have to model how to think about all the different homes required to handle a pile of papers given to a student by the teacher.
  5. Parents need to pause when confronted with procrastinating behavior. Don’t let anger take over your brain. Determine if the problem is based in confusion. You can’t do what you don’t understand.

If you start with knowledge about the brain, you can analyze why your child behaves as she does, which makes it a lot easier to be supportive. If you take the time to teach your child time-management and organization skills then the executive functions of her brain will blossom and she will grow into that functional independent adult of your dreams. Start with supporting that developing brain with external tools and building an awareness of time. You can do it! Little by little.

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