Summer Reading B2G1 Free

Special Offers see all

Enter to WIN a $100 Credit

Subscribe to
for a chance to win.
Privacy Policy

Visit our stores

Original Essays

How Parents Can Help Their Children Get Organized and Learn to Be Productive

by Laura Stack
I'm taking a break to write something fun today — Labor Day — which marks the unofficial end of summer. My three children started school and have experienced many "firsts" over the last few weeks: new schools, supplies, teachers, classes, friends, clothes, and schedules. This is a universal time of change for all parents of school-age children. And though much has suddenly changed in our children's lives, much has stayed the same in some: disorganized bedrooms, poor time management, lack of discipline, and stress. As parents, it's easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of settling our children into the new school year and making sure they're comfortable that we forget about the ongoing struggles our children endure the rest of the year.

According to John Stamm, Ph.D., and Bill Stockton (Psych Savvy: Children and Organizational Skills), "School failure and unhappiness in the school setting can be often traced to poor organizational skills." Evidence shows that children having trouble "dramatically improved their school performance because of assistance in becoming better organized." There are several important areas where you can help your children get organized and keep their home and school lives running smoothly, setting them up for success later in life:

1. Handling transitions

My boys Johnny and James are six and five years old, respectively. Since the time they were young, I've encouraged them to be self-sufficient and "help daddy" or "help mommy" get themselves dressed, wash themselves, put their dirty clothes in the hamper, and so on. Now that they're able to put on their pajamas at night and brush their own teeth, I can get other things done while they're busy, and then we can all spend more rest or play time together.

Transitions are the most difficult times of the day for them: from nighttime to morning time; from workday to evening; and from evening to bedtime. These transition periods are called "witching hours," and they are fraught with stress and chaos. Every person, every household, has a witching hour (sometimes more). Even though transition times are only a small portion of the day, they can pack enough punch to spill over into the rest of it. However, with proper planning, you can flow through these high-stress periods more easily.

From workday to evening. We have affectionately dubbed ours "the 5:00 melt-down hour." We've been working hard all day. The kids have been stimulated at school. When we pick them up, they have a million things to talk about. Dinner needs to be made and the table set. The kids start to fight. Meagan talks to me a mile-a-minute, as ten-year-old girls do. I can feel my blood pressure rising. Before long, I'm short-tempered and hungry. My ears are ringing from the sudden rise in decibels. "Will you kids just be quiet?" I shout, which makes things worse. Sensing my stress, James starts teasing Johnny, and Johnny begins whining, to which John responds by sending everyone to his or her room. What a great way for the night to begin!

Rest assured that this is the normal scenario in households across America — yes, even in The Productivity Pro's house — trust me. But you can plan for this witching hour and do something about it once you know what the patterns are.

Because John is the chef in our family and is busy cooking dinner at our witching hour, it makes sense for me to pick up the boys from daycare. With Meagan having returned on the school bus, it also makes sense for her to drive with me and download her day so she isn't competing for attention with the boys at home. Since they're hungry and cranky when they get home, it makes sense to pick them up at 5:00 instead of 4:45 so they can eat a snack with the class. Once we get home, Meagan sets the table and helps John while I take the boys to another part of the house, connect with them, and keep them occupied. Once John rings the dinner bell and we sit down to eat, our entire household mellows out.

From evening to bedtime. Perhaps bedtime is your battle, trying to do baths, brush teeth, read books, and get everyone ready for the morning. When it comes to bedtime, a consistent routine is the best way for kids to transition from awake to asleep. Don't wait until they say they're sleepy — it may be too late! Start their bedtime routine at the same time each night, and use a checklist to remind and guide them through the process. Set aside at least 30 minutes every night so you don't have to rush. Even before your kids can read, you can use a checklist using pictures and stickers. Our kids each have two checklists of activities they must complete — one for the morning and one for the evening. We simply have to say, "Do your checklist," and most of the time (many times with encouragement and reminders like "where are you on your checklist?") things get done without repeating the message ten million times — and getting frustrated doing so.

You can even put timed deadlines on each one activity so they know where they should be in the one hour of time designated to get out the door. At first, give rewards for making the deadlines. After a while, start to use penalties: e.g., miss more than two deadlines and you lose your television time.

Here is a sample checklist to get you started and modify to meet your needs. This list was created when my daughter was in first grade (obviously, they change as the child gets older, although some older children still need reminders to flush!).

If you'd like to have electronic copies of these checklists, visit and look for "Free Stuff" under the "Resources" menu.

Checklist for getting ready at night

or sticker


  Do 40 minutes of reading
  Do homework
  Give notes to Mom from backpack
  Set and clear table
  Check on bunny
  Eat snack
  Brush teeth
  Check Emma's water and food bowls
  Go potty
  Flush potty
  Take shower (every other day)
  Wash face
  Brush hair
  Get pajamas on
  Feed fish
  Make sack lunch if needed for tomorrow
  Make sure room is clean
  Get bed ready
  Put on lotion
  Turn out light
  Kiss parents goodnight

When your children get to bed easily, maybe, you won't feel too rattled to relax. You might even think about tackling the mountain of bills and filing you've been putting off.

From nighttime to morning. Perhaps your witching hour is first thing in the morning, trying to get everyone out the door. Assuming I've set myself up for a great day (see #5), I want to get my morning off to a great start. If I have scheduled to be in my office all day, my morning goes something like this: get myself ready first so I'm not shouting directions and moderating disagreements from inside my bedroom; toss the comforter on the bed; focus on the kids, making sure Meagan is up and get the boys dressed for school (John usually drives them to daycare in plenty of time to participate in the school breakfast — healthy, faster, and cheaper); have my breakfast and coffee; take a few steps around the house and tidy up; toss in a load of laundry if something can't wait until the weekend; put my husband's stray papers into the newspaper bin (a subject of another conversation); unload the dishwasher. Then I'm ready to begin my day!

As for my children getting themselves ready, here is a sample checklist we created for Meagan that can be a model for you.

Checklist for getting ready in the morning

or sticker


  Go potty
  Flush potty
  Eat breakfast
  Get dressed
  Put on shoes and socks (wear tennis shoes if it's PE day)
  Feed fish
  Make bed
  Clean up room
  Put away pajamas
  Turn out light
  Wash face
  Put on lotion
  Brush teeth
  Put snack in backpack
  Put lunch in backpack if bringing
  Put in show n tell if it's related to learning
  Put library book in backpack if it's Monday
  Put daily folder in backpack
  Brush hair
  Check bunny
  Fill Emma's water bowl and food if empty
  Put on coat

Understanding your transition times, figuring out your patterns, what happens when and why, and then scheduling and planning for them will make a big difference in making your witching hour disappear.

2. Creating order

Children have a difficult time conceptualizing proper systems and are bewildered by what tools to use to make their lives easier. However, if given the proper tools, children are great at using the systems you establish for them. Here are some tools and ideas you could put into place to help your children organize their environments and feel in control of their surroundings:

Make the playroom easy to play in. Now that you've pared down the toys you keep, design a plan for these toys to actually get played with. If your kids can't see a toy, they don't think to look for it, and will soon forget it exists (and you'll probably discover forgotten treasures in the sorting process). Take advantage of any available vertical wall space in a dedicated playroom or on one wall of a bedroom by installing adjustable shelves. Leave more room between the floor and the first shelf to accommodate large items. Place the other shelves about 18 inches apart. For the odd areas under the windows, purchase bins, carts, and storage units from Target. Once you have your organizing equipment, group the toys in a logical order based on type. Invest $30 in a high-grade labeler so you can print and stick custom labels to the edge of the shelves, indicating what goes there.

We have large bins (we actually toss the lid, because they are hard for children to open and aren't very useful) for the following:

  • Construction equipment
  • Large animals
  • Dress up
  • Balls and outside toys

We have medium bins (no lid) for the following:

  • Toy weapons and vehicles
  • Superhero accessories
  • Hot wheels track and accessories
  • Musical instruments
  • Legos
  • Books stacked vertically as in a bookshelf (I find bins keeps books from falling over and out of bookshelves and they can be sorted by type)
  • Blocks
  • Dinosaurs
  • Stuffed animals

We have small bins for the following:

  • Plastic play dolls and animals
  • Scratch paper
  • Stickers
  • Markers
  • Crayons
  • Colored pencils
  • Craft items
  • Blocks
  • Pegs
  • Puppets
  • Electronic games
  • Electronic books
We have two large rolling carts with three drawers each. One contains:

  • Large superhero characters
  • Medium superhero characters
  • Small superhero characters

The second set of drawers contains:

  • Small superhero pieces (discs, small plastic weapons used by superheroes)
  • Sets of small items in individual Sandwich Baggies (Ninja Turtles with their own things, Wrestlers with their folding chairs and champion belts, etc.)
  • Lace up sets

We used to have a third set of drawers in a rolling cart that had Barbie dolls, Barbie clothing, and Barbie equipment. But when Meagan announced she was too old for them, I secretly bagged up her well-worn dolls and put them in the crawl space. When she's 16, I will give her the chance to keep her old Barbies (I hope). If not — OUT! We keep larger toys, such as spacecraft, electronic games, and musical instruments on the shelves. Puzzles and games are kept in the box the toy came in. Don't toss the original box and substitute bags with twist ties or less durable options.

Keeping toys in bedrooms. Many homes don't have a separate "playroom," and children keep toys in their rooms. The key is to take advantage of unused vertical space. Select one wall away from the bed and install shelves from the floor to the ceiling. Store toys that are played with frequently (such as favorite dolls or superheroes) in plastic bins and store them underneath the child's bed. Use a chest at the foot of the bed for a bench for tying shoes, with a lid that opens to conceal additional toys.

Organize entryways. Make it easy for your children to keep their shoes, gloves, and jackets organized. We installed cubbies vertically up a wall in our mudroom, which is right off the garage, and assigned the highest to the tallest child. As each kid walks through the door, sunglasses, mittens, and hats are immediately deposited in the cubbies. Each child also has three hooks for jackets, coats, and backpack. Shoes are placed underneath the cubbies, so they are out of the way.

Teach them to be consistent. Think about all the annoying little things that are constantly strewn about your home or an item your children can never find. For example, if your children are constantly losing their shoes, they don't yet have a proper routine. Establish a shoe landing pad, right as they enter the house, and teach them to take off their shoes in the same place, every time. If things end up on the living room floor that belong upstairs, simply because your child doesn't want to climb the stairs to put things away, allow them to use a stair step or basket as a temporary place to accumulate items that need to go up. Then next time they head upstairs, they can just grab the entire pile or basket. The kids know to put their school papers or nifty artwork on my office desk for safekeeping. They've learned that if it's on the kitchen counter, it's eligible to be tossed, so if they want Mommy to look at it, they put it on her "safe zone." If you don't have a place for everything, they can't learn to put things in their place.

3. Succeeding in school

My older child, Meagan, just entered 6th grade (middle school in our district), which involves moving from class to class. We bought the requisite list of supplies, including the exact type of binder the teachers wanted to organize school papers. I was unable to find the brand listed in the stores, so I ordered it from the Internet. I thought, "Wow! This is going to be a fabulous binder. I can't wait to see what the fuss is all about." When I received the binder, I was confused. It had no sections, no pockets, no tabs, no dividers, nothing. I wondered "How in the world is she going to keep the papers separate for the six different classes she's taking?" I tried to explain to her the binder wasn't going to work, but she was insistent on using the exact type specified. I kept my mouth shut and my eyes on the binder during the first week, observing as she attempted to organize all the various papers. She eventually came to me, sheepish, and asked me to help her. "Mom, all my papers are mixed up in a big pile, and I can't keep anything straight." We ceremoniously emptied the binder and put it in the playroom. We went shopping and looked for a binder with six different sections built in and soon found the perfect solution. The lesson of course is not to assume that other people know what's best for your child. To help them succeed, you must guide their choices and be educated yourself on the different options and best way to organize them. Once the system is in place they are pretty good at using it.

Designate a specific homework time. Many children come home to no structure. Yes, I agree it's important to allow a child to relax and unwind a bit after a long day, but it could be a mistake to allow your child to put off homework until after dinner. Instead of spending time with the family, playing, doing chores, and doing personal maintenance, children end up underestimating how long homework is going to take and stay up late, cutting into their bedtimes, causing chronic sleepiness and inattentiveness during class the next day. I let the children have a half-hour to play with the neighbors, watch television, talk on the phone, whatever, but then it's right to homework until dinner. Usually they are done before we eat and can spend the evening relaxing without having assignments hanging over their heads. Teach them the old mantra, "Work before play." Be aware of what projects were assigned and the due dates, and make sure they are cracking at them bit by bit, so they won't attempt to complete it all last minute and pull an all-nighter (which usually includes you). Help them identify all the steps needed to complete long-term assignments and work on them in manageable chunks.

Get the kid's day started. Pack (or have your kids pack) lunch boxes if they don't buy at school; make sure the clothes are selected down to the last hair bow and shoes; lay out breakfast dishes; fill up the backpacks (don't forget homework, permission slips, lunch money, show-and-tell, gym clothes, musical instruments, etc.)

Put library books in their own tote. How many times have you taken your child to the library to check out books, accidentally combined them with their own books, forget they were on the bookshelf, and owe lots of money when you finally discovered and returned them? Simple solution: Keep a separate tote for library books. The next time you go to a conference, keep the cheesy bag you get to carry around your materials. Take it to the library with you and immediately put your checked books inside it to transport home. Train your kids to always replace library books after reading them into the special book bag. Meagan has a separate compartment in her school backpack just for school library books that need to be kept separately and returned. Using these methods, you'll never again have to rummage through a hundred books on your kids' shelves to find the borrowed ones.

Don't make lunches for your kids! Every month, Meagan brings home the school lunch menu and hangs it on the refrigerator. The cooks at her school are diligent in creating a balanced meal, including protein and vegetables (their lunches are healthier than mine). Each night, she looks at what's being served at school the next day. If she wrinkles her nose at the offering, she packs her lunch that night and puts it in the refrigerator. Generally, though, she likes what's being served and buys her lunch. She has a spending account I fill up once or twice a year, so I never waste time looking for change in the morning. Meagan simply gives her account number to the cashier and takes her food. When it comes right down to it, the cost of purchasing at school (national average: $2.00 per day) is minimal. When you factor in the cost of the food (juice boxes, deli meat, pre-cut and washed vegetables, apples, etc.) plus the time (ten minutes a day equals 50 minutes a week) and hassle to prepare it (priceless), the extra few bucks a week spent in hard cash is worth a panic-free morning.

4. Organizing keepsakes

One of the common complaints I hear from parents is about all the stuff that comes home from school. Where do you put all those great art projects, mementos, and clay handprints you just have to keep?

Create a treasure box for each child. When each of my children was born, I wanted to save all the little things from the hospital: the nametags on their cribs, the bracelets from their wrists, their "going home" outfits, and all those things. Add to that their first pair of shoes, their favorite (now cast-away) blanket or stuffed animal, their first lost tooth—what a bunch of stuff! So I got three of those sturdy plastic bins with a lid and designated one for each child. I keep each treasure box on the shelves in their closets and add to them as I come across a "must save" keepsake.

Collect your children's art projects. Get a three-drawer rolling storage cart, cardboard chest of drawers, or large plastic storage bin to store your child's art projects and schoolwork. Each of my children has one of these craft chests in his/her closet. The trick is to make sure you're only keeping the most special papers: original creations, "firsts," and items that weren't mostly created with the help of an adult. Or you can use an art portfolio, which stores flat and can only hold so much. Just remember that you can only keep as much as the chest, bin, or portfolio can hold. When you run out of room, you have to purge. Fawn over your child's projects as you should, but then secretly throw most of them out when your child isn't looking. I have a single large envelope of very special art projects I created as a child that my mother saved; as an adult, I wouldn't want to own any more than those. Remember, you're saving for your children, so don't burden them with unnecessary clutter.

Set up a baby book for each child. Ideally, you would have started each child's book upon becoming pregnant, kept up with it as the child reached milestones, and completed it before you forgot everything that happened. If you didn't, don't despair. It's not too late to get a baby book, fill in the blanks, and gather as much information as you can. For me, my baby book is a real treasure. I love feeling the lock of my baby hair and looking at the little bracelet that had been placed on my wrist at birth. Your kids will certainly love to know the details of their births, as they get older, especially when it's time for them to have kids of their own.

Create a school memories book for each child. I found an excellent school memories book from Lillian Vernon. It has two pages for each grade K through 12. In addition to giving lines to record activities, signature, friends, dreams, and vital statistics, the book has a pocket for each grade to store the most important documents: report cards, photos, letters to Santa, and small samples of artwork. To keep up, I wait until the school pictures come in from that school year. I paste the photo, fill in some of the blanks, and (the trick) give it to my child to fill out the rest. I keep them handy on the bookshelf in my office and throughout the year, I put important items (report cards, a special drawing, a letter to Santa, etc.) in the keepsake pockets.

5. Completing chores

It's important to instill the values of hard work and fairness in your children. As they gain responsibility and perform chores at home, they learn it's important for everyone to pitch in and do his or her fair share to take the burden off one person.

If you live here, you clean. Even my four- and five-year-old boys have chores. I went to the grocery store and bought a big poster board. In the left hand column, I listed a due date for chores. (Each chore may actually be completed any day during the week, but it must be done by Saturday.) Across the top row, I listed the chores. Each child has his or her own chores posted. When one gets completed, the boys put a sticker on the corresponding column (Meagan uses checkmarks; she's much too cool for stickers). The last column is for "bonuses": extra chores done that weren't required. We pay one dollar for each year of a child's life as an allowance. If something isn't done or gets done incorrectly or with whining and complaining, the child's allowance gets docked.

Meagan completes one of the seven tasks required each week to earn her allowance. Whether it's emptying the trash containers around the house, bagging up the newspapers, or gathering the laundry from the bedrooms, she performs one task. When Saturday arrives, she's already finished her weekly chores and can enjoy the weekend. Adults should use the same logic with running errands throughout the week.

Pick age-appropriate chores. As the boys grew older, I let them start taking over some of Meagan's chores. I'm sure she initially thought she'd have less work to do, until I explained that responsibilities shift, as people grow older. Fathers and mothers of other animal species only feed and shelter their babies, until they're old enough to fend for themselves, at which point they deliberately stop helping them. Teach them to be self-sufficient, and you will give them important life skills, while at the same time, reducing your workload. Accept the fact that hard work and responsibility are actually good for a child. Allow them to complete the chore their way, as long as they achieve the result you want. Consider complaints a part of raising a child and, rest assured, parents across America are hearing: "Well, my friend Boo-boo doesn't have to do this."

At ages four and five, we know from experience that boys can:

  • Put away silverware from the dishwasher.
  • Set and clear the table (put milk in small pitchers, so they can pour it themselves).
  • Empty small trashcans around the house into a big bag.
  • Put dirty laundry from the hamper into a black lawn bag and haul it downstairs into the laundry room.
  • Pick up the playroom (especially if you've made it easy for them to know where things go).
  • Keep their bedrooms clean.
  • Brush their teeth.
  • Get dressed on their own (you'd be amazed how many people still dress their four-year-olds). By the way, if you wet your child's shoelaces before your child ties them, they won't have to be re-tied all day. Better yet, get shoes without laces.

At age ten, children like Meagan can:

  • Clean the cat litter.
  • Gather Mom and Dad's laundry.
  • Wash the dishes.
  • Load and unload the dishwasher.
  • Wipe off kitchen counters.
  • Pack lunches for school.
  • Tidy the living room.
  • Do homework without being asked.
  • Get out of bed and get ready for school while parents sleep in.

Make it easy for children to succeed. Keep a stepstool in the kitchen so they can reach the drawers and lower cupboards. Use paper plates so they don't drop and break them and can throw them away at the end of the meal. The time saved is far worth the extra money spent on the paper plates. Ditto on plastic cups. (Of course, when we have company, we do use regular dishes.) We buy milk in gallons and pour a small amount into a small Tupperware container within easy reach, so the children can pour their milk themselves.

Remember, parents are not servants; they are teachers. You won't be around forever. Being slaves to children when you can teach them independence undermines both your life and theirs. Stop it as soon as possible.

6. Managing time

In this society, you've likely been brainwashed to believe that you aren't a good parent unless your child plays competitive soccer by the time she's ten, she's active in the Girl Scouts, can play the piano masterfully, and swims beautifully...and, by the way, leases a horse. Hear a little sarcasm in my voice? For years, I bought into this notion as well and dutifully enrolled my little girl in ballet, piano, church programs, choirs, Girl Scouts, basketball, and more. I used the rationale that "she has to try everything so she can find out what she likes."

Many children are so overscheduled, their stress levels race sky-high and the entire family comes apart at the seams. Many parents feel guilty because of the number of hours they spend at work. As a result, they overcompensate by signing their children up for myriad activities to show their commitment. When they aren't working in the evenings and weekends, they shuttle their kids back and forth between activities, never realizing any quality time together. Your children don't want all that activity — they just want YOU.

Still, parents tell themselves that all these activities are good for them. Yes, you may see long-term benefits — but at what cost? What cost to your children's stress levels? What cost to your relationships with them? What cost to the sanity of your family? What cost to your spouse — the person you never see anyway because soccer games are held on complete opposite ends of town? Can simply spending quality time together strengthen your relationship?

Having made big changes in my thinking in this area, I offer these suggestions that might work for you:

One activity at a time. Sometimes it's easy to make excuses for why your children are involved in so many "good" programs. For example, we have a Wednesday night program at our church that Meagan joined for a year. "My goodness," I thought. "We have to be able to make time for her to learn about the Lord." Forget that she was already participating in another program on Sundays that required her to study lessons during the week. Forget that she had Girl Scouts every other Monday, piano lessons on Wednesday after school, and soccer practice on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings, with games on Saturday morning. AAAARRRGGGHHH! I soon realized that it was easy to "justify" the need to participate in yet one more thing because it was a church function. So we gave up going to this program and felt good about the additional family time we'd gained. The benefits of that time are arguably better than what she'd get from attending the church program. The key is to achieve a good balance.

One season, one sport. Tell your child he/she must choose only one sport to focus on each season. For example, if playing on both volleyball and basketball teams occur in the same season, pick one over the other. If your child really enjoys soccer but also wants to ride horses, take a hiatus from riding during the spring soccer season. Then ride during the summer until soccer begins again in the fall. When it's too cold to play soccer or ride horses, take a few months of swimming lessons at an indoor pool.

Find activities more than one child likes. My husband and I teach Sunday school. We tend to arrive at church feeling a bit frazzled and thrown-together after getting three kids fed, dressed, and out the door. But one of the other teachers always looks amazingly put together, despite the fact she has four young children at home. So I asked about her family management tips for being relaxed and happy. She told me one of her secrets was to find a single activity that all the children could participate in together, no matter what their ages. That way, she wouldn't be running around so much. She let her children decide what sport to be involved in, and they chose swimming. Practice times are the same for everyone and the meets happen at the same place. What a great idea! Now I'm applying the same concept for my boys with piano lessons, karate, and soccer league (not all at the same time!).

Log and limit technology time. Set a time limit for yourself and your children for television, video games, IM time, phone, and Web surfing. Any combination of the above is allowed, but not all. I'd start with a maximum of 90 minutes a day and reduce it from there. Require each person to annotate the log when spending budgeted time in one area. Keep the log (with a pen attached) near the activity area to make it easy for each person to complete. Review the logs often so you know what's going on.


From a very early age, our children depend upon us for structure and predictability. The benefits of organization to children are many: they feel secure when they know they can depend on an outcome; organization helps them gain self-control; it keeps their stress levels in check; and they develop a sense of confidence and independence.

With a little help from you, children can learn to be organized. It's not innate: they weren't born with this ability. And it's an ongoing quest for you and them. Help your children gain control over their lives by modeling it. If you make to-do lists, teach your children to do them and explain why you use them. If you use a planner, get a children's version and show them how to track homework assignments and schedules and record project due dates.

The key is to organize a little bit every day — not just during the first days of school. I hope you gained some new ideas in one of the six important areas of organization for your children and can put some new systems in place in your quest to help them become productive citizens. You can discover many more systems in my book Find More Time: How to Get Things Done at Home, Organize Your Life, and Feel Great About It. spacer

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at