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Helping Your Third Grader Get Organized

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Updated on Mar 3, 2009

Last week, Drake’s third grade class went on a field trip to a really cool science museum that contains a real, live, big-toothed shark. The class left early in the morning, zipped around the museum, played in a special zoo-themed playground, and came back tired, proud, happy, and ready for more. There was just one problem: Drake didn’t get to go.

And why was that? Just one simple thing: he never turned in his permission slip, even though the teacher handed it out two weeks ago and the rest of the class got it in.

Now, if this were kindergarten or first grade, a permission slip might be the responsibility of Drake’s parent or guardian. Even in those early grades, teachers try to get kids to take responsibility for remembering forms and reminding parents…but slip-ups are expected. Starting around third grade, however, and increasingly in every grade thereafter, teachers want students to take more and more independent responsibility for all their stuff.

For Drake, that’s not easy. In fact, he’s got a host of related problems, like a school desk that explodes with compressed paper when he opens it and a backpack that could be confiscated by the health department. Fortunately, there’s hope for Drake and kids like his friend Hazel. In fact, this Dynamic Duo of Disarray are the brainchildren of Deborah Kawashima, CPO president of Los Angeles based “Creative Organizer,” and the committee chair of a new national program for elementary school kids sponsored by the National Organization of Professional Organizers (NAPO). We forget, she says, that “so much of school is about being organized and being responsible.” Some kids pick up good habits, seemingly by osmosis, but when they don’t, the results can be devastating.

On the good side, improved organization almost always leads to improved success in school. In Kawashima’s program, “NAPO in the Schools,” “Drake” and “Hazel” are cartoon characters whose predicaments help kids grasp both how serious organization problems can be, and how good it feels to solve them. “It’s all about having a place for everything,” Kawashima counsels, “so that you know where it is when you need it. It’s as simple as that.”

Or not as simple, as the case may be. For her work with NAPO in the Schools, Kawashima visits elementary classrooms and invites kids to help identify and solve day to day organizing problems. Working together, she and the students create practical solutions, which she also invites parents to support. For poor Drake, for example, and any other child who just can’t seem to manage those permission slips, Kawashima suggests:

  • Change the attitude. “When parents have to sign something, kids think, ‘Oh, that’s my parent’s homework. They put it in their cubby, shove it in a binder, and don’t even think about it.' Step #1: kids need to think, 'This is my responsibility.'”
  • Find a home for the paper. Even once kids want to get the job right, they’ll probably need practical coaching in managing the paper. Try this: counsel your child to put it in the front pocket in the binder or backpack, or in a colorful folder in the backpack, preferably labeled so they can find it easily. Every official school paper will ride back and forth in that folder, and no school paper should ever be stuffed into a backpack. Then, at home, have a second “reminder home” such as a particular magnet on the refrigerator door. A child should put the paper there, where a parent can’t miss it, and that child should also be given permission to remind the parent - even nag if necessary - to fill out the form.
  • Do it fast. A final pitfall comes when kids hear things like, “This is due next week.” For lots of third graders, that can sound like forever! Kawashima has a slogan: “A task is fast, a chore is a bore.” Encourage your kid to take care of permission slips immediately, so they don’t drag out into one of those chores, or, as in Drake’s case, cost kids a whole lot of fun.

Of course, most kids, just like adults, have bad days and weeks sometimes. But, says Kawashima, when she and her NAPO colleagues talk with kids about organizing, the results are almost always electric. “The kids really know the effects of poor organization," she says, and they delight in solving the problem together. In fact, over various sessions with kid “experts,” Drake and Hazel have undergone a virtual makeover. Now “Drake” can always find the baseball cards he wants to trade, “Hazel” never misses the playdates she and her friends plan on the phone, and both of them excel in school. Amazingly, their “expert” advisers seem to have adopted many of these same positive behaviors, too. In fact, NAPO in the schools has proven so successful that it is now in the process of expanding to middle and high schools, too.

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