Advice on Staying Organized as the School Year Begins

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 3, 2009

Summer has ended and Katherine Tkac is crushed: The days of homework, field hockey, travel soccer, carpools, back-to-school nights and indoor track are back.

"I dread having to make dinner again all the time and having less quality time as a family," says Tkac, who lives in Woodbridge with her husband and two teenage girls. "Summer is so much more relaxed."

The Tkacs are in seasonal shock, just like other local families with school-age children. At Labor Day weekend barbecues around the Capital Beltway, the topic of how hard it is to click back into an autumn routine from summer's lazy pace will be as much a part of conversations as the H1N1 virus and the Redskins lineup.

"When fall arrives, it really ends a parent's chance to procrastinate," says Lea Schneider, a professional organizer from Pensacola, Fla., whose job often involves reorganizing family routines. "We can procrastinate in the summer because it's okay not to get dinner on the table on time; nobody has to get up really early. We don't have to do the laundry all the time because it's not like kids won't have anything to wear," Schneider says. "Now there is a sense of urgency."

Schneider recently self-published a book, "Growing-Up Organized: A Mom-to-Mom Guide" (CreateSpace, $14), in which she expounds on issues that stress out multi-tasking families: time management, paper control, chores, closet clutter and grocery shopping. She has advice on developing orderly habits and new routines.

She suggests trying to change one thing a week: buying a file crate and hanging folders for kids to stash papers and artwork by the month; installing a clear-pocket shoe organizer on the coat closet door to fill with mittens and scarves; and creating healthy-snack zones in a kitchen cabinet and on one shelf in the fridge so kids can help themselves.

There is a greater issue here than just efficiently performing daily chores. Part of the role of a parent is to ready their children for independent living. Schneider advises parents to make time to teach kids "life skills," such as how to be responsible for their homework, their laundry, their bedroom and, most important, themselves.

Schneider cautions against parents acting as their children's personal organizers. "We want to develop self-reliance in our children. They need to have confidence they can manage their belongings, their space and their time," she says. "You don't build that confidence by organizing for them, but by teaching them."

Schneider is a proponent of the "launchpad" system: designating a staging area where family members put everything they need to take with them the next day. Many families we spoke to last week who were back-to-school shopping at Tysons Corner Center said they had such a spot. Liz Holliday of Lorton has two daughters, including 13-year-old Caitlin, who was buying school clothing with her mom. Says Holliday: "The backpacks have to be sitting by the door all packed and ready to go in the evening, as do gym bags and instruments. This works for us."

How to prevent the mad morning scramble to get dressed? The Little family of Alexandria came to Tysons to go to L.L. Bean for supplies for the three kids, ages 9, 11 and 12. Richard, 11, wasn't looking forward to the return of school and early bedtimes. "I wear a uniform, but I still have to find it in the morning," he says. His sister Emily, 9, who doesn't wear uniforms, says, "It's crazy. I'm supposed to get up at 7, but I usually get up at 7:20. The clothes I want are sometimes in the laundry."

Schneider's advice for them? Link the tasks of laying out your clothes for the next day with putting on your pajamas for bed. "It creates a good ritual that becomes a habit," she says.

Kristina Tkac, 16, has her own system. "I have a knob on my closet door where I hang my next day's clothes before I go to bed."

Even those who will be left with an empty nest this month will be changing daily routines. Julia Holcomb of Fairfax says she is going to miss the company of 19-year-old twins Tory and Bess Jarvis, who are leaving for college, but she won't miss shopping for groceries and cooking their meals. "I'm looking forward to having a new routine for myself," says Holcomb. "I'm going to eat a lot of cheese. And I'm going back to belly dancing class."


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