'The Organized Student'

Donna Goldberg
Writer, Organizing Consultant
Thursday, August 9, 2007; 12:00 PM

Donna Goldberg, author of "The Organized Student," offered advice Thursday, Aug. 9 at noon ET about how to get your children more organized as they prepare to go back to school.

A transcript follows.


Donna Goldberg: I thank you all for reading the article today. I'm sure many parents are anxious about getting their children off to an easy and organized start to the school year. I'm ready for questions.


Denville, N.J.: How to start a preschooler with good organization skills?

Donna Goldberg: That's a wonderful question. There are ways you can start a preschooler. Actually, organization starts with preschool, and even with toddlers. As parents, we give toddlers a routine of the day. If it's time to clean up, you say to your child, "now it's clean up time." And make your child be a part of that process. While you'll be doing 99-percent of the cleanup, and the child 1 percent, you've set the tone that it's part of play. After that, it's usually time for dinner, and after that, it's usually bath time. After bath time, it's story book time and then bed. And these are the precursors, children begin to predict and anticipate. They start to understand time.

So to start to repeat routines they will go through the day is the beginning of teaching your children to be organized, because they can anticipate what happens next, and the steps that happen. And that really is what organization is, it's a step-by-step procedure.

As toddlers build in those routines, there becomes a comfort in that. If you think abuot it, you can understand a child's comfort zone, because they will read the same story over and over again. It's the familiar that wraps them in that blanket of comfort. And for people who are highly organized, that's their comfort zone. They can anticipate things. They know where things go.

This is an activity we usually dont teach. We assume people will pick it up.


Southern Maryland: Isn't a great degree of the issue too much stuff and not enough time to cope with it for children and adults? In our family, I have forced a monthly house weekend which consists of picking a junk corner and dealing with it. The benefit is that closets and drawers have been reclaimed. It is a slow process but we are gaining ground. I go by the rule if I haven't used it...evict it! If I forgot I had it....evict it!

Donna Goldberg: Bravo! You're doing exactly what we would hope that many people would do. But what's more important is that as you involve your children in the process, you're teaching a very important skill. Too often, children go to camp in the summer and parent's clean their rooms for the school year, because it's easier to do it without the children around. But what you are doing is missing a wonderful opportunity to teach. Because teaching "purging" or taking a small area - a drawer, a cupboard, a desk, is teaching a skill children will never learn in school. So parents who swoop in and do it for a child are missing a wonderful opportunity to teach.


WAshington, DC: My son has never been organized and refuses any help or suggestions to keep his school assignments straight. He often misses deadlines and sometimes never hands in assignments. It's affecting his grades. Any suggestions?

Donna Goldberg: Yes -- I think what you need to ask is, is he reluctant to deal with his mom or his dad? If so, he may consider working on this problem with someone who is neutral. A friend, a family friend, a professional organizer, people who are trained to work with children in this area.

So often what happens between a parent and a child, we want to teach our children to be organized. But at a certain age, children stop hearing -- I call it "mother deaf." They stop hearing the words because they feel they are being attacked, instead of being helped and given strategies.

Here are 6 tips for parents about working with your children to improve their organization:

1) This is the most important -- take out the academic component. Do not judge them as a student. If you see a paper and it's terrible handwriting and the teacher has marked all over it, don't say anything about that. Continue organizing. You can address that the next day, but you really want to stay on target. You were working on organization, not academics. You must stay focused.

2) That will establish trust and respect. What you're saying to your child is "I respect you, and I want to help you." You make it clear you are interested in organizing their schoolwork, and you might even want to ask permission before going in the backpack. You wouldn't want them in your purse or briefcase, so do not open the backpack without permission.

3) You can recognize each success, no matter how small, and you can build on it. So in your case, this is a child that often doesnt hand in homework. If he hands it in, even if the grade isn't what you wanted, applaud him for handing it in, because that's step No. 1. You want to build on each success.

4) You don't want to bite off more than you can chew. For your son, you really want to start on time management, because that seems to be where he's lacking. Even if his backpack is a mess, time management is where you want to start first. Once he reaches success there, then you can work on messy backpack. It takes awhile to reach each part of the process. You don't want to set him up for failure by setting up many responsibilities. Focus on one at a time.

5) Make it clear to your child that this is a process. So, parents often think that once a child has been set up to be organized, thats the way it will be. Everything will run smoothly. The truth is they will miss a deadline sometimes. They will lose some papers. Getting organized isn't an event. It's a process that takes practice, practice, practice. But at some point things will fall together, and your child will internalize the theory and practice of getting organized. For some kids it might be a two month process. For some it might be a two year process.

6) Keep things in perspective, and always remain positive. When there are those slipups, say, "listen, this happens to everyone. You'll get it, things are so much better." It's about that positive reinforcement at all times.


Arlington, Va.: Is there any proven connection between a student's grades and his or her level of organization?

Donna Goldberg: If one is asking that question as if it was a hard research question, then no, there's no research to prove that. However, in the world that we live in today, being organized has become a vital skill for success, not only in school but in the workplace.

Information and sources are flowing into children just as quickly as into adults. So the ability prioritize, to understand what resources to use quickly, how to use them properly, and the ability to find what you need when you need it is starting to separate people who are successful versus people who are struggling in school. We often see very, very bright children who slip tremendously, not because they can't understand what they are learning, but because there's a very limited time between the end of the school day and what they need for the next day in order to be successful, so they can't waste their time.

So it becomes interesting to watch the child who goes home and knows how to limit distractions like TV, IMing, texting, all of these things that take children away from getting homework done. And children who know how to limit that and balance it are much more successful. And they also know what the assignment is and what books they need to get it done.

So while there is no actual hard data, there is a professor at the NYU child study center who has been doing research on exactly that issue.


washington dc: While organization is certainly not all about buying "organizing products," do you have any favorite sources for tools to help keep kids organized?

Donna Goldberg: That's a wonderful question. You're right, it's not just about the school supplies. There are two different components when we think about organization and students. The first one is cerebral organization. What I mean by that is how a child's mind is organized, how they understand what they are learning. So it's really important, when I work with students, to find out where they are struggling. You can find students who are very organized who are failing at school, because they are mentally disorganized. One fact they learn doesn't connect to another, one concept doesn't connect to another. So that requires a different kind of intervention. They need to work with a learning disability specialist. That's one form of disorganization.

The second is the physical form of disorganization. If we break down school in three different ways -- the first is organization in school. Basically, what that comprises is the backpack (a place to store papers and get them from home to school and class to class). They need a place to store things when they aren't using them -- a cubby or locker.

Then there's home organization -- every student should have a well stocked area where they can do their homework. Some children might want a desk, some their bedrooms, some the kitchen. But it should be a designated area they can work and store projects.

And the third key element to school success is time management. This encompasses everything from gauging how long an activity takes to mapping out a realistic schedule to completing an assignment on time. The tools that help them with that, to make order out of chaos, there are three different kinds of tools:

The first is how loose paper gets back and forth from school to home and class to class. There's a three-ring binder, or, what's become popular in recent years, is an accordion file, because there are so many lose papers they don't want to punch holes in. It becomes very essential to understand paper flow, so having a filing system, and it can be on a desktop, so as a student finishes ancient Greece, all the notes, quizes and tests can be clipped together and filed under History, so as they get older and have midterms and finals, they can access what they need.

And the third organizing tool, which relates to time management, is to have a good planner, where a student can track all of their homework and committments both in and out of school -- doctor's appointments, after school activities, sports. All of that impacts a child's ability to be successful the very next day.


Washington, DC: Provide tips on de-cluttering the home; everywhere you look, there's depression and energy zapping.

Donna Goldberg: Yes, you're right. Clutter is energy-zapping. The thing to do is start small, start in one area. When I start working with a student, we'll start with one small area. A desktop, for instance. For one student to clear it, it could take 5 minutes, while for another, it could be so cluttered it takes 90 minutes. So what happens is too often you'll find something and say "this belongs to my brother. this is my mothers. I'll go give it to them."

The first thing I teach is, never leave where you are. Make piles. If it needs to go in the kitchen, make a pile for the kitchen. If it needs to go to mom or brother, make a pile for them. That way we don't get sidetracked. When you walk off to another area, you will get sidetracked. It just becomes harder and harder to stay on top of it.

So stay where you are, start small, and assign a time limit. So if you only have 1 hour to devote, and it might take 1 1/2, 15 minutes before your hour is over (set a timer if you need to), you need to know you have 15 minutes to clean up what you've done -- take out the garbage, clean up your piles. So you should guesstimate how much time it will take, and then double that.

If you feel you don't have the ability to do it yourself, you can hire a professional organizer in your area. There's a D.C. chapter of NAPO -- the National Association of Professional Oranizers (


Austin, Tx: Donna,

Both my kids are in magnet schools (across town) that don't allow lockers and have A, B and even C days with 2 or 3 different schedules each week. All the stuff they need for the day stays in a backpack and, of course, each teacher has a different system for their classroom. I am losing my mind!

Can you suggest a strategy to deal with the different day dilemma while making sure my kids get their homework done and turn it in?

Donna Goldberg: One quick thinkg -- The link for the DC Area Organizers, btw, is

Now to your question -- this is very, very common today. For most of us who went to schools which were traditional, M-F you have the same classes every day, usually in the same order, this does not happen as much anymore. That's because our curriculums are jampacked, and schools dont always now how to fit everything in. Schools still teach ancient history, but they do current events now too. So they do it by adjusting the schedules.

It's not as confusing to children as it is to adults. They seem to master it. But for some children, going back and forth to a locker is deadly. And for others, living out of a backpack is equally unproductive. And I do agree that every teacher, in their attempt to keep children organizes, creates their own system, and that makes it very difficult on children.

What's important is to take time and figure out with your child what systems you can put in place to help them and work with their learning style. If there are different books for A, B, and C days, one solution might be to have 3 backpacks in 3 different colors, with the appropriate books in each one. But the key to keeping things together for children like this is the planner. A planner with an overview of the entire week, an 8x10 one that shows the entire week. So you're not just tracking a day, you're tracking a subject for the entire week. The way to find a planner like this is to ask for a teacher's plan book. That's the layout I'm talking about. The key for children with this kind of scheduling and those roadblocks is the perfect planner to keep everything in one place, so they can see the entire week, not A,B,C days.


Donna Goldberg: Thank you very much for the questions. Many of the organizational challenges you're facing, because these are difficult times for children, teachers and parents, can be found in my book, step-by-step.


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