In last month's column, "Include Organizational Skills in the Learning Mix," the name of the owner of Jill-of-All-Trades on Capitol Hill was incorrect. Her name is Jill Lawrence. (Published 2/16/98)
Joe jams, crams, drops and rams his stuff wherever it suits him. Since school started, your son, Joe Jammer, has lost his math book, his notebook, his soccer uniform. His backpack smells like Limburger cheese. Then, because the notice for teacher conferences never made it home, Mrs. Pudditaway calls.
"Joe's flunked the last 13 spelling tests," she says in that voice that sends you to the back row again, right behind Pauline with the matted hair. Then she finishes you off with, "Of the last 47 homework assignments, Joe's only handed in two; one smeared with what, I wouldn't dare ask."
Joe's disorganized habits are spewing over on you. Teacher Says: Save time, energy and nerve endings. Get all over 1998, start the new year helping Joe to organize his papers, spaces and tasks. Make Mrs. Pudditaway talk in dulcet tones. But remember this, if you think being disorganized is genetic, you've been standing too close to the glue drawer.
"Being organized is not a personality trait, it's a skill anyone can learn," says Tammy Suraci, manager of corporate communications at CareerTrack, a management and personal training company in Boulder, Colo., that's tidied up major corporations like AT&T, Boeing and the Union Pacific Railroad.
Remember also that kids learn by seeing and Joe's got his judgmental little eyeballs on you. "If you don't make your bed, kids won't make theirs because it has no meaning for them," says Amy Goldberg, a professional organizer and owner of The Runaround in Potomac. Where to Start
1. Make a plan for helping him get himself and his school work organized. "Whatever causes stress should be organized," says Lana Williams of Let's Get Organized in Bowie. Draw pictures, make a list or tape-record your plans.
2. "Get the child involved, make them a part of the process," advises Runaround's Goldberg. "It doesn't have to be designer organization.' Kids don't care," says Goldberg, mother of Ben, age 9. Ask Joe questions that "draw out a direction and mutual plan of action," adds Jill Jackson, marketing director, Greater Washington-Baltimore Chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers: "What can we do about your late homework assignments?" "What would you like your bedroom to look like?" "Where should we keep your things so that you'll remember to take them to school?"
3. If getting organized is totally beyond you and it's economically feasible, step out of the emotional taffy pull with Joe and hire a professional. "A professional becomes an advocate and ally and listens to the kid with a fresh and open mind, without preconceived notions," says Jackson, owner of Jill-of-all-Trades on Capitol Hill. Professional prices run $25-$65 per hour. Paper Management
1. Set up a dialogue with Mrs. Pudditaway and make sure Joe knows about it. Some schools routinely send home parent information or homework assignments. At Concord Hill School in Chevy Chase, parents routinely expect "Thursday News." At Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, parents know spelling words come home each Monday. Warn Joe that if Monday comes and there are no spelling words, Mrs. P gets a call. He'll quickly get that tidy picture.
2. Make color-coded boxes and folders for all Joe's things -- schoolwork, homework, tutoring classes, piano lessons, parent information, sports activities. "Have the child pick a favorite color," says Rosy Stadick of Home Organizing Service in Springfield. Then color code files for each box. Each night, Joe systematically empties his backpack, then later go through the files with Joe placing all pertinent things in his backpack for school the next morning.
3. Make Joe's place for school supplies inviolable and logical. "There should be a permanent home, in one location, for all important papers -- a file, a box, a drawer," suggests Joyce Becker, of Perfect Timing in Derwood and author of "Everything but the Kitchen Sink -- A Guide and Checklist to Help a College-Bound Student Prepare for Living Away from Home" (Perfect Timing Press, $6). The logical place is near the door where he exits for the school bus.
4. Right near those boxes, pound a hook into the wall for Joe's coat and newly fumigated backpack. Space Management
1. Start with well-aimed questions. Maybe Joe's trouble is that he's just got too much stuff. Professional organizers agree that if something hasn't been used for a year, it probably won't be used again. Trouble is, kids, like adults, develop emotional attachments to their belongings. Use the following questions, based on CareerTrack's advice, for helping Joe Jammer practically and emotionally evaluate his things: How valuable is it if you don't use it, can't use it or have no idea how to use it? Is it valuable to you if it's broken? How valuable is it if you never even see it? If it's important, why is it buried? When was the last time you looked at it, held it, remembered you had it? Have you outgrown it? Could someone else use it now?
2. The sorting process should be done on a weekend day with Joe by your side. Says Goldberg: "It makes them part of the process and let's you see if they'll be able to easily retrieve things," she notes.
Start where Joe's stuff is building toward a slow-motion disaster. Label cardboard boxes: Give It Away; Store It (for the appropriate time or season); Toss It; Keepers, things he can't part with. Goldberg suggests using containers with hinged lids for keepers. "Rubbermaid makes inexpensive snap containers in the $2 to $8 range kids can easily open and close," she says. "Kids don't mind putting things away if they can easily get to them. If there's a place to put it, kids are more likely to put it away," she explains. Task Management
1. Professional organizers suggest taking 15 minutes at the start of each day or project to detail and prioritize the tasks. For son Ben, Goldberg structures his after-school time by allowing 30 minutes, "to do whatever he wants," she says.
2. Whether it's homework time or weekends help Joe make a plan for how he spends his time. Repeat it aloud. Then, "Write it down. If they're visual, they see it, if they're auditory, they hear it," suggests Becker.
3. Define the parameters. Lana Williams defines what "ready for school" means for her 6-year-old son, Matthew. "My son knows that it means dressed, hair combed, teeth brushed, coat on," she explains. Spell it out. Perhaps the most critical element in teaching Joe Jammer how to be organized is helping him understand the "mess belongs to the person who made it," says Emilie Barnes in "The 15 Minute Organizer" (Harvest House, $8.95).
In this new year, show Joe Jammer that becoming organized produces more time for enjoying his things, his special places and his tasks. But, best of all, when the homework is handed in on time, it might even make Mrs. Pudditaway smile -- even though the paper smells faintly of Limburger cheese. Contact Vuko at Style Plus, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or at http://www.teachersays.com CAPTION: RESOURCES:
"Confessions of a Happily Organized Family," by Deniece Schofield (Better Way Books, $11.99).
"Best Organizing Tips," by Stephanie Winston (Simon & Schuster, $11).
For professional referrals, including those cited here, National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), Washington-Baltimore Chapter, 202-362-6276. NAPO is sponsoring a "Messy Desk Contest." The winner gets a free desk "makeover." Deadline, Jan. 31.
CareerTrack "Getting Organized -- Fast" workshop, Jan. 26, at the Holiday Inn, Bethesda; $59 per person; morning or afternoon sessions. For registration information, call 800-334-6780.