- - Thursday, September 1, 2011

Raise your hand if you remember the morning scramble on school days. Between missing homework and mismatched outfits, permission slips gone AWOL and the realization that no one managed to walk the dog, too many days can turn out to be, well, challenging.

Today, with increasingly busy parents juggling the demands of their own hectic schedules plus those of their children, things may be even worse. But they don’t have to be, thanks to new systems, new technology and an array of products designed to keep your child, and your family, up to speed.

It’s back-to-school time, those precious few weeks when, despite the nip in the air and the date on the calendar, everything seems new again. So before all the good intentions devolve into sodden scraps at the bottom of your child’s backpack, consider this: Just a little preplanning, a tip or two from a professional and a commitment to follow through can go a long way toward ensuring that the heady days of September and the excitement of a new school year can last well into spring.

“It’s great for kids to have a routine,” said Laura Chlopecki, a partner with Education in Focus, which has been serving Washington-area students and their families with educational and organizational support for 11 years.

“There’s safety and comfort in boundaries and in knowing where things are and how the day will go. We want to set up kids for success.”

After all, even Santa checks his list twice.

But even Santa might be challenged by the demands of the 21st century. These days, both parents often work; the school day can stretch well into the evening hours; and technology, intended to make lives easier, can make things more difficult for students struggling to keep their focus. So organization - of space, time and, of course, all those papers, is crucial.

“Where there’s kids, there’s clutter,” said Alejandra Costello, a professional organizer who grew up in suburban Maryland. “The biggest thing is developing a system and maintaining it.”

But where to start? Organizational experts like to note that no one method works for everyone.

“It’s important to know what your kids respond to,” said Ms. Costello, who uses color coding to help her visual clients remember events and track information and even help preschoolers keep track of their toys.

It’s also important that the children buy in to the scheme.

“You want to get them to engage in the system,” said Amy Knapp, a Michigan-based professional organizer who runs familyorganizer.com, which offers an array of traditional and digital products to help busy families get and keep it all together. “In the end, you want them to develop the skills and do the things that foster independence.”

One way to involve children is to let them pick out their own school supplies. A family trip to the local Staples, for example, can yield a ready-for-school haul that includes glitter binders, fashion notebooks and flash drives that look like animals.

“We think things should be fun and functional,” said Karen Pevenstein, a Staples spokeswoman. “Organization is all about the individual, so we give individuals the opportunity to mix and match colors and patterns to personalize things and show off their individuality.”

Over at the Container Store, a hot item right now is locker wallpaper that students can decorate or cover with doodles at will. Meanwhile, colorful bins, baskets, drawers and planners mean staying organized can be a fashion statement as well.

But remember to separate goals from means. If your child is doing well despite the messy backpack, that may be OK, Ms. Costello said.

“The number one thing is grades,” she said. “If your child is getting A’s and B’s, I wouldn’t get overexercised.”

If your aim is that clothes are picked up, but your child is disinclined to use hangers, try hooks.

“Learn your child’s habits, even the ones that are seemingly bad,” Ms. Knapp said. “You want to work within the natural habits of kids — if you are doing something that’s not natural, it’s not going to work.”

Still, there are a few rules of thumb, organizationally speaking, that can really help set your children on track and keep them there in the months ahead. Here’s the way to success — in five easy steps.

  • Establish a command center. Here’s the place where you can make lists, plan menus, monitor schedules and keep all the things related to the events of the week.

Consider carving out some space in the kitchen or hallway for a wall-mounted calendar, bulletin board and whiteboard for daily reminders. Use color coding; a different color for each child or each type of activity can help family members see what’s going on at a glance. Of course, a command center needs a commander — usually Mom.

“Sunday evenings are great for taking time to plan menus, set up what to wear each day and look at the weekly schedule,” Ms. Knapp said. “It makes mornings run a lot more smoothly.”

In addition to the wall-mounted calendar, the commander can carry a portable one that can be tucked into a purse or briefcase, useful for keeping track and for last-minute updates. Online sites such as toodledo.com offer online notebooks, organizers and schedules that can be synced with your own electronic devices.

  • Manage the materials. Often, that morning angst crops up because family members can’t find the things they need.

“Create an ‘on the go’ system,” said Olescia Hanson, spokeswoman for the Container Store. “Take a bin and place it near the most-used door with everything that needs action, like DVDs that need to be returned, outgoing mail, dry cleaning, etc. The last person to leave puts the bin in the car.”

The Container Store offers a number of storage solutions that can provide that necessary landing space with a bit of decorative flair.

More concerned with the basics? A simple plastic laundry basket will do - and if you’re watching your pennies, even a cardboard box will suffice. It’s all about finding that spot where everything goes.

Ms. Costello recommended using colored dots to help even the youngest children keep track of where things go.

“I’ll put a dot on the toy basket and then a dot on the shelf where I want it to go,” she said. “That makes it easy for even young children to pick up and be organized.”

You also can color-code individual baskets for each family member. And remember, don’t keep the stuff you don’t need.

  • Plan ahead. Preplanning works on just about everything, from coming up with weekly or monthly menus to putting together the week’s outfits to keeping track of assignments, tests and major papers.

“I always tell students to ‘plan the work and work the plan,’ ” said Ms. Chlopecki, who adapted her scuba-diving mantra for her students. “Knowing how you learn and how you think as a learner can help you understand how to do this.”

For parents, preplanning can include laying out nonperishable breakfast items the night before so all a child needs to do is grab milk from the refrigerator. Don’t have time for breakfast? The Container Store offers a “to-go” set that comes complete with a gel-chilled insert to pour in the milk and a separate container for cereal.

Meanwhile, Ms. Knapp recommended coming up with a week’s worth of outfits for your children and using plastic grocery bags to keep them organized, separate and ready to grab in the morning.

  • Manage the time. This can be the most difficult challenge of all.

“There are so many distractions,” Ms. Chlopecki said. “You can’t go into a room with a kid on a computer who isn’t also on Facebook.”

Parents need to minimize distractions, she said, by ensuring that computer time is monitored.

“Just saying ‘Go do your homework’ doesn’t work any more,” she said.

Beyond that, Ms. Chlopecki asks her students to make charts that lay out the time they think they’ll spend on each assignment and then fill in the actual time spent. Most students, Ms. Chlopecki said, tend to underestimate the time it takes to do their work.

She also recommended turning off music to help with retention and integration of new material. She recommended that students chew gum instead. For especially squirmy students, she recommended having them sit on an exercise ball rather than a regular chair.

If you are chewing your gum or jiggling on your ball, there’s an outlet for you,” she said. “But you’ll still be primarily focusing on your work.”

  • Find the right space to work. Just like carving out time on a regular basis, finding a space where you can work can be an important key to success. Eschew the bedroom in favor of space that’s more easily accessible, like the kitchen or dining room table. Here, a parent’s presence, even if the parent isn’t sitting beside the child, can go a long way toward keeping him or her on task.

And pay attention to the child’s other spaces, including the locker, binder and especially the backpack, which can end up being the black hole of forgotten papers. Just remember that getting — and keeping — your child involved in the process is part of the solution.

Of course, none of the above is a quick fix, and experts caution that learning new habits can take time — and practice — by more than just the child. But having a master calendar, making lists, keeping things in one place and getting rid of what you don’t need can go a long way to helping families face the old morning scramble — and reap the rewards of better organization — together.

“Getting ready for school should be fun,” Ms. Chlopecki said. “It’s a built-in opportunity to talk with your kids about what’s going on.”

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