More Than Just an Assignment Pad: Organizing for Academic Success

Corie Viscomi
Aug 1, 2018 · 6 min read

One of the biggest challenges that kids face during the academic year is staying organized. Despite their best intentions, assignments are misplaced, binders get overstuffed, and there are stressful nights of cramming and last minute projects.

Why does this happen? As early as preschool, kids are exposed to organization: whole classes sing the “clean up” song when asked to put their toys away. Children in early elementary school may be in charge of emptying the dishwasher or putting clean clothes in their drawers. By fourth grade, kids are given assignment pads and told to write down their homework. This type of organization is called static organization.

Static organization always follows the same structure. This means that things are always put in the same place, or happen at the same time. For example, a child might have no trouble remembering to put their clean socks in the top drawer, or to get dressed for soccer practice every Tuesday at six o’clock. However, this type of organization does not always translate into dynamic organization, which is crucial to academic success.

Dynamic organization, a later developing skill, is much more difficult because it requires a child to make constant adjustments. This can include negotiating responsibilities during group work, planning long term assignments, and dealing with unexpected family obligations. Dynamic organization is tricky because tasks, priorities, and timing are always in flux.

Many children, especially those with poor executive functioning, have trouble with organization. Poor executive function often occurs in kids with ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, mental health issues, etc. However, many typically developing kids struggle with organization as well. These children who have trouble with organization are labeled lazy, unmotivated, or defiant.

Unfortunately, there is no academic standard for organization. Kids are asked to take notes, but might never be taught how. They are told to work on their time management, but are not shown exactly what that means. Essentially, kids are expected to teach themselves organizational skills, and suffer negative consequences academically if they can’t.

You can help develop your child’s dynamic organization to help them achieve greater success in school while decreasing your household stress (after all, kids rarely stay up late finishing that end of the year project on their own!). Teach your child the following organizational components:

Know what needs to be done. Your child finally remembered to write down his homework in his assignment pad! That’s great, but it’s only the first step. Often, kids write down the nightly assignments that are due the next day, but neglect to include long term assignments, reviewing notes, or studying for a quiz. Further, even if all assignments are recorded accurately, kids do not necessarily know what they are supposed to be doing. What is the actual task? What do they have to do to “do” the work? What does the work look like when it’s done? Your ninth grader might be able to tell you that she has to write a persuasive essay, but might not be able to picture what that means (other than the act of typing it out). Can the finished product be emailed to the teacher, or does it have to be printed and stapled? Is a plastic cover required? Once your child has a clear picture of the assignment they will more easily be able to plan how to accomplish the task.

Prepare the environment. Now that your child knows what needs to be done, help them facilitate attention and predictability by instituting static organization. Develop a system of binder organization, color code notes, and/or set a consistent schedule for homework. Find what works best for your child and stick with it! Additionally, establish a consistent workplace away from known distractors. Some kids do best at the kitchen table with their siblings all working on homework at the same time, and some prefer to be in their room with the door closed (and the TV off!). Phones can be a HUGE distraction, and should be face down on silent or in another room. Further, don’t forget to schedule breaks; most people have a hard time working on one task for more than fifteen to thirty minutes at a time. A quick stretch and a walk around the room can be enough of a break, as can getting a glass of water. The trick is to keep breaks short so your child stays in “work mode”.

Prioritize assignments. Before beginning their work, ask your child to decide what tasks are high priority, moderate priority, or low priority. When making these decisions, they should consider their own values, their teacher’s expectations, the value of the assignment in relation to their overall grade, other competing demands, etc. Help your child recognize that the most motivating task or the easiest task might not be the highest priority. Kids should be prioritizing their assignments every day, and updating their priorities throughout the week.

Gantt Chart

Break down assignments and predict timing. Have your child break down assignments (both large and small) into their component parts. Next, visually chunk the information using lists, outlines, or graphic organizers. Visual aids are very helpful for kids with organizational issues. Now that the assignment is broken down, help your child develop time management skills by encouraging them to predict how long each chunk will take. Consider putting a analog clock (rather than a digital clock) in the workspace. Analog clocks very concretely show the passage of time and allow kids to make more accurate predictions regarding their timing. Once the timing has been predicted, plan assignments using Gantt charts, calendars, or other methods that allow for both outlining daily tasks and planning for the week.

Gather materials. Now that your child has a plan of what assignment to tackle first and what chunk to start with, have them gather necessary materials. What do they need? Where will they get it? Do they need to rely on anyone for help (for example, to drive them to the library to check out a book)? Collecting materials ahead of time will aid in productivity down the road; the workflow will not have to be interrupted to find a calculator, textbook, etc.

Self-monitor and persist. It’s time to actually DO the work! As your child is completing their assignments, have them to self-monitor to keep themselves on track. Often, timing does not go as planned. Do they need to schedule more time for each assignment or chunk? How about less/more frequent breaks? Is there anything distracting them that needs to be removed from the workspace? Help your child identify any barriers to their success and brainstorm solutions. Further, encourage persistence, especially in the face of assignments that are “boring” or “pointless”. Kids can think about running their own PR campaign. For example, they might not want to do assignment X, but they want their peers to perceive them as smart and they want their teacher to give them a good grade, so they will do the assignment anyway.

Communicate and ask for help. Getting “stuck” on an assignment can lead to procrastination or the desire to give up. Put a plan in place for what your child should do if they need help. Do they need assistance on part of the assignment, most of it, or all of it? Is it more appropriate to ask a peer, parent, or teacher? Can it wait until the next day, or should you contact somebody now? For kids who hate the idea of asking for help, emphasize the type of people that know when to ask for help (successful people, good students, etc.). Or, talk about “requesting clarification” instead of “needing help”. Often, reframing the problem is enough to get past any perceived stigma of needing a little extra support.

Teaching your child the above listed organizational components will help them cultivate lifelong skills that will lead to success in high school, college, and beyond. It will take some time to put the systems in place, but the end results will be worth it for both your child and your family.

Feeling daunted by all that goes in to teaching organizational skills? Speech-language pathologists are qualified to help! If your child needs support with executive function, including organizational skills, contact The Speech Studio. A licensed and certified speech-language pathologist with education and experience in this area can work with your child to teach them systems for organized thinking and behavior. Check out our website or call (914) 893–2223 for more information.