Get organized. Hmmm…Really? I don’t know about you, but this seems like a slightly hypocritical instruction coming from my mouth. I am not, by nature, an organized person.

Despite this innate lack, I have learned that my life just works better when I establish some methods for doing things. Sharing this personal lack with my students helps them feel like they can become more organized too, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

Getting organized is all about making small choices. For example, when I get the mail, I can choose to throw it into a pile on the counter or I can sort it immediately. By sorting the mail now, I avoid the overwhelmingly bottomless paper pile later. This everyday example provides a point of comparison for children that you can talk through together. For example, when I receive a paper from my teacher, I can either stuff it in my desk or I can put it where my papers are supposed to go. If I stuff it in my desk, I will most likely lose it, which means I can’t use it for its intended purpose: information, homework, study sheet, or whatever. If I put it where it goes, I can easily find it when I need it. By talking your children through familiar scenarios like this, you can help them see the small “this, not that” points in which they need to change their habits. Then ask questions and come up with strategies for simple improvements.

In elementary school, student organization methods are determined by the teacher or parent-teacher. This is most evident when it’s time for back-to-school shopping. Some years, you may be buying individual notebooks for every subject. In other years, you may be buying binders and looseleaf paper. Teachers know what works best in their classrooms or homeschools and students must adapt to their styles. While this may seem constraining and frustrating at times, it can also be instructive. Students get to try different organizational methods in the early years.

By middle school, children have a little more freedom to decide how to organize their own work. By high school, students are making almost all of their organizational decisions by themselves. You can help your children understand the value of organization when they are little and help them determine what style best suits them as they get older. Ask lots of questions about how they like to work and when they feel most successful. This will give them confidence in their ability to manage their own work.

In helping our children become more organized, we must remember that some of them will continue to struggle. A messy child cannot be micro-managed into becoming an orderly child. However, everyone can learn and apply strategies to improve organizational habits. We can’t change our children’s hard-wiring, and we must resist the urge to remake them in our own image, according to our own preferred style. This can be hard to accept. The most natural method of organization that we expect of our children is the one we use ourselves, but our children will be most successful in learning and in life when we help them develop their own methods.

Recommended reading: A great tool for identifying your child’s learning style is the book The Way They Learn by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias. I highly recommend this book. It was required reading when I got my first teaching job, and it helped frame how I approached my students. Much of what she says may be intuitive for parents or teachers, but she has a great way of articulating how kids learn and how the grown-ups in their lives can help them.