SCHOOL STRESS: Here’s How You CAN Break the “Disorganization Curse”

By Sheryl Seef

What’s that sound? Are those school buses creaking to life? Do I smell a whiff of pencil shavings? OH YEAH! The first day of school is just around the corner …  After the “lazy days” of summer, I am SO ready to get my family and myself back into a routine!

I would guess most of our kids feel the same way. For some kids, they are looking ahead to the structure and challenges of the school year.

Yet, many kids find back-to-school means trying to fit themselves into a structure that is just not comfortable and does NOT bring a sense of calm. In fact — it’s just the opposite.

They know they will have to soon enter a world where they have to plan, prioritize, manage their time, avoid procrastination, organize a complex set of demands, pay attention in class … and now we can all feel the rise of anxiety as the fuse has been lit and the explosion is imminent …

We are talking about Executive Function Skills, folks.

These are the self-management skills that provide purpose and direction to help each of us make necessary adjustments throughout the day to meet our goals. We cannot assume our kids have naturally developed these skills. Even the brightest of students needs the opportunity to develop and test a variety of skills and strategies to be productive. And as they move up the grades, there are more and more complicated tasks to manage.

Building these skills takes time – sometimes LOTS of time (especially if you are a ‘Type A’ personality who is very organized and you find yourself raising someone who cannot even FIND the letter A because it is lost at the bottom of their backpack!)

The beginning of the year provides us with a “clean slate” and the chance to build our Executive Function skills. Here are a few ideas to help you and your kids get off to a good start.


I know for sure if you tell your kid about your great new organizational idea and then YOU proceed to do all the organizing, you are NOT doing them any favors!

Instead, take some time to talk about the upcoming school year. (I find car rides are great for discussions because you can avoid eye contact). Help them remember back to last year and identify what worked well or where their organization plans fell short, (no judging here — just noticing on their behalf). Most likely, there is a lot they know about how school works already, so ask questions like: “What worked best in your system for recording homework assignments?” or “How will you be SURE to turn in an assignment after you have completed it?”

Suggest they prepare for school a week ahead of time and before you hit the office supply stores, make a plan for how things will get organized this year, then purchase tools accordingly. Here’s the tricky part … if they come up with a ridiculous plan that you know won’t work — let them go with it anyway (you can provide a budget, by the way). It actually just might work – or parts of it at least, and the discussion as the system gets put into place is a fabulous learning experience.


By this, I mean a system that always stays the same.

At Home:

– Have a “Homework Box” for pencils, colored markers, compass, tape, rulers, protractor, etc. This helps avoid the dreaded half-hour search for a missing tool (which is a great way to avoid starting a task).

– Have a spot for items that need to be looked at by parents, and a spot for papers that can be “archived” until needed for studying at a later time (like tests/quizzes/graded work)

At School:

Binder System: The Big Question: One binder for all subjects OR a separate binder for each subject?

This is not a decision to be taken lightly, and it is an EXCELLENT opportunity for your kids to think about how they manage themselves. You might want to discuss the pros and cons of each, but ultimately let THEM decide. You can evaluate the system at the end of the first week and then again, the first month of school to see how it’s going.


— Plain paper for note taking

— A place for handouts (so you’ll need pocket folders with holes punched)

— A “to-do” section (for everything that needs attention at home, like homework or notes that need to be signed)

— A “hand-in” section

— A spot for completed tests, quizzes and graded work – you’ll need that for studying (and oh how cool when they can find it!)


— LABEL each section.

— DATE all handouts, notes and homework assignments as soon as they are passed out (it helps when it comes time for studying)

— NEVER put loose papers inside a backpack – put them in the “To-Do” folder to deal with it later if in a hurry.

— Take TWO minutes at home before or after homework to be sure all the papers are in their place.

— IMMEDIATELY put completed work into the “hand-in” section. (I know, for so many of you this seems so obvious …

But believe me – I work with so many students who do ALL the work and never turn it in because they can’t find it!

— Once a month, take time to clean out each binder (and backpack, too)

 Back-Pack Organization:

Same idea as the binder – creating a place for everything …

Here’s the rundown: cell phone in zip pouch for safety and easy access, front compartment for calculator, pencil case and house keys, middle section for planner, binders and notebooks, back section for lunch and jacket … you get the point. Your student may even make a “back-pack map” to help them remember the plan (hint: the STUDENT makes the map!)

As you guide your kids to practice using their OWN strengths and recognizing their own challenges you are doing them a huge service by teaching them to develop the systems that work best for them. Ultimately (and hopefully) you will not be in charge of them forever, and we need to let them try things out, maybe mess up a bit, but also feel successful. When they experience success, they will gain confidence and feel motivated to put in more effort.

Happy first day of school!

Lisa Barr, Editor of GIRLilla Warfare:  I am SO going to print this out for my girls … Sheryl Seef, Mom of 3 amazing kids, has her Master’s in Teaching and is the Director of Operations, Chicago and an Executive Function Coach for Thinking Outside the Classroom. TOC currently serves families in the Boston and Chicago areas. Here is a link to their website: http://thinkingoutsidetheclassroom.com/index.html


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