The instant guide to time management for kids

Teaching children organizational skills is key to helping them succeed in school and life.

boy learning to tell time

By Leslie Crawford

To misquote that great 21st-century British philosopher Mick Jagger, time is most definitely not on your side.

Not if you’re a parent hoping to get your kindergartener to school on time, but he’s spent the past 20 minutes wailing that he can’t find a pair of socks that don’t feel weird. Time is also not your friend as you wearily encourage your fifth-grader to finish his science project before dawn breaks. And woe to the parent of a middle-schooler who doesn’t race against the clock, but rather takes his own sweet you-know-what, whatever the task.

Be it finding socks or finishing science projects, many parents take it as a given that children are simply time-challenged, and there’s little to be done about getting them to complete a task within a set schedule. But recent studies suggest that moms and dads would do well to approach time management as important and teachable as reading and writing.

In fact, knowing how to manage one’s time, say researchers, has been linked to later success in life, whether it’s in college or a career. A study from the University of Pennsylvania concludes that self-discipline — the driving engine behind time management — is a better predictor of adolescents’ academic performance than IQ (download the PDF). Indeed, for school-aged kids who have no ability to abide by a schedule, they may well have a rougher time, as responsibilities mount with age.

While some kids come by the ability to organize their time naturally, others do not. For whatever reason, girls tend to be better at time management than boys, which might help explain why boys don’t do as well in school and college.

The good news? Time management is a skill that can be taught and learned. Dorothy Rich, author of MegaSkills: Building Our Children’s Character and Achievement for School and Life, says that through practiced exercises, parents can help toddlers to teens learn tangible ways to manage their time independently, rather than be hounded into getting something done — a strategy that never works. “Parents have to get out of the position of being the nag,” says Rich. “The ultimate goal is to help children build internal self-discipline and a capacity to manage themselves.”

Rich also stresses the need for parents to be forgiving when their children don’t get it right. “You don’t go out to the basketball court and play perfectly,” says Rich. “This is about building a set of skills over time, incrementally.”

Rich offers a final word of caution that in trying to teach children to be models of efficiency, parents don’t put undue pressure on their kids, whose time in today’s hectic world is already so overmanaged. “There is something to be said for letting the clouds roll by,” she says. The idea, in the end, is to help kids make the best use of their work time, so, being kids, there’s still plenty of time for play.

Timely tips

Below are Rich’s favorite activities to teach kids how to keep track of their own time and refine their organizational skills. Each project emphasizes fun and success, so your child will mistake these “homework” exercises for playtime.

Body beautiful: Create a chart for your preschooler or kindergartener to be hung on the bathroom wall and call it “Body Beautiful.” Use words or images to illustrate the tasks she needs to complete to maintain her hygiene, be it brushing her teeth or putting her dirty clothes in the hamper. This teaches your child how to efficiently finish a set of tasks on her own.

A family timeline: Use a long strip of paper to create a timeline for the entire family. Allow each child to mark a salient experience of every year of his or her life (let children dictate if they’re not yet writing). This exercise will help kids get a clear sense of time over the years.

Leaner screen time: Television is one of the biggest time sucks for kids (and, admit it, for adults too). Decide with your child how many hours of television she’ll watch a week. Read the TV guide aloud with her and ask what programs she wants to watch, have her circle the shows, and then keep the marked-up guide next to the television. If she’s watching too much TV, have her cut back the first week, then more the following week. This raises awareness of how much time is spent in front of the tube, teaches her to take responsibility for screen time, and might even open up her schedule for other leisure activities.

Excuses don’t count: This is an especially good exercise for older children (7 to 12 years old) learning to manage their own after-school time. Have your child create a chart and fill in all of his responsibilities, be it setting the table at 5:30 p.m. or doing homework at 7:30 p.m. Then have him check off each task when he’s done. This teaches personal organizational skills and learning to watch the clock.

Homework helper: Have your child make a homework chart and list assignments for Monday through Friday. After she’s finished each assignment, she can put a satisfying check mark next to it. This teaches children how to keep track of deadlines and duties.

is a senior editor at GreatSchools.