The Age-by-Age Guide to Teaching Kids Time Management

Use these tips to help your child discover how to plan and prioritize her time.
By Sharon Duke Estroff

Ages

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Many kids are overwhelmed by the prospect of fitting everything they have and want to do into the few short hours after school. Between homework, activities, and just time to play, there’s a lot to do. But even though most kids don’t have the cognitive skills to organize their schedules independently until middle school, you can start teaching them how to plan and prioritize their time now. “When we teach children strategies for time management from an early age, they internalize them, which sets them up for lifelong success,” says Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D., president of the Research Institute for Learning and Development, a nonprofit research and educational organization.

Wondering how the heck to begin? No worries. Teachers shared their tips on the essential concepts and lessons to teach, age by age, so you can make this school year’s schedule more manageable, successful, and a whole lot more fun for everyone! 

Time Management Tips for Preschoolers

For 3- and 4-year-olds, time is essentially divided into now, and not now. But that’s enough to help them figure out how to predict and plan what comes next. To reinforce that knowledge:

  • Talk about the changing seasons. All those leaf prints (and later in the year, snowflakes) on display in almost every preschool classroom aren’t coincidental, says Stephanie Lampert, a pre-K teacher from Atlanta. The seasons are a primary vehicle for introducing the cyclical nature of time. “It’s an extremely abstract concept,” she says, “and preschoolers are extremely concrete thinkers. By observing a tree over the seasons, for example, kids can see the progression: The green leaves of summer turn red, then brown, and eventually fall off the tree before coming back to life again in the spring. This is a tangible representation of the passage of time that little ones can understand.”

    How does that help with time management? By observing the patterns in nature and in their daily lives, little kids intuitively grasp the concept of time — and how to create order. Reinforce those lessons by having your child sort family photos by seasons, for instance. Or point out patterns in nature when you go for a walk.
  • Create a (picture) schedule. “As adults, we use apps and calendars to remind us what we should be doing and when. In the preschool world, we use pictures — like an apple for snacktime and a book for storytime,” says Ellen Dietrick, a Needham, MA, preschool director whose classrooms are dotted with visual cues to keep her young charges on track. So while these 3- and 4-year-olds can’t tell you the exact hour they have snacks, they know it comes after circle time and before the bathroom break. “It gives them a comforting sense of order and predictability,” Dietrick says.

    Since little kids love routines and repetition so much, create charts of your child’s morning and bedtime rituals. Then have your child check off the steps as he does them — an important lesson in breaking up a bigger chore into smaller, more manageable ones. Try these nine ways to make choretime fun, too. 
  • Practice waiting. “Time management, at its most basic level, is the ability to delay gratification,” a skill linked to better study habits and grades, among other things, says Dietrick. To strengthen time management, Dietrick devises situations that require her students to wait for something they want. “If they clamor for pajama day, for example, we schedule it for a week away, rather than the following day,” she explains. “We mark the days off on the calendar and build up the excitement as the event gets closer. This gives them a sense of what it feels like to postpone something — and a positive experience to associate with it.”

    Try something similar with outings and birthdays: Begin talking up that trip to the zoo a few days beforehand, for instance, or tell your child to keep a running birthday wish list. Even planting a bulb, watering it, and watching it slowly bloom teaches the art of patience.

Time Management Tips for Children in Grades K to 2

As kids move through these early grades, they’re learning to read calendars and clocks. Those are the basics they need to stick to a schedule. To reinforce the skill:

  • Find a place for everything. “A kid can’t finish his morning work if he can’t find his pencil. So organization has to come before time management,” notes Staci Carper, a first-grade teacher from Marietta, GA. To motivate her students, Carper created Deskalina, a cousin of the tooth fairy, who looks for clean and orderly desks and leaves a note, a prize, or a piece of candy when she finds one. When Deskalina starts flitting about, the desks in Carper’s classroom suddenly become tidy. Carper also sets up clear routines, like a “Keep Here” folder for unfinished schoolwork and a “Take Home” one for homework.

    To encourage your child to keep her homework supplies (or room) organized, invent your own mythical being to bestow treats and notes. An easy-to-spot weekly checklist (“Homework in backpack? Reading log signed?”) will also go a long way in keeping your kid on top of things.
  • Use a visual timer. To help her first graders comprehend how much time is left to complete a task, Carper displays a pie-like visual timer on her Smartboard. When she sets it for 15 minutes, for example, one-quarter of the “pie” turns green. As the seconds tick away, the slice becomes smaller, and when there are only five minutes left, the slice turns red. Seeing time literally slipping away can help kids pace themselves, she explains.

    You don’t have to be a teacher to score a visual timer — apps like Children’s Countdown (for younger kids) and Time Timer fit the bill just as well. So do old-school egg and sand timers. Use any during homework sessions. If you have a second grader, for instance, set the timer for 20 or 25 minutes. Give your child a star each night he finishes before the buzzer, and reward a week’s worth of stars with a special treat over the weekend (like a one-on-one walk to the park with you). The goal is to help kids tackle their assignments more effectively and efficiently, while making them more aware of the ticking clock, Carper says.
  • Be clear about consequences. “Grade-schoolers can and should be held accountable for their own assignments and they need to feel the consequences when they drop the ball,” says Joan Greenfield, a second-grade teacher from West Hartford, CT. Sometimes those results happen naturally (i.e., if she doesn’t study her spelling words, she probably won’t do well on the test); other times an adult has to set the ramifications. Every Friday, for example, Greenfield has something called Choice Time, when students get to choose what they want to play with, from board games to Legos to computers. “My students live for Choice Time. But our class rule is that they only get to participate if they’ve completed all the assignments in their classwork folders.” The valuable lesson kids get? “Good things happen when I work hard and manage my time and missing them is what happens when I don’t,” Greenfield explains.

    Your child has a better shot at absorbing this lesson if you resist the urge to email an excuse to the teacher every time she fails to turn in her homework, says Greenfield. Instead, give your kid the onus of explaining to the teacher what went wrong, and how she plans to avoid the problem next time. Discover more do's and don't for helping your child with homework

Time Management for Children in Grades 3 to 5

Homework and extracurriculars increase at this age so it’s even more important that kids learn how to set goals, prioritize, organize, and think flexibly, says Dr. Meltzer. Your goal: To get your child to manage his time more purposefully, without a lot of nagging and hovering. How to accomplish this:

  • Work on estimating time. “In order to make a realistic schedule, you need a good sense of how long things take,” says Marcia Grosswald, an upper-elementary resource teacher in Summit, NJ. To teach this vital skill, Grosswald has her students spend a few minutes at the end of the day planning their after-school hours. “I give them a chart that breaks the afternoon and evening hours into 15-minute intervals,” she explains. “Each time slot is followed by three columns: what kids plans to do, what they actually did, and reflection.”

    The reflection piece is essential, Grosswald says, because constantly reassessing how things are going helps a kid adapt his schedule accordingly: Last time I had a soccer game at 5 p.m., I had tough time concentrating on my homework afterward. This time, I’m going to do my hardest assignments before practice. 

    If your child’s teacher doesn’t do this, do it yourself at home. Make a chart, have your child fill out the first column himself, and then fill out the last two items together, discussing what went according to plan — and what your child can do about the things that went awry.
  • Plan for long-term assignments. Deciding when to do tonight’s math assignment is one thing. Figuring out how and when to tackle the book report diorama that’s due three weeks from Tuesday is quite another. 

    “The key with long-range projects is to break them down into smaller steps — reading the book, for instance, or shopping for materials — and then break those tasks down into even smaller nightly assignments, like reading chapters one to three,” says Amy Broocke, who coordinates a tutoring program at her school in Richmond, VA. She also suggests your child use sticky notes when she’s adding tasks to the calendar; that way, the note can easily be moved to another day if the assignment takes longer than expected.

    Your child can also plan the steps necessary to complete a project by working backward from the due date, suggests Grosswald. Talk through the process together so the assignment feels less overwhelming: You probably need a day to shop for materials and three days to do the diorama. That leaves you with 10 days to finish the book. It’s 150 pages long so you need to read 15 pages a day. Here's how to create a stress-free study space
  • Set priorities. “It’s essential kids learn to differentiate between ‘have tos’ and ‘want tos’ and learn to prioritize and self-monitor,” says Meltzer. To help her class do that, Grosswald uses a rock, pebble, and water analogy. The rocks and pebbles represent the students’ duties, she explains, with the rocks signifying their most essential tasks (like school, homework, and sleep) and the pebbles representing their extracurricular commitments. The water stands in for want-to-dos, like video games and hanging out with friends.

    “I use a jar to represent a day,” she says. “The rocks go in first because they are things you have to do whether you like it or not. Next come the pebbles. But there’s still some room in the jar, so we pour water until our jar — and the day is full.”

    If you do the rock jar at home, as I did, you’ll have a chance to chat with your kid about her goals, priorities and passions. Don’t be afraid to make changes if you notice the balance is a bit out of whack. After our conversation, we decided Emma would kick off the school year with fewer extracurricular pebbles crammed between the rocks — and a lot more of that refreshing water known as chill time.

Photo credit: 101cats/iStockphoto

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