Success in school often depends on how well a student manages to organize everything from demanding schoolwork to a dizzying array of after-school activities to technological distractions.
That's a lot to ask of a child, or even of busy parents.
For those with disposable income, a new breed of experts is stepping in to help: professional organizers for kids.
"Nine years ago, when I started Order Out of Chaos, I had to explain to people what a professional organizer was. Now, it's not what's an organizer, but who's your organizer?" says Leslie Josel of Mamaroneck, New York, who offers to help kids manage everything from elementary school to dorm life.
"As parents, we walk into the house and say, 'Go get your soccer cleats,' 'Go get your dance things,' 'Do your homework,"' says Josel. But organization is like a muscle, she says, "and if you're the one spewing all those instructions out, the only one working out that brain muscle is you. You're ending up nagging instead of training."
Ask children before they head out the door what they think they will need for the day. "After a while, it becomes as much of a habit as brushing teeth or putting on a seat belt," Josel says.
And come up with systems for paper and time management at home and at school. "If it takes your child more than two steps to do something, they're not going to do it," she says.
Many of the hundreds of professional organizers nationwide are mothers or former teachers who have helped children deal with "executive dysfunction," the technical term for the problem. Some earn certification from groups such as the New Jersey-based National Association of Professional Organizers or the St. Louis-based Institute for Challenging Disorganization.
Often, professional organizers are hired to help kids with special needs. But they are increasingly invited to speak at parent-teacher associations and community groups to offer general tips.
"Academic tutors help with science or math ... but the study skills part of the picture has been a no man's land," says Kathy Jenkins, who runs the Richmond, Virginia-based company The Organizing Tutor.
Some tips from her and other experts:
Managing their stuff
At home, each student in the household should have a "launching pad" and portable storage system. A launching pad can be a bench or box by the front door or bedroom door that holds everything that goes in and out of the house: library books, backpacks, cell phone, soccer cleats.
"For this population, the more time they spend looking for something, the less remaining stamina they have to do what they need to be doing," says Josel.
The portable storage station should be a clear box with everything needed to get homework done.
"It's essential to have one box per student, not one per household," Josel says. "An elementary student might have glue and colored pencils, while a middle schooler might need a Spanish dictionary and a calculator."
Boxes should be labeled -- but not by parents -- with the child's name and a list of contents. "Have your child fill the box and label it. It's part of the ownership process," Josel says.
Boxes should be portable because although some students work happily at the same desk each evening, for others, "it really helps if you change workplaces not only every day, but for every study subject," says Josel.
Although organizing systems vary with the individual's learning style, some frequent recommendations for students are:
* Use a planner that includes after-school activities as well as homework assignments.
* Use reinforced binder paper, Jenkins says, so papers don't fall out or get crumpled because one hole is ripped.
* Vertical, clear-plastic student envelopes can hold a textbook, notebook and papers so that nothing is forgotten. They're easily pulled out of backpacks or lockers, can be color-coded, and are easy to carry between classes.
* A binder with attached accordion file can be used for all subjects or for each subject. They come in various colors and have room to file papers in a hurry, so they don't get lost.
* For time management, organizers often recommend a timer and a vibrating watch.