Teaching kids time management

IMG_2793We are deep into March's round of parent-teacher conferences, and one of the skills the forms have teachers talk about is "using time efficiently." I like the idea of treating this as a skill, rather than something one is "good" or "bad" at. However, like all skills, questions of motivation and the like come into play. I have no idea if what we are doing will "work" — but I can just describe the conversations I have with my kids about this.

First, time management requires some sense of time. It also assumes that one has choices about how to spend that time. Little kids don't really have much of either. My 5-year-old has just mastered the concept of the 7-day week, and that if today is Wednesday, something that happens on Thursday will happen tomorrow, which is after one sleep. Friday is two sleeps, and so forth. With very little kids, all they really get is routines that are repeated consistently: nap is after lunch, snack is after nap, etc.

School aged children can start to have more choices and more responsibilities, and can start to think about when things will happen a bit more. Time management is really about self-management. You can set rules on when things happen, but ideally you can also help a child understand why this is a better choice, so he wants to make that choice. That's the real skill. With my 7-year-old — the one who would play video games 23 hours a day if allowed to — I'm stressing that we do the things we need to do before getting sucked into other things, because then you can do the fun stuff without anything else hanging over your head. Any assigned homework needs to be done before video games. As the weather gets nicer, I'm going to add in some outdoor play time in the afternoon. I also want him to read for at least 30 minutes a day. I know he comes home ready to blow off some steam and the video games do that, so I'm really only consistent on requiring homework before video games. This one is a work in progress as he doesn't have many activities during the week right now, so he kind of has a lot of time to fill. However, on weekends, when I make a check list of the things that need to get done on Sunday, he will sometimes go through his required things quickly so that he can get them over with.

The 9-year-old has almost my freakish interest in time. He calculated how many seconds were in days, months, years, etc. during church when he was bored once. When we read The Boy Who Loved Math, about Paul Erdős, he was fascinated by his trick on figuring out how many seconds a person had been alive, so there's been a lot of contemplation on that and if there are quick formulas with leap years and the like. However, I would say, and I believe he would agree with me (and I found out he sometimes reads this blog, so there we go) that organization is not necessarily his strong suit. As one teacher once put it to me, "he's a little mess." We spend a lot of time — time that is completely wasted, I might add — looking for lost items. We are working on this. We are also working on figuring out pacing of long projects. He often gets weekly homework, and on Monday he might say he wants to do it Wednesday, and I try to explain that Wednesday is a pretty busy day, and maybe he could look it over Monday to see how much is involved, so we don't not do it on Wednesday and then get stuck with a massive amount on Thursday that has to get done. I can see that he's thinking about these issues though, and he's also been getting pretty good about figuring out his own schedule of activities. He's newly committed to swim after getting promoted to the next group, so he wants to do this 3 times per week. He is also quite into karate, and is doing this twice per week. I have given him the printed schedules for both, so he can see what times are options. Considering his other siblings' schedules, we've let him say what days he would like to do things. Last week he considered the scheduling options, and said he wanted to take the Saturday karate class, so he didn't have to double up on anything during the week. This was a reasonable solution given other things we had going on, so I said that was fine. (Then he got to karate and realized he didn't have his bag with his karate stuff in it — which was packed and right by the door.…)

I tend to believe that learning to manage oneself well — in pursuit of managing time — is about motivation. My kids are perfectly happy to spend big chunks of time on things they personally find interesting. The 9-year-old creates whole elaborate time lines of rulers in lands he's dreamed up. The 7-year-old asks for me to do math problems with him at night; he was unhappy last night when I stopped because it was 9:20 p.m. and he needed to go to bed. Part of time management is figuring out that things one finds not that fun in the moment may be critical for longer term goals, and hence even though you don't necessarily want to do them in the moment, you can still make them happen.

I think my biggest lesson in productivity came my fall semester of junior year in high school. I started attending the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and the Humanities on the campus of Ball State University. I had never really truly needed to work hard for good grades before, but all of a sudden I did. Couple this with the excitement of being at a residential school and and I was not necessarily prepared to spend adequate time on my studies. That fall I got a couple of Bs (and even a C!) on my report card. I was not happy with this outcome, and so I figured out how to manage my time better. I got straight As for the rest of my time there. This is really not something anyone else could have done for me. If you'd made me take a study skills class I would have found it idiotic. When we are motivated to do things, we figure out a lot more than when we don't really care.

What are you teaching your kids about time (and self) management?

Photo: My 7-year-old chose to illustrate his essay on spring with black flowers. Interesting...

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11 Responses to Teaching kids time management


  1. Gillian says:

    Laura, I love the idea of thinking about time management with kids. My 9 year old also struggles with organizational issues (perhaps this is just 9 yo boys, if so I have 2 more to go, so best figure this out now). He also needs to blow off some steam in order to focus on school work. As a result he will usually take a timed break after school to eat a snack and play a little before sitting down with homework. This is typically 20-30 minutes and he uses the time on phone (mine or the sitters) to signal to get to work.

    My daughter (6 in first grade) gets all her homework on Monday and it is all due on Friday. I have to say this system is harder on parents. We have worked with her (extremely helpful) teacher to set some artificial deadlines to avoid a Thursday disaster (I also work late Thursday so really not a great set up!).

    With out 3 year old we are working to master yesterday today and tomorrow.

    • @Gillian – yes, the oldest gets to be a test case for many things. Hopefully we’ll figure out some brilliant ideas, but given that our kids are very different, we’ll see how effective anything turns out to be 🙂

  2. Angela says:

    I do believe it is important to start early giving kids choices with their time and teaching them to hopefully make good choices. I started early with my kids (12 and 9) with teaching them to get projects and homework done early to give them more time to do the things they want to do in the end. So far it has worked. My daughter (12) comes in and starts homework as soon as possible and works ahead on projects when she can. My son (9) does his homework in the same manner but I am still working to convince him that it is important to work the same on projects so he can make choices with his time.

  3. Jenna VanLeeuwen says:

    Very interesting about your high school! I went to a residential high school as well – the North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics. I got As/Bs somehow for the first two trimesters, but it took really struggling at chemistry to figure out how to study. I worked really hard there. Pretty much only took Friday night and Saturday off from studying. It was a wonderful experience though!

  4. Leanne Sowul says:

    My 4 year-old is still working on time in terms of months, weeks and days instead of hours and minutes, but I think it’s helped for him to have a monthly dry-erase calendar in his room to show the days he’s at preschool, at daycare and at home. It doesn’t help him manage his time per se, but it has helped him know what to expect, and that’s important for him as a slightly introverted homebody.

  5. ARC says:

    Ohhh, I would love to read more articles on age-appropriate time management and organization skills for kids. My 7yo goes to a Montessori school and they are VERY BIG on self-management of assignments and homework, meaning they DO NOT send anything to parents on what’s due and solely depend on the kids to relay info (!!). Great when you’re 9 or 10, but kind of hard the first year as a 7yo. We’re struggling with all of it – her remembering all the things and when they’re due, remembering to ask the teachers clarifying questions, remembering to bring the homework home and take it back to school at the right time. It’s a hot mess and I’m not sure what to do. I’ve asked the teachers for more of a heads-up or summary but they are insistent on the kids learning for themselves. It’s painful, since I think she needs some level of help/structure and I haven’t figured out what would work for her. Giving her a weekly planner was not helpful.

  6. Teja says:

    Hi Laura,
    Do you have any time management entry format for the kids.
    I started using your 30minutes sheet and gave me a new perspective on how better to use the small slot of time available.
    I want to do something similar with my 5 year old but still keep it fun so that he will not be overwhelmed.

    • @Teja- I’m not sure if a time tracking spreadsheet is good for a 5-year-old — I think it helps more to talk through what the day looked like, what followed what, and what the 5-year-old needs and wants to do each day. You could also have him/her create a “good day” for a week day and a “good day” for a weekend to see what he/she would include.

      • Teja says:

        Thank you. Will try that out.

  7. Ottaviano says:

    I really appreciate your perspective on time (life) management. I read “I know how she does it” when the book was released and during a time when I was very overwhelmed by managing a busy household with 2 young kids and a demanding profession. You helped me re-frame my mental state and I continue to be motivated by your writing. Thank you!
    I found the children’s MathStart book – “Get Up and Go!” helpful for teaching kids time management. This book was part of our bedtime reading the month before starting Kindergarten.

    • @Ottaviano- thanks so much. I’m so glad you found my book useful! And I will check out the book you mentioned.

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