Not long ago, professional organizer Silvia Oppenheim was helping some parents get their kids' home-study habits in order and discovered school assignments and art projects scattered all over the place.

"I even found some homework at the bottom of the pool," says the founder of Le Concierge SF, who is also certified in early childhood development and art therapy. She's not quite sure how those lessons ended up in their watery grave, but as the fastidious Felix Unger is her witness, no homework will ever drown again.

Oppenheim helps families arrange kid-friendly workstations, design orderly storage areas for school supplies, soccer cleats, violin cases, library books, cellphone chargers -- you name it -- and even set up things like a tidy "hanging garage" for a hundred Hot Wheels cars -- a repurposed over-the-closet-door shoe holder.

While it may seem much of this is common sense, more people are turning to professional organizers when the school year rolls around -- not just to get desks in order, but to develop lasting time-management skills and "put organizational systems in place so parents and kids can follow them throughout the year," Oppenheim says.

It's not surprising some families need support these days, what with loads of demanding schoolwork, whirlwind after-school schedules and -- perhaps most challenging of all -- technological distractions.

And the summer break never helps.


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"August is our busiest month for parents calling to set things up for school," says Amanda Kuzak of Mountain View-based Kuzak's Closet. "(Parents) embraced the summer as much as the kids did -- kids have been off to camp, routines have changed, families have let a lot of things go, and the house is in disarray. They know they have to get back into the school schedule, go through clothing to see what fits, inventory supplies, get lunchboxes set up.

Group like items together, organizer Amanda Kuzak says, and have children participate in the sorting and organizing process.
Group like items together, organizer Amanda Kuzak says, and have children participate in the sorting and organizing process. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Kuzak)

"Kids, especially high school students, are under so much pressure these days to put more time in," Kuzak says. "It's all about working smarter, not harder."

As a mom of two teenagers, Kim Marshall, of Menlo Park, has hired Kuzak several times for various organizational projects, and specifically for back to school.

"Amanda has helped us with each student having workstations in their rooms, school supplies in designated drawers, and keeping desks just for working, with fun things kept in completely different areas to prevent distraction," she says. "That's a smart idea; I never thought of needing to do that. So I'm totally addicted to (hiring an organizer). It's expensive but worth it."

And as with any other home organizational issue, it often helps to have fresh eyes on the scene, says Gayle Grace of Oakland-based All Things Home Organizing.

"You live in your home and go through the motions, and you don't see these things," she says. "Sometimes I'm astounded when I go into people's homes and I say, 'Well, why don't you turn the dining room table in the other direction to open up the hallway?' and they look at me like I just invented fire."

Being 'pro' active

Even if you don't have the bucks to hire someone, there are plenty of DIY steps parents can take to ease into the school routine themselves. Here are few tips from the pros:

Homework stations

  • "Create a central location where kids can do homework while parents are making dinner in the kitchen," Grace says, describing one home where the computer desk is shared by two children. "The dining table is right across from it, so one child can be working at the table while the other is on the computer. The kitchen is right there, so mom can be paying attention to what the kids are up to at the computer."

  • Indeed, a "station" doesn't have to be an actual desk, Oppenheim says. "Use a small piece of wood for a desk over filing cabinets. Label drawers for each kid, each one responsible for their own space."

  • Keep track of important school paperwork, she adds, with large magnetic clips -- one per child -- on the front of the fridge. "Have the children place important papers there so that mom can sign or review them. Once done, she can put them back on the clip or right into the child's backpack."

    Time management

  • Try to get as much ready the night before a school day as possible -- especially during the first hectic week back. "Time is tight at night but way tighter in the morning," Grace says. "So have everyone lay out their outfits for the next day, pack cold foods, pack backpacks with books."

  • Designate places where all the lunch items are stashed, where all the backpacks get hung up, where all the homework assignments go so kids aren't running around looking for stuff. "Building as much efficiency into everyday things as possible, you gain 20 seconds here, 30 there. It adds up, and before you know it, you've saved 15 minutes -- that's a big chunk of time, especially at 7 in the morning," Grace says.

  • Oppenheim is a big fan of to-do lists. "Not mom writing up a to-do list and the child has to do it," she says. "Do it together. If a child helps make the list and completes items, it's a real sense of responsibility and accomplishment, learning systems they can learn for a lifetime. It's a 'teach them to fish, don't just give them a fish' idea."

  • Make homework part of the daily routine with a special time set aside, preferably right after the child gets home. "Their brains are still wired that way, still in the mindset of school," Oppenheim says. "If they come home and watch TV or do other things, then it's really hard to go back to work."

    Tackling tech

  • "We are topsy-turvy in trying to figure out how to blend all the new technologies that are going on in schoolwork," Grace says. "I talk to parents about balance -- trying to carve out how much time is spent in front of a device. It goes back to the adults. You can't tell your kids they have to get off the computer if you're looking at your phone during dinner."

  • "So many teenagers sleep with their phones under their pillows, but my kids do not charge their phones in their rooms, or even in the common areas," Marshall says. "We have a charging station in our master bedroom where they plug their phones in at night. My 17-year-old doesn't like it, but that's how it is until she's off to college."

    Get kids involved

  • "When I work on kids' homework spaces or toy areas, I get down on my knees and dig in with the kid and have them do the sorting process with me," Kuzak says. "They have more confidence when they can create and organize environments for themselves, and they'll have more pride in the space."

  • At the same time, remember: You are the boss. "Most of my clients are afraid to rock the boat by purging toys their children like," Kuzak says. "It is important to give your children a chance to learn how to make decisions when it comes to purging and letting go, but you're still in charge."

    Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/giveemhill.