by Dawn E. Franzen, M.Ed.
How many times have you scrounged around the house for a ruler so your child can finish his math homework? Or worse, how many times has your child announced—at 9 p.m.—that he needs poster board—which you don’t have—for an assignment due tomorrow—which was assigned two weeks ago?
If these child-parenting crises sound familiar, the following tips will help you set up a well-stocked, well-organized study environment for your child’s needs. And hopefully, you’ll avoid those frantic late-night trips to 24-hour superstores!
There are three basic rules for setting up a study environment your child will actually use. You need 1) a designated place to study; 2) supplies used only for school-related activities; 3) easy access to the study center and supplies.
Choose the place to study
Your child must know that there is a specific place where she will go every day to study and do homework. The ideal environment should be quiet and free from distractions.
If her bedroom is not an option, think about using the dining room or setting up a desk or table in the living room. Unless the basement is finished and has good lighting, try to make that last on your list of study places. Basements tend to be dark and dreary. Plus, your child will have to walk up the stairs if she needs help, which means your child will not walk up the stairs if she needs help.
No matter what your child tells you, she does not study better with the TV on! But some children do need some kind of background noise in order to study better. Quiet music without lyrics and commercial interruptions works well. Go with your child to a store that has a music center that allows you to press a button and listen to an excerpt of some quiet, soothing music on CD. Then let her pick out the one she likes best.
Another option for background noise is a simple desk-top fan. And believe it or not, having your child chew gum while she studies works, too!
Select a desk
I found a great student desk at a yard sale and presented it to our son the day he started kindergarten. It was wonderful—as a dumping ground for toys and clothes. I realized that Sam wanted to be close to me when he did his work, which was in the kitchen as I made dinner. So the kitchen table was his “desk” through third grade. I even put his real desk in storage during those years so I wouldn’t have to dust it.
But the summer before fourth grade, Sam wanted his desk back. He had become more independent, he had more homework, and he needed a place to call his own.
All children are different, but by third or fourth grade, they need a desk. Check yard sales, discount stores, and weekly sales ads from office supply stores for good deals.
Another option is a sturdy folding table. You can get them at reasonable prices in 4-to-8-foot lengths at office supply stores.
If you use a table, you will need something to take the place of desk drawers. Purchase one or two stackable plastic units with drawers that will fit under the table. These units also come with casters so they can be rolled out.
Whatever you use as a desk, beware of one thing: size! School textbooks today are much bigger than I remember! By the time Sam wanted his student desk back, there wasn’t enough room for him to open his book and write in his notebook. So we got him a desk measuring 45 inches wide by 27 inches deep.
High school-aged students will begin to need a filing system. They should hold on to their term papers and tests and will need a place for SAT/ACT information and college applications. You can buy a portable plastic file box with a carrying handle that will hold hanging files.
Obtain supplies used only for school
When setting up your child’s study center, keep this fact in mind: If they have to go get it, they won’t. That means you have to have everything in one place, and label or color-code it so everyone knows it belongs in the study center.
First, make a copy of each child’s school supply list and put it in a safe place. When you go shopping for school supplies, buy two of everything on the list. That way, you at least have at home everything the teacher wants at school.
If you have several children, each child should have her own scissors, eraser, crayons, thick and thin markers, highlighter markers, glue stick, and ruler. If you have older kids, they should each have their own compass and protractor. For both older and younger kids, have plenty of loose-leaf paper in wide and college rule. Label everything with each child’s name.
During winter break, assume your kids are running low on supplies, especially glue sticks, paper, pencils and markers. Get the copies of the school supply lists you made in August from that safe place and go over them with each child. Don’t ask in this manner: “Do you need glue sticks?” “Do you need color markers?” Kids always say “no.” Instead ask, “How many glue sticks do you have left?” “Which color markers are dried out?” That will give you a better idea of what you need to buy.
Organize the study center
● Put your supplies in storage containers. Now you need to organize your supplies in the study center. I covered soup and vegetable cans with contact paper for my son’s pencils, thin markers, fat markers, colored pencils, pens, ruler, and scissors, and put them at the back of his desk so he could grab what he needed. This is a great project for your kids to do together. It also gives them “ownership” of their new study center.
Whatever you use to hold supplies, don’t use anything with a lid! Remember that supplies need to be visible, easily accessible, and within arm’s reach.
Other storage options, especially for refills, are over-the-door shoe hangers for small supplies and closet sweater storage hangers for paper—lined, drawing, construction, etc.
● Set up desk-top tools. Remember my rule about kids: “If they have to go get it, they won’t.” With that in mind, you will also need a desk-top pencil sharpener, stapler and extra staples, masking tape, a yardstick, a measuring tape, and a tape dispenser (it’s weighted and has less of a chance ‘walking away’). When you’re shopping, refills are cheaper to buy in bulk, too.
● Hang up a bulletin board and calendar. The study center will need a bulletin board, preferably hung on the wall above the desk at your child’s eye level. The bulletin board is a good place for a cursive chart, grammar rules, and math formulas. The more often children see them, the better they’ll commit them to memory.
The wall above your child’s desk is also a good place to hang a monthly calendar with spaces large enough to write due dates for tests and projects. Even if your child has an assignment book, seeing those due dates getting closer every time she sits down to study is a good motivator.
Another good item is a dry-erase board with markers. This allows your kids to write reminders to themselves, and for you to write notes to them. The board can be as small as a five-by-seven-inch that hangs on a bedroom door. If it is magnetic, is also can serve as a bulletin board (bring a magnet to the store so you can check before you buy).
A world map and map of the U.S. are also important. You can purchase them not only at school supply stores but at discount and craft stores.
● Build a basic library. Although dictionaries now abound on the internet, there’s still value for kids in having a book version right at hand. So you will need a dictionary that’s appropriate for your child’s age: a picture dictionary for kindergartners, an elementary dictionary for first through third or fourth graders, an intermediate dictionary for fifth through eighth graders, and a regular or collegiate dictionary for high school. Other useful books are a thesaurus and a foreign language dictionary.
Stock up for future projects
Now that you’ve got the basics of your study center set up, get ready for those art projects and special reports by filling a box or bin with these supplies: construction paper, tacky glue, a low-temperature glue gun and glue sticks, graph paper, report covers, and index cards (three-by-five and four-by-six). Also stock up on poster board and a couple of science project display boards.
Finally, if you’re tired of dumping your cereal into a zip-bag because your child needs the box, or of putting all of your eggs in a bowl because she needs the carton, think about saving a couple of the following: the aforementioned cereal box and egg cartons, soup and vegetable cans, tubes from toilet paper and paper towels, two-liter bottles, Pringles cans, a variety of magazines (nature, fashion, National Geographic), catalogs, and a couple of Sunday newspaper comics section.
Label your “stock up” boxes and store them in a far corner of the basement. You’ll be glad you did!
Decide how to manage the computer
Some families have a computer for every member of the household. Others have only one to share.
I had always had the One Computer Philosophy: Put it where you can see what internet sites your kids are on, use the parental controls to block inappropriate pop-ups and websites, and keep the door to the computer room open.
But when our son entered seventh grade, my husband and I bought him a laptop computer. My philosophy changed because Sam’s needs changed. He did a lot more computer work at school, and I needed the family computer more often to do work at home.
If you have several children and they start fighting over computer time for schoolwork, you may need another computer or laptops for the older kids. Just be sure you set rules for internet use and keep an eye (or two) on them.
My son’s sixth-grade teacher recommended that students bring a flash drive to school. Students could plug it into the computer at school and save their work on it, then plug it into their home computer, open up their saved files, and continue to work at home. Check with your school to see if they allow students to bring flash drives. Also check with your school’s tech person to make sure you buy one that is compatible with your home computer.
Hopefully, these tips will help you create a special place in which your child can study and learn. But remember, all children are not the same. You may have to tweak things here and there. The end goal is the same: an environment in which your child will enjoy studying.
A parent and frequent contributor to St. Louis Parent Magazine, Dawn Franzen, M.Ed., has taught with the Summer Academies and Learning Labs of the Gifted Resource Council in St. Louis.