As every parent knows, very young children live in the present. They often mix together concepts of past and future, and may ask over and over when something is going to happen, no matter how many times you’ve explained. When does this start to change, and what is reasonable to expect in terms of a child’s understanding of time, or even planning in later years? The short answer is, it probably happens more slowly than you think. And, even when kids understand the basic building blocks of time management, they’ll still have to acquire the real–world experience needed to do meaningful planning.


The Early Years

Research has found that children don’t fully understand time–marking systems, such as calendars and clocks, until well into elementary school—perhaps as late as age 10. So, while a 4–year–old generally knows that “yesterday” is before “today,” and that an “hour” is longer than a “minute,” most children won’t know how far in the past “yesterday” was compared to “last week,” or how many hours are in a day until at least age 7. That’s according to the work of scholars like Katharine Tillman, PhD, who studies children’s understanding of time at the University of California, San Diego. In addition, while preschoolers have some understanding of time–related vocabulary and concepts, their early use of time–related words may give the impression that they understand them better than they actually do.


Parents can help by being patient when children seem confused and by doing a bit of detective work. See if your child can calculate what time to leave for an appointment, if you tell him how long the trip will take and when the appointment begins. Ask your child to predict something using a calendar. “Can you find your next birthday on this calendar? How many weeks is that from now? How many days?” These exercises also require a bit of math that your child may or may not be able to do, which helps explain why he may find using calendars and clocks challenging. When you understand where your child is in comprehending these processes, it’s easier to have realistic expectations of what he can do in terms of planning or tracking events.


Middle School and Beyond

Just about the time your child has likely gained a more sophisticated understanding of how these systems work, she may be entering middle school, where students must zoom into organizational high gear. Here, your child will travel to many teachers and locations each day, often on a tighter schedule and covering more distance than before. She may have a rotating or rolling schedule, which means that conventions that probably helped her remember activities before—such as, we have “library” on Thursdays—may not exist anymore. With her own unique class schedule, your child must keep track of due dates for assignments and know which materials to carry each day. And she must do this without the “groupthink” she probably had in elementary school, where class–mates tend to move together as one.


In middle school, your child may also be expected to manage multiple, long–term and overlapping projects and—perhaps for the first time—do self–initiated “studying” for tests. Inherent in this process, your student must begin to grapple with estimating how long tasks will take and budget time accordingly, often without experience to tell her what’s involved.


So how can you help? First, acknowledge that this is hard stuff, even for adults. Beyond that, you can be a sounding board and a consultant—someone who knows your child’s unique situation and who can help her prioritize. Many schools and individual teachers have systems they want students to use to manage assignments and meet deadlines. You can help your child navigate these systems, while also sharing your own strategies and tools.


The Child Mind Institute has a nice list of tips for older students. For instance, encourage your child to schedule breaks and fun time along with work. (It’s more realistic and may help your child stay motivated.) Use color–coding and other visuals to make activities and deadlines more obvious; this will help your child prioritize and alert him to projects that run concurrently or overlap. See more tips at


Time management will be a lifelong process and one that will increasingly be about making personal choices rather than simply managing information. Helping your child develop time management skills that serve personal goals and wellness, along with external obligations, is a gift that is bound to keep on giving.


By Margaret Nicklas an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom.

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