It may still be summer, but the start of the school year is just around the corner. I don’t know about you, but September and October are my favorite months. The cooler, crisp air introduces a time of new beginnings—a clean slate. I always have more energy this time of year, and my list of plans and projects grows with my enthusiasm for the season.

But all of that changed the year our first child was born. Something just didn’t seem right about autumn that year. It took me a while to figure out why. Then it occurred to me that, for the first time in almost a quarter of a century, I wasn’t going back to school. I had been in school for thirteen years in the K–12 system (who knew about homeschooling back then?), followed by four years in college and then seven years of teaching public school music. Every September for the past twenty-four years, I had gone back to school, either as a student or as a teacher, and now I wasn’t—I was staying home with an infant. No wonder something seemed off-kilter—I was suffering from School Withdrawal Syndrome!

It took me three or four years to finally recover from SWS. And then, just as I was nearly cured, I was introduced to homeschooling. I was happily back in the saddle again, remaining there for the next nineteen years.

My enthusiasm for the new school year led me to make detailed lesson plans while gathering learning materials and pawing through my files. Some of my ideas worked out well, and others—well, not so much.

But as time went by, I discovered that some of the most important work I could do to prepare for the new school year had nothing at all to do with academics. Yes, it is important to organize your curriculum for the upcoming year. But even more, it is important to set the stage for a smooth-running household.

It is said that more women quit homeschooling because they cannot keep up with their housework than do so for academic reasons. So, with several weeks left before the new school year starts, let’s talk about ways to jump-start the year by preparing our homes to serve us.

Years ago some friends were designing their master bedroom. She told her husband she didn’t want any furniture in their bedroom other than the bed. She reasoned that if there were no flat surfaces, the room would remain clutter-free.

Clutter has a way of multiplying like dust bunnies under the bed, doesn’t it? Don’t give it an excuse. Examine the flat surfaces in your house. Have you noticed that if just one stray item is sitting on a coffee table, it invites other strays to join it? At first it’s just an empty glass. Pretty soon the table is overflowing with unsorted mail, a half-eaten sandwich, and someone’s unfinished math assignment.

You do your family no favors by routinely picking up after them. Teach them to pick up after themselves: your children’s future spouses will thank you for it. If you have slid into the habit of doing it yourself, start now to set new habits before school begins. Discipline yourself and your family not to place anything on a flat surface that doesn’t belong there (this includes the floor!).

Start by focusing on one room that the whole family uses. Invite your children to come with you. Stand in the entrance to the room and ask them to name as many things that are out of place as they can. Then set a timer for five minutes and see if they can restore the room to rights before it rings. If they don’t know where something belongs, pile it into a box. Stay and help—it is more fun to work together, and you will be able to observe where changes need to be made.

Assign a home for misplaced items, those things that family members have thoughtlessly set down. If an item has no home in your home, it will constantly be sitting out on some flat surface inviting other homeless friends over to join it. Grandma was right when she said, “A place for everything and everything in its place.”

Then decide what to do with the clutter you have collected. Force every item to earn its right to take up room in your house. Take pictures of memorabilia (especially three-dimensional pieces) and discard the memento if you don’t have room to store it. If the item is of no value to you, discard it or give it away.

If this is difficult for you, pretend that you are downsizing to a smaller house and you must get rid of whatever you cannot take with you. The summer we lived in a twenty-foot camper trailer while my husband worked on a job site taught me how few possessions we really needed to get along. I learned to be the best housekeeper of my life: every item had to be in its proper place or we couldn’t walk through the camper.

Move through your house, room by room. Some rooms will go pretty fast, while others (perhaps the children’s bedrooms) may take longer. Talk with your children about how nice it will be to have the house looking “spick and span” (another description from Grandma!) when Daddy gets home.

Once you have established a home for each item, teach the whole family to routinely put things away. Of course, this will not happen overnight. Periodically, especially at first, you may need to stage an intervention. One of my favorites (and my sons’ least favorites!) was the nickel box.

If the house was cluttered and no one seemed to want to take responsibility, I would quietly pick up an empty box and walk through the house, placing anything that was not in its proper “home” into the box. When the boys learned that they had to pay me a nickel to get their items back (we called it a maid service fee), they soon rushed around ahead of me to retrieve their belongings before I got to them.

The contents of the nickel box quickly revealed which family members most struggled with tidiness. I had one son who literally left a trail of evidence as he moved throughout the house. Work more diligently with these strugglers, teaching them the importance of orderliness through Scripture. You might even have them memorize related verses.

It is easy to get careless with household routines during the busy summer months when everyone is on the go. As you prepare for the coming school year, spend some time reestablishing good habits so you can make efficient use of your time. Have a great school year!

This article was published in the July/August 2016 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine.

©2016 by Marcia K. Washburn. Marcia spent nineteen years preparing for the coming school year with her five sons. She serves as Assistant Director of Christian Family Eldercare, a ministry that enable, equips, and encourages those who honor their older relatives with personal caregiving. Her latest book, Home-Based Eldercare: Stories and Strategies for Caregivers, is available at MarciaWashburn.com.