Is Your Child Disorganized?

It is unlikely any child wakes up in the morning and decides he wants a barrage of negative feedback from his parents and teachers about his lack of organization. Life is easier for those who have these skills. Organization, or lack thereof, is based on executive functions which are innate neurological processes. Individuals with adequate executive function skills are able to plan ahead, organize, strategize, and manage time. They know which assignments are on the agenda after school and have the ability to prioritize. Instinctively, when a big task is at hand, such as a research paper, they approach it methodically, one step at a time.

Students with slowly developing executive function skills don’t come by these abilities naturally. Contrary to popular belief, these students are not lazy or willfully disobedient, and their poor performance is not a matter of needing to simply try harder. Instead, these children need more support than the average student in order to find success.

Disorganization can become a vicious cycle

Because organization is such a crucial part of academic achievement and daily life, it’s easy to understand how students struggling in this one area may be impacted in each and every subject. For example, if a student with adequate organizational skills has difficulty with geometry, he can still do well in chemistry, English, history and all of his other subjects. But when a student is disorganized, he has, in essence, a disability in every subject. The good news is that with some continuous direct instruction, modeling, and with age, organizational skills generally improve.

If you want to help your disorganized child, you may want to begin your conversation with something like this: “I know I’ve been on your case a lot about being more organized. You’re getting older.  I want to see you more independent in getting your work done on your own and make it less stressful. I don’t want to nag you, and I certainly don’t want us to argue about it. Let’s get this year started on a good note by setting up an organization system that works for you. Do you have some ideas?  How about we start by having a meeting on Sunday nights to clean out and organize your binders.”

Refrain from being judgmental! Don’t start by saying “this is such a mess”. That will put your child on the defensive, and you are certainly not going to help your child’s willingness to work with you and develop better organizational skills.

Disorganized children tend to be indecisive.  They have messy desks, backpacks, binders and notebooks, because they cannot decide what to keep and what to throw away. They often stare at the homework, but don’t do the work because they cannot decide where to start and what to do next. You have to serve as their “coach” and guide them to take control over time, procedures and materials.  Begin by giving them choices appropriate for their age. This helps them feel safe about making a decision because you provide the alternatives that they have to choose from.

Gently coach by your questions rather than tell them the answers to every question. Raise their awareness of making decisions through modeling out loud how you are deciding on something so they can see your inner language script. For example, “That choice means you will be able to do X”. “If I do this then X will happen”, “If I do that, then Y will happen”.  Show them how to develop a list of pros and cons, and help them prioritize and narrow down their choices. Have them do the easier assignments first. Disorganized children also are used to having things done for them, because adults cannot wait for them to get the job done.  When they don’t have to think and do for themselves, they become less mindful about what they left behind or failed to do.  It’s better to reinforce thinking behaviors by using words that guide self-direction like, “You remembered to put your homework in your backpack”; “You realized your library book was due today;” and “You noticed you didn’t put your name on your homework.”  It’s easy to want to rescue them and do it for them, but you will be undermining their self-confidence and road to independence.

Here are some helpful tips for your disorganized child

(you can also download a helpful printable PDF by clicking here)

  • Teach your child to maintain an uncluttered workplace to complete school assignments. Work with him, and show him how to organize his space. Then, take a picture of what the space should look like, and post it near his workspace. Next time you say, “Clean your desk” and he says, “I did”, you can then say, “Does the desk look like the picture?”  If it doesn’t, let him know he’s not done.
  • Have your child study (spelling words, vocabulary words, review study guides) while he is engaged in some type of motion such as a stationary bike. This accommodation will keep him more actively engage in what he’s suppose to be studying, and will help with memorization and learning of the material.
  • For homework assignments that require memory, it helps when you combine seeing it, saying it, writing it, and doing it. The visual, auditory and kinesthetic, are all different paths to the brain.  Some kids learn better visually, while others need more “hands on” or may need to hear the information as well as read about it. Most textbooks today come in a CD form.  If your child is not a strong reader, buy the CD version as well. Have him listen to the story or the chapter while he follows the text in the book, and then have him read it on his own as well.
  • To get your child to complete his homework, set a specific goal one subject at a time and have your child monitor his time (Time Timer is a good option). He should actively attend to his work for 20 minutes, and then, take a 10 minute “brain break” before he continues to work again for 20 minutes. You can also guide him to start with the easiest assignments first and guide him on how he can break the assignments into smaller chunks that he can complete daily.  Help him record each chunk in his daily planner and check it off as he completes it each night. This will make the project much more manageable.
  • Before beginning to read a new chapter, have your child read the questions in the back of the chapter first. This will help guide his attention and ability to select essential from non-essential detail. Furthermore, before introducing a new concept, try to help him make it relevant to something he already knows, making it more relevant to everyday life. He is more likely to remember and be able to apply the information.
  • Have your child select what he/she is going to wear the next day, and hang it in a convenient place in his room.
  • Designate a mutually agreed upon time that all electronics will be shut off and placed “on charge” for the night. This will insure that your child gets a good night sleep, and he will be much more attentive and productive the next day.
  • Help your child organize the backpack with the homework folders for each subject and material needed to be brought to school, and remind him to place to place it by the door.
  • You want to get to the point where your child goes through his daily routine with one reminder to no reminders. Remember that if you do something 30 times in a row, it becomes a habit. Plus, the positive feedback your child will be getting for his effort will only reinforce his success.

If all else fails, your child may need something much more individualized with more frequent reinforcements.  Check out the free behavior charts that you can download and look at the instructions on how to implement them.

It’s a trial and error when you’re working with kids. We’re all always learning!

Hang in there!

Dr. Pat & Dr. Gina





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