Living with a child who struggles with their organization can be hugely frustrating. Instructions to make their bed, tidy their room, do the dishes, and do homework on time is either met with delay, an inexplicable disinterest, or a complete bungling of the task. Usually, many parents simply put this down to laziness or adolescent rebellion, but that isn’t always the case. Below we look at the science of organizing ourselves and helping our children become more independent. Not only does this prepare them for adulthood and give them pride, but it also relieves a lot of stress in the home. Learning how to organize themselves is one of the fundamental steps to independence.
Organization is a word that’s often thought about in its narrow form. That it is mostly just about prioritization and order. But organization for children involves something scientists refer to as “executive functions.” It is a series of mechanisms that aids planning, problem-solving, impulse control, time management, and initiation of behavior. It comes down to their concentration and whether it can it be improved. Sometimes, the part of the brain that controls these executive functions can be affected by psychological conditions like Anxiety Disorders, Mood Disorders, or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. This makes it hard to do simple organizational tasks.
What this means is that your child may not be trying to give you a hard time. They want to do the assigned tasks but just can’t seem to get to it or do it right. So what’s the way forward? Helicopter parents might be tempted just to step in and cover their child’s shortcomings. But that isn’t a good long-term strategy to raise an independent adult. Providing structure, routine, and increasing predictability are good places to start. Simplifying organization to a few ‘mantras’ is key so that it becomes an easy habit.
The Importance of Teaching Children Organizational Skills Early
Having looked at organization in its broader sense, it’s clear how poor organizational skills can affect your child. Good organization and planning are essential to academic and career success. According to the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO), 36% of young adults say they feel judged about how organized they appear. 38% feel they would advance in their career if they could become more organized. This demonstrates the far-reaching effects of poor organizational skills. Below are some reasons why it’s essential to teach your child organizational skills early.
- Improved academic experience. Your child has a higher chance of academic success if you teach him or her organizational skills. Good organizational skills enable your child to track the number of assignments, submission dates, take notes in class, and generally track their belongings in and out of class. A disorganized child might struggle with these things, resulting in poor academic performance.
- Enhanced critical thinking. Staying organized requires a structural kind of thinking that helps children think critically and come up with solutions. This is something that doesn’t come naturally to children. Helping your child get organized gives them the building blocks to think through situations step by step without knowing that they’re doing it. When they’re given tasks at home or school, they’ll know how to go about it. We look at improving critical thinking here.
- Boosts confidence. Organizational skills extend to a lot of things as your child grows. Being able to stay organized will improve your child’s competence in so many areas, including school, work, and relationships. This competence, in turn, boosts self-esteem and confidence, which are both crucial factors in their overall happiness.
- Fosters financial skills. This is another testament to the far-reaching impact of good organizational skills for children. Good financial skills will help your young adult stay out of debt, develop plans to pay off any debt, and generally lead a financially healthy lifestyle. Here we look at talking to your child about money and budgeting.
- Ability to follow instructions. Teaching your child organizational skills early will help them know how to follow directions. This is why age-appropriate tasks are essential in childhood. Those small things you direct your child to do helps them develop the ability to follow instructions. And following instruction is crucial in school, the workplace, and at home. This is more than compliance but rather the ability to sequence a series of actions. To complete an activity that requires several steps and not get distracted or overwhelmed before the end.
Signs Your Child Is Disorganized
Knowing the signs of disorganization in children will help you provide early intervention for your struggling child. Below are some signs that your child may be struggling with organizing. This will help you separate it from poor behavior and that they can’t organize themselves rather than won’t.
- They struggle to collect appropriate school materials.
- They have difficulty putting down their thoughts on paper.
- They can’t see through tasks with multiple steps.
- They easily get distracted from a task.
- They are always losing their personal belongings.
- They don’t seem interested in developing self-care skills.
- They always have difficulty getting ready on time.
- They struggle to use language orderly, either to express ideas or tell a story.
- They have difficulty doing more than one thing at a time.
- They find it challenging to get started with a task.
- They start working on long-term projects the night before it’s due to be turned in.
- Study for tests last minute.
Ways to Improve Your Child’s Organizational Skills
You will need a lot of patience if you’re to teach your child organizational skills effectively. Below are ways to teach your child to improve their organizational skills.
- Start simple. If your child is disorganized, ‘getting organized’ is overwhelming. Therefore a discussion about tidying a room so able to find things would be a good start. For the first time, talk about the difference between organized and tidy. A good start would be getting things of one type in the same draw. Even if not folded. We give more advice on this here.
- Use a family calendar. Putting a family calendar in a place where it can be easily seen can provide an excellent visual aid for your child. Before the start of every week, have your child input their own task on the calendar. In the beginning, it might need some getting used to, so your child might still struggle with some things. You can use the calendar to help keep them on top of their tasks. This will allow you to model good behavior and give them ownership for their organization. This could also be a family calendar in a digital form, such as on phones that are linked up. I personally find this far more usable.
- Provide external structure. This involves developing a routine for your child and then gradually taking it away so that they can develop new habits. For example, a child struggling with packing their backpack every morning might benefit from the acronym PACK. Donna Goldberg developed it in The Organized Student. It contains hands-on strategies for teaching your disorganized child how to organize for success in middle school and high school, with special tips for kids with ADD/ADHD and learning disorders. The P in PACK stands for Purge, the A for Accessorize, the C for Categorize, and the K for Keep it up. Practically, purging involves helping your child Purge what they don’t need in their school bag. The idea is to reference PACK so that your child can master it independently, not to keep doing it for them. Start by asking him or her where to start packing their school bag, what goes where, and what they don’t need. These are leading questions that put your child in the process and encourage them to do things independently.
- Prepare in advance. One of the critical parts of being organized is preparing ahead of time, and that’s something a disorganized child struggles with. He or she usually waits until the last minute to get to a task, which causes them stress and anxiety as they’re now rushing to meet up. To avoid this added stress and anxiety, encourage your child to do tasks ahead of time. For example, instead of packing their bags just before school every morning, you should encourage them to do it the night before when there’s no hurry. The main mantra I reinforce to my own children is – do the things you have to do first. Before turning on the X-box, or going to the park, are bags packed, are you dressed and fed? Children can prioritize activities well but are unable to judge how long they can take. They are upset when everyone is waiting for them and know that that is an ‘avoidable stress’ if they just get things done.
- Designate a study area at home. This works the same way you, as a parent, designate an area in your home where you work. This is usually done to put your mind in work mode. It’s the same for your child. By designating a study area (we discuss how to set one up here), your child knows where to go to do their homework. Your child won’t have to turn the house inside out in search of pencils for their homework. Their pencils and other study materials will have a place in their study area, where there’s also very little distraction. This does not necessarily mean a new desk or area. But simply a tray that might be put on the kitchen table when they start to work. An active, fidgety child, may need stimulation to stay alert. This can be solved by giving them something to fidget with or a movable chair (ball chair) that lets them wiggle while doing their homework. The alternative is to provide them with motor breaks. This might involve a few lapses or some physical activity. But make sure they know what the break is for and only give it on the condition that they’ll come back to study afterward. If your child needs these, it may be worth talking to their school, who will advise how to help them. We talk about helping your child study independently here.
- Praise them when they show good organizational skills. Praise is effective in reinforcing what your child is doing right. When you praise their efforts, he or she would want to do more, and it’s also a sign to them that they’re progressing. In turn, this helps keep them motivated to continue trying to improve their organizational skills. It is easy to overlook good organization as it is, by definition, unnoticed.
Final Thoughts on Helping Your Child Prioritize and Organize Themselves
The key thing is that as frustrating as it might be, your child is not being disorganized to upset you. They just need help in structuring some techniques to help themselves. As always, scaffolding and modeling are the cornerstones of any parenting. Take time in a calm moment to talk to them. Is there an underlying reason why they struggle? I realized that I was guilty of doing so much for them when they were younger that they lacked the building blocks to organize themselves when they started High School. Therefore we have had to play catch up, making things very simple. One of my children, in particular, likes things to be clear with a one size fits all approach for organization. As a result, ‘do the things you have to do first’ is what he does in the morning. Then I make sure that I praise him as we leave the door on time with everything. He knows that he is happier in the calmness that this develops. When he packs his bags for holidays and the like, he knows to allow plenty of time.
One of the biggest problems parents face with disorganization in children is knowing precisely what’s going on. Is it something more serious, a simple personality trait, or are some factors momentarily at play? For example, watching your child struggle with submitting their homework can prompt you to conclude that they are disorganized. But it could be that they have a learning disability that makes them refuse to submit their homework because they’re not confident enough.
Also, depression or anxiety about something could be the cause of their disorganization. “Most parents who come in and say my kid is disorganized usually have some other problems, too,” says Dr. Michael Rosenthal, a pediatric neuropsychologist and New York State licensed psychologist who provides comprehensive evaluations for children, adolescents, and young adults. “Organization is often one piece of the picture. But it’s important to be comprehensive in a neuro-psych evaluation to evaluate all the other pieces, to isolate whether this is specifically an executive function problem or if there’s a larger issue at play.”