It’s halfway into the school year, and for many parents of chronically disorganized kids, it’s a time of mounting frustration. Your child may have started the year strong, with a brand new planner and a great system of color-coded folders, only to slowly fall back into a pattern of missed assignments, coats left in lockers, and last-minute scrambles on long-term assignments. He may have even gotten back on the wagon a few times, clearing out his bag, and starting with a fresh system, only to stumble again. And when mid-year report cards come home with grades that show a lot less than you know your child to be capable of, things can start to feel hopeless. There is hope, though—oftentimes, it just requires a shift in how we look at organizational skills problems. Below are five tips to help you do just that.
1. Resist the blame game. Oftentimes kids who are disorganized are labeled as lazy or lacking in work ethic. But research at NYU Langone over the past decade tells us that organizational skills deficits are real deficits, in the same vein as a math or reading disorder. And just like with a math or reading disorder, kids with organizational deficits need extra support. Framing the problem as a character flaw is demotivating. Instead, frame it as a challenge you and your child can overcome together.
2. Take it one step at a time. Getting organized requires a lot of sub-skills—writing down assignments, keeping paper organized, managing homework time, and planning for long-term assignments, to name a few. Asking your child to make changes in all of these areas at once is setting her up for failure. Make a list of all the specific skills your child needs to work on. Choose one skill to start with (such as filling out her planner every day), and don’t move on to the next skill until she has it mastered.
3. Step it down. For kids who struggle with organizational skills, the best organizational tools are usually the ones that involve the least number of steps to use. If filing a paper means punching that paper with a three-hole punch, pulling out a binder, opening the rings, putting the paper in, and closing the rings, that paper isn’t as likely to get filed. A better solution might be an accordion file, which allows your child to just drop the paper right in. Work with your child to find organizational systems that use the least number of steps possible.
4. Make long-term rewards short-term rewards. Many kids who struggle with organization have a learning style that favors short-terms rewards (like getting out of class quickly) over long-term rewards (like knowing all the details of your assignment, so you get a good grade at the end of the semester). You can boost organization by providing short-term rewards for use of organizational skills. Give your child a small daily prize for things like coming home with all his books, having his planner filled out completely, and having all papers filed correctly.
5. Know when to ask for help. If your child has persistent organizational problems and your efforts to help her have failed, it may be time to consider a psychological evaluation. Several psychological issues, including ADHD, can lead to problems with organization. The good news is there are empirically validated treatments to help. At the NYU Langone Child Study Center, we offer Organizational Skills Training, a program developed and researched by our doctors, at our Manhattan, Westchester, New Jersey, and Long Island locations.
Most importantly, don’t lose hope! Just because it is more difficult for some kids to develop organizational skills, doesn’t mean that they can’t do it. Providing some extra support and maintaining a can-do attitude goes a long way towards setting your child on the path to organizational success.
Jennifer L. Rosenblatt, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, and sees patients through the Child Study Center’s home- and school-based service in Westchester County, New York.