Tips and Tricks for Teaching Organization Skills
Executive functions are the self-regulation skills we use every day to plan, manage time, and organize. Organization is an essential executive functioning skill that impacts development and learning. Yet, many children have trouble creating and maintaining routines to keep track of information and materials. Kids who have unique learning and/or attention challenges may struggle with this due to the slower development of their “brain boss” or executive functioning center. Classic examples of organization - a clean workspace, bedroom, or backpack - show the importance of how the physical environment is arranged. But, organization is much more than keeping a tidy space! Internal skills like organizing thoughts and ideas, or telling a story in a logical way, impact learning and the way we carry out day-to-day tasks. Organizational skills also interact and work with other executive functions like planning, time management, and self-monitoring. These skills are introduced in childhood and continue to develop into adulthood to support our ability to set and accomplish goals.
For many kids and adolescents, organizational skills must be directly taught, modelled, and supported by adults in their life. A child with unique learning needs may require more support for much longer than other children. Improving organizational skills and task efficiency can help to create a sense of control and fewer problem behaviours (e.g., avoidance, meltdowns) for kids with Learning Disabilities (LDs) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Most importantly, these skills can act as positive reinforcement for kids by freeing up more time for preferred activities.
Organization is a skill developed over time and can improve with consistent adult support. The following information is intended to offer parents tips and tricks to get organized at home and school.
The Key to Motivation
It takes effort and motivation to activate executive functions. Kids are also more likely to commit to strategies if they know the reasoning behind them. Therefore, it is important to discuss what motivates your child before getting them to learn and apply new skills.
- Identify where your child is struggling. Is your child struggling at home, at school, or maybe both? Are they struggling with misplacing assignments, writing stories, organizing their backpack or locker, or getting to school on time? Understanding where your child struggles with organization is key to determining how to support them. Collaborate with your child to identify goals important to them.
- Empathy and emphasizing your child’s strengths. Kids often want to be organized but can’t because of delayed executive functioning development. Use your connection with your child and empathic responses (e.g., “this must be a lot of work for you”) to move kids from reactivity to receptivity when learning new skills. It will also be essential to name your child’s strengths and emphasize that they have a lot of other skills to support them, despite challenges with organization.
- Promote self-confidence. It is vital for you and your child to set realistic goals. Your child should be confident that they can accomplish their goal if they try. Set the expectation that strategies will likely need to be tried more than once and that progress will be gradual. Executive functions like organization can be developed through hobbies and activities that encourage feelings of accomplishment. Over time, your child may require less adult supervision to apply these skills.
- Positive Reinforcement. Kids with weaker executive functioning often struggle with motivation. What incentives might you add to their environment to increase positive emotions and their drive to learn new skills? Younger children need external motivators like reward systems based on checklist completion. An example of this is earning a preferred item or activity for getting ready for school on time. Reward systems work best when they are clear, immediate, and agreed upon with your child ahead of time.
Learning executive function strategies is hard work. Talk to your child about past challenges and establish predictable routines to support them.
- Create daily routines. A regular schedule and predictable rules can help kids learn what to expect throughout the day. An example of this is your child puts their shoes on the shelf immediately after entering the house each day. Knowing what to expect throughout the day can help support organization skills and emotion regulation. Use visual schedules, calendars, clocks, and other time management strategies to show routines. Predictability is key!
- Tackle one task at a time. Choose one task and break this task into chunks. Help your child break their school project or a chore into smaller, manageable steps. Breaking down a task can show your child the beginning, middle, and end, which can be less overwhelming and reduce distractions.
- Teach time management. Help your child estimate how much time each task will take. Once they complete the task, get them to see if their estimate was accurate. This time estimation experience will help your child break down longer tasks or projects into smaller goals with reasonable deadlines. Apps like Toggl can be used to keep a visual log of how much time it takes to complete a task. Planners with a monthly view can help your child see the big picture of complete tasks and projects.
- Make organization a team effort. Model organizational strategies for your child. Show them how you stay organized. If you struggle in this area, discuss the goals you are setting for yourself. Including all family members can be a great way to share strategies and hold each other accountable.
Additional Strategies to Increase Child’s Independence
Kids with learning and attention challenges often find it difficult to keep track of information or tasks in their minds. Below is a list of external and visual strategies to support organization.
- Make short checklists and to-do lists. Once your child knows the steps to a task (e.g., homework, chores), help them add these steps to a checklist. Keep checklists or to-do lists short and keep them near the task like a workspace for homework or the kitchen for chores. Lists can be kept on smartphone apps, whiteboards, or sticky notes.
- Introduce idea organizers. Graphic organizers are handy tools that can help kids break down concepts, questions, or assignments in a visual way. Organizers are a great way for kids to keep track of and rearrange their thoughts in reading, writing, and math.
- Colour-code and label belongings and “docking stations.” Colour coordinating classes or subjects is an easy and visual way to organize schoolwork. Colour-coded labels and bins at home can act as “docking stations” to help keep track of homework, clothes, sports equipment, and other belongings. The goal is to have a place for everything, which will make it easier to get out the door in the morning!
- Organize workspace. If keeping a clean workspace is a priority, your child may benefit from having a photo of the space once it’s set up. Your child can use the photo as a model for how the space should look when they are done.
Developing these skills won’t happen overnight. Executive functioning skills like organization require practice and continue to develop into adulthood. Adult support is critical, especially for kids experiencing delayed executive functioning development. Establishing motivation and setting aside time for frequent check-ins and practice are essential for successfully developing these skills. Kids with learning and attention challenges require extensive practice with adults to foster independence in organization.
- Smart but Scattered Kids
- Harvard University Center of the Developing Child: Executive Function & Self-Regulation
- Child Mind Institute: Helping Kids who Struggle with Executive Functions
- Understood.org: Why Kids who Struggle with Organization Skills
- The Whole-Brain Child by Dr Dan Siegel
- Additudemag.com: Organizational Skills for Kids with ADHD