EF Skills: Organization

By Jenna Prada, M.Ed


Helping kids improve their organization skills means finding systems and solutions that are customized to your child and are practices they are willing to adopt • Working together is the best way to get their buy-in • Learning how to be organized is a work in progress—one in which there are going to be false starts and failures before landing on the strategies that work best for your child

An important executive functioning skill is organization—the way one arranges their physical and mental environments. Students who struggle with organization misplace things, show up unprepared, and suffer from muddled communication. But like most skills, organization can be improved with intentional effort

Following are guidelines to help your child improve in this area. As you approach any of these suggestions, keep in mind that organizational systems are most successful when they’re individualized, and the best system is one that your child wants to implement. Be flexible and encourage them to develop a system that’s all their own.

Improvement Strategies

1. Take a functional approach

It’s crucial to begin by identifying a specific issue that your child can address by improving their organization. Doing that creates clarity by defining how success will be measured and gaining buy-in for the effort you’re asking your child to put forth. Generally, eliminating the mess is not a great goal as neatness may be valued more by you than your child. Instead, focus on something that your child views as beneficial. For example, highlight time saved looking for school supplies in the morning as a way to sleep later. Or introduce a graphic organizer in an effort to break down the writing process so it’s more manageable.

2. Model and build confidence

Share goals or struggles that you have around organization and point out time you spend organizing yourself. It’s easy for kids to form the impression that organization is easy for some, but the reality is that it always takes work. Modeling effort that you expend to stay organized can help normalize your child’s difficulties. Raising your awareness of how tough it is to be organized will also serve as a good reminder to offer your child positive reinforcement as they’re learning. All of this together will build their confidence and serve to create the motivation to keep going.

3. Go with what comes naturally

Pre-conceived notions of what “good organization” looks like can lead to unnecessarily difficult systems. If your child tends to drop their book bag in the same spot every day, rather than force them to break that habit, consider a hook that establishes that spot as the place where their bag can be put away. If they always forget to put socks on until they reach for their shoes on their way out, add a basket of socks by the front door. A great first step for writing might be to have them dictate ideas they can then put into a logical order. Looking for ways to make organization easy establishes the idea that you and your child are on the same team and creates opportunities for you to offer positive reinforcement.

4. A place for the misplaced

We can have a tendency to insist on perfection when it comes to organization. Try to resist that temptation and create a go-to spot where parents, housekeepers, siblings, or anyone else can put your child’s things when they’re found strewn about the house. This way, rather than arguing about each misplaced item, you and your child can create a routine around clearing out the go-to spot at some regular interval.

5. Use graphic organizers

There are literally hundreds of graphic organizers that you might employ to help your child organize their writing or organize new information from class lectures and readings. Many students have great ideas that they can’t get onto paper, and giving them a structure into which they can plug those ideas is empowering. For students who have notes that lack coherence, something as simple as a Venn diagram or a “KWL” (Know, Want to Know, Learned) Chart can be helpful.

6. Color-Code and Label

Color coding can be helpful—as long as it’s not overused, which can actually distract your child’s attention. For example, coordinating colored notebooks with the same-color folders for a given class makes it easier to grab what’s needed. At home you might assign each child a colored bin and corresponding colored labels for their items. For younger children, especially, visual labels can relieve some of the brain work necessary to keep track of organizational systems.

7. Use Lists

Checklists of items your child needs for a particular day or activity, sequential lists of elements to include in an essay, or lists of what to grab from a locker before coming home all promote success. Any and all lists are helpful and can support the consistency necessary to make organization less effortful in the long-run.

8. Create Maintenance Routines

Understanding that organization is a work in progress is necessary for your child to build confidence and stay engaged. Any time you and your child set up a system, think of that as step 1. Steps 2-10 are the maintenance plan. How often will they straighten up, re-file, or otherwise reset? When and how will you assess the system and adjust it together? What reminders are necessary to keep things on track? Will they check in with anyone, and if so, at what point in the process?

Is This Your Child?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your child will likely benefit from strategies to improve their organization skills:

· Loses track of frequent use items such as school id, phone, and keys
· Frequently turns in work that is torn or otherwise damaged
· Produces writing that lacks a central idea or logical progression of ideas
· Leaves messes in their wake
· Has notes without clear headings or structure
· Mixes up work from all of their classes in a single folder, bag, or notebook
· Fails to bring necessary materials—including completed work—to class or activities

Jenna Prada, a certified teacher and administrator, is the founder of the Learning Link and the Director of Executive Functioning & Special Education at Private Prep.

Related Smart Kids Topics