Thanks to the National Centre for Learning Disabilities for the following article.

If you’d just get organized!

How can you find anything in here?

The report is due tomorrow? And you haven’t started it?

How could you forget to turn in your homework? I helped you with it!

What’s one thing that makes for a parent’s unhappy day? Getting a phone call or email from school, informing you that your child — who may spend lots of time doing homework – hasn’t turned anything in for six weeks. This wake-up call may be your first indication that your child is having trouble in school. The information is doubly disconcerting when you find, buried in your child’s heavy backpack, lots of completed homework that was never turned in.

A talk with your child and your child’s teacher may reveal that missing homework is only part of the problem. Your child may also be late with assignments, late to class, frequently without necessary supplies, and missing library books. Although your child is intelligent and wants to do well in school, something is getting in the way. Particularly for children with learning disabilities (LD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD), that “something” is organizational skills.

You Know Your Child!

Of all the brain-based habits of thought known as executive skills, organization looms especially large, particularly for children with learning disabilities. Disorganized children with LD or AD/HD are often called lazy, unmotivated – even defiant. You may be one of the few people in your child’s life who understands that learning disabilities complicate children’s development of organizational skills.

All the executive skills are related. The child who doesn’t start the report until the night before it’s due may have difficulty estimating how long a project will take. Your child may panic when a task seems difficult. Your child may get overwhelmed trying to juggle multiple projects, or simply not know how to plan, begin, and follow through with the steps required to get an assignment done. These are all aspects of organization, that crucial skill that enables us to do what needs doing – whether it’s baking a birthday cake, pulling together an agenda for a meeting, or completing a science project.

Your child may well understand the value of being organized but may not have the slightest idea how to get that way. That’s where you can provide invaluable assistance and encouragement.

Helping your child learn organizational skills may be quite a challenge for both of you. There is no blueprint for organization. What works one year or for one class will not work for another. Still, if you stay flexible, you can help your child recognize, improve, and work around his or her organizational challenges.

Short-Term Strategies

To help your child, think first of short-term strategies that focus on particular tasks or assignments. When your own project deadlines loom and you have no plan to meet them, you probably feel out of control, maybe even panicky. Disorganized children feel that way too. They may feel helpless in the face of any task that isn’t easy and short. As school gets more challenging, these children’s frustrations escalate and their self-esteem plummets. Juggling multiple projects becomes so difficult that children may opt out and simply drop everything. You can help your child avoid this destructive pattern.

Begin by convincing your child – through your patience, encouragement, and good example – that organizational skills will help him feel better about himself. No one likes to feel out of control or on a slippery slope to failure. Your child wants to become more independent, wants you to stop nagging about schoolwork, and longs to avoid the fallout from those discouraging parent-teacher conferences. Help your child see that the smallest improvements will make his or her life easier.

Remember that there is only one criterion for an organizational system: it needs to work for your child. It’s crucial for you and your child to communicate openly and for you to approach the problem without being critical or blaming. Partnerships between parents and teachers are essential to help children succeed; your partnership with your child is also essential. Even younger children need to take part in finding solutions. No system will work if your child doesn’t buy into it.

The Power of Encouragement and Example

Organization is about thinking. What is the most efficient way for me to get this project done on time? What will help me remember to do my homework and turn it in? How can I quickly find the materials I need? Rest assured that you can help your child improve her or his organization with simple, gradual strategies.

You don’t need to spend money on a multitude of folders or the latest software. Your most precious asset is your matchless insight into what makes your child tick. Help your child find what will work. Help your child be flexible, since children’s preferences change as do teachers’ requirements. Look for quick, easy ways to begin organizing: a simple planner that you and your child check daily, a routine for filling and emptying a backpack, a schedule for daily homework, study, and review.

Show your child the importance of organization in daily life. Encourage planning at home by posting a family calendar and involving your child in keeping it current. Show your child how one family member’s obligations affect others in the family. A dental appointment, a school conference, and choir practice can’t all happen at the same time without considerable planning. Emphasize how planning saves time. A shopping list gives direction to a trip to the supermarket.

If you’re a person who relies on lists, a datebook, or a PDA, talk with your child about how your personal organizing system works (or falls short). Be honest about your own organizational frustrations, so your child will understand that organization is a skill that many people – even adults – struggle to master.

The Comfort of Routines

All of us develop routines and habits to get us through the day. Your child will benefit greatly from knowing what to expect during a typical school day and week. Keeping track of homework and assignments by writing in a planner every day (or making daily entries on an online calendar) gives your child a visual reminder of what needs doing.

A planner of some kind is vital for organization. You probably know best which kind will work for your child, but discuss it together. If the planner you start with doesn’t work, help your child make the necessary changes. Staying organized means creating a system and sticking with it. The system best suited to your child may not be one you could follow, and your child’s preferences may change with age.

Your great advantage as a parent is your intimate knowledge of your child’s personality, strengths, and challenges. Consider how your child thinks and works. What makes your child feel good or bad? Some children love different-colored file folders and a rainbow of highlighters and sticky notes; others get nervous just looking at them. Getting organized has to make your child feel better.

Turn Big Tasks into Little Steps

Help your child learn to plan by showing how to reduce tasks to their smallest parts. Most teachers provide guidelines for homework and larger projects, usually with interim deadlines. They may distribute checklists so children can check off a step when it’s completed. You, however, know your own child best. If the interim steps provided by a teacher are still too big for your child to tackle without extreme stress, help your child simplify and break down each step. If your child needs more deadlines to feel able to progress on a task, add more deadlines to the teacher’s list. Guide your child to focus on one task at a time.

Introduce your child to the satisfaction of checking off completed tasks. Help your child break out of the thicket of requirements for a complex project. Together, and with the advice of your child’s teachers, set realistic goals. Encourage all positive signs. Don’t expect perfection or even consistency. Each movement forward takes away a little anxiety. Reduce your child’s stress (and your own) step by step.

Attitude Is Everything

As best you can, stay constructive in your attitude toward your child’s organizational difficulties. Don’t criticize. Refuse to allow yourself to think of your child as lazy, unmotivated, or incompetent. Give your child some positive things to say to herself:

  • I’ll get it done.
  • I’ve done my best.
  • Good job!
  • This is easier than it was last week.

“This is easier than it was last week.” Music to your ears! Organizational skills are critical for success in school and in the larger world. Kids with LD need extra support, guidance, and practice as they learn to organize and plan. You are your child’s most valuable partner in this endeavor.


Bonnie Z. Goldsmith has worked in the field of education throughout her professional life. She has wide experience as a writer, editor, and teacher.

This article is made possible by a grant from Oak Foundation.