Helping Disorganized Kids Become Organized

by | Jan 18, 2014 | Parenting, School Success and Learning

Parenting advice to help disorganized, forgetful kids get organized and for kids with shorter attention spans who need to “reclutter” and learn routines

“My daughter is sweet and loving but hopelessly disorganized. I’m always picking up forgotten homework assignments, putting school into her backpack and reminding her of his schedule. I worry that she’ll need a full time assistant to help her get through high school. Her room looks like a bomb hit it. School is starting up in a few days and I’m already in a state of panic. What can I do now to help my kid be more organized this year?”

Sound familiar? I can’t tell you how many similar queries I’ve received from parents over the past few days. My answer: there certainly are things you can do to help kids become more organized. And helping your kids now will help them in the upcoming years when you’re not there to pick up the pieces and serve as their personal Palm Pilot. The secret to teaching organizational skills is to take on just one troubling issue at a time, find a simple solution that fits your child, and then stick to it until that new organization system becomes a habit. Here are a few tips to help unorganized kids become more organized!

Tips to help unorganized kids be more organized

1. Stop rescuing

Your first step is often the hardest (but most important). If you really, really want your child to learn how to be better organized then you must stop being his personal assistant. So take a vow that you will teach your child organization skills, and then once he learns them you will step back and make him be responsible for any consequences (like missing a deadline, losing a library book, misplacing sports gear). Better he learn the lesson now then later.

2. Create a place for everything

Your next step is to help your kid organize what she has to make things easier to find and put away. Don’t go getting crazy here. Just identify the “code red” areas that usually cause the stress and argument and find a simple solution. Here are three common organizational problems and a few solutions. The trick is to find what works for your child and stick to that solution.

Problem: Can’t find her shoes and jackets. Solution: Clean out the closet, and then purchase a few inexpensive closet organizers so she can find and put things quicker.

Problem: Misplacing school papers and supplies. Solution: Put a hook by the front door to hang the backpack the second she comes home. All homework goes in and then out of that backpack.

Problem: Missing sports gear. Solution: Place small plastic barrels in the garage with labels (picture form for younger kids) designating the type of equipment.

3. Reduce clutter

Kids are more organized with less clutter so now is the time to go through drawers, closet, toys, and equipment barrels together and him eliminate those unnecessary extras. Throw away all those never used or broken things, and try to do so extra six to eight weeks. Then employ these clutter reducers so your child’s room or homework area at least appears more organized:

Rotate toys. Come on, your kid doesn’t really play with all those toys, right? So put some of those away and pull them out again in a few weeks. Not only will they seem like brand new but it will also reduce the clutter. Make a rule that when you pull toys out you always store other in their place. (And the best news: when you bring the toys back out from “hiding” kids always think they’re brand new!)

Hold a garage sale. Here is your time for your kid to make a little extra cash by selling his old toys, clothes, and books by holding a family garage sale. Put your kids in charge of making flyers, setting up cash boxes, and displaying sale items.

Donate to charity. Give your child a box and tell her to stock it with gently used possessions. Then help her deliver the box to a Goodwill store or charity of her choice.

Under-bed storage. For those occasionally used things, get storage bins that can slide under your child’s bed. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the organizational strategy. The less seen, the less she can mess up and lose.

4. Set a clean up routine

Once your child is more organized, the trick is to keep to that system. The best way to do so is by enforcing a quick once or twice a week clean-up brigade policy. Just be realistic and don’t expect your child’s room to pass the “white gloves” inspection test. Instead, be more realistic and identify those hot spot areas that need continual upkeep. Then ink the “clean up” dates to your calendar.

For instance: Monday, desk; Tuesday, bedroom; Saturday, sports gear; Sunday, backpack. Then employ the “Clean, Then Play (or e-mail or call your friends) Rule.”

My girlfriend has the two most organized kids in town, and achieved that feat by designating Sunday as the family’s “clean the backpack” day. It took her kids ten minutes to go through their papers, refill notebooks with binder paper and sharpen those pencils, but the process helped her brood stay organized.

Another friend gets her kids motivated by setting an oven timer for ten minutes then encourages them to play “Beat the Clock” and clean up. 

5. Boost organization skills

Now it’s time to take on the challenge of helping your child learn new skills so he is less likely to need reminders or lose items. The critical point here is that there is no best organization system, so what works for you may not work for your child. Also, don’t get caught up in fancy, pricey electronic systems or buy something just because it looks good. The trick is to find a simple system that helps your child, and then continue to help your child use that strategy until the organizer becomes a new habit. There are a wide range of ideas, but choose only what helps your kid. Here are a few school organizational ideas:

Assign a school buddy. If your child never remembers to write down assignments, this year suggest he get the email and phone number of one peer in each class. Anytime he is in doubt of an assignment, he calls that kid for verification.

Color code subjects. Assign a different color for each subject or class then provide a matching colored notebook and divider to store each item.

Use agendas or calendars. Find a simple calendar where your child can mark down assignments. You may need to help him update the calendar each day until he finally gets into the habit of writing down his own assignments. (White boards are ideal organizers and will last the whole year. You can find them at office supply stores. Then hang it in a visible spot such as in kitchen so you can refer to it.

Try picture charts. Take photographs of your child doing essential tasks (brushing teeth, hanging up backup, putting away sports gear) and turn those into a reminder chart. Pictures and images can help a visual child.

Use checklists. List reoccurring tasks (such as spelling test, library book return, soccer practice), print off the list and then have your child turn it into a weekly (or daily) check off list. You can also slip a checklist into a plastic sleeve or see-through freezer bag so your child can mark off reoccurring items with a grease pencil and then erase and reuse the list again and again.

Post deadlines. Encourage your child to write deadlines on post its and place them on a visible spot like his bathroom mirror, bedroom door or by a nightstand. Buy your child a small hook or bulletin board to hang on the outside of his bedroom door so he sees the reminder ASAP. The trick is to teach him to always put the reminder in the same place each and every time.

Set alarms. Show your kid how to set the alarm feature on her cell phone or computer for a particular date.

Please don’t expect overnight change in your child and do keep your expectations realistic. You’re not going to turn a Pig Pen into a Neat Nik. (Sorry!)  But with patience and consistency you will be able to help your child learn how to be more organized and adopt new organizational habits that he will be able to carry with his the rest of his life. And that’s your goal.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

Tips from this blog were adapted from the chapters Disorganized and Short Attention Span in my book,  The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba