Does your child frequently misplace things, lose track of time, put things off, and leave jobs undone? It may be due to weaknesses in a set of skills called executive functions. Those difficulties can also appear with other learning and attention issues. Learn more about what causes trouble with organization and time management, and how you can help.
What You Might Be Seeing
The signs of organization and time management issues vary with age. What you see in preschoolers or grade-schoolers may not be the same symptoms you see in middle-schoolers or high-schoolers. But at any age, kids commonly have trouble keeping track of time, things, and information.
You and your child’s teacher may notice that your child has trouble starting tasks and finishing them on time. Or that she never has the items she needs, including basics like her textbook, notes, phone, or house key. Even if it means losing points on a project or privileges at home, she just can’t seem to get it together.
Your child may also struggle to:
- Estimate how much time is needed to do something
- Set goals
- Tackle projects at an even pace (not too fast or too slow)
- Remember when school assignments are due
- Keep track of materials needed to do a project or task
- Remember to take necessary materials between school and home
- Clean up and organize her room
- Designate and use a specific place to store things
- Get to school or other activities on time
- Go back to doing something after she’s been interrupted
- Make decisions
- Think about, or do, more than one thing at a time
If these signs have lasted for at least six months, it’s a good idea to talk your child’s doctor and teacher. Then you can work together to get a better sense of what the problem is.
What Can Cause Issues With Organization and Time Management
Problems keeping organized and managing time aren’t signs of laziness. But they are signs of certain learning and attention issues. The most common one is executive functioning issues. But there are other conditions that can make kids scattered and disorganized. Here are some reasons why kids struggle with organization and time management.
Executive functioning issues: These are weaknesses in a key set of mental skills that help kids plan, organize, prioritize, memorize, pay attention, and get started on tasks. Having a weakness in one or more of these skills makes it hard to do certain tasks.
Executive functioning issues aren’t a disability or a formal disorder. But they often occur in kids with learning and attention issues. That’s especially true of kids with ADHD.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder: This is the most common brain-based condition in childhood. Kids with ADHD have trouble with focusing, controlling their impulses and keeping still. Not all people with executive functioning issues have ADHD. But about one-third of people who have ADHD also have executive functioning issues.
Dyslexia: This brain-based condition is known for its impact on reading. But dyslexia can also cause issues with organization and time management. Kids may have trouble telling time and sticking to a schedule. Other brain-based learning issues can also lead to trouble with organization and time management. These include learning issues that cause weak writing or difficulty remembering math facts.
Other possibilities: Fetal alcohol syndrome, poverty, neglect, and other childhood stresses also can cause memory problems and executive functioning issues.
How You Can Get Answers
There’s no official way to diagnose executive functioning issues. The first step to helping your child may be to rule out other possible causes such as ADHD and dyslexia. Here’s how you might start.
- Talk with your child’s teacher. This is a great place to start gathering information. Knowing what the teacher has been seeing in class will be helpful when you talk to other professionals. And the teacher may be able to try different strategies to help your child get organized and stay on track.
- Look into an educational evaluation. If you think dyslexia or ADHD is causing issues with organization and time management, you or your child’s teacher can request that the school evaluate her. If the school agrees, you won’t have to pay for it. Depending on the results, your child may be able to get supports and services to meet his needs. The school would commit to providing them in writing, through a 504 plan or an IEP.
- Talk with your child’s doctor. Share your concerns and observations with the doctor. Together you can make a plan for moving forward. This will likely include ruling out medical causes like epilepsy, trouble hearing and ADHD. The doctor may refer you to a specialist for some of this testing.
- Consult with specialists. Your child’s doctor may refer you to a neurologist to look for medical issues like epilepsy or ADHD. He may also refer you to a developmental pediatrician or psychologist trained to look at how kids think and learn.
- Talk to a learning specialist. This professional does education evaluations using the same tests the school would use. But you will need to pay because it’s a private evaluation.
What You Can Do Now
Identifying the cause of your child’s issues and the skills they affect may help you figure out how to help her at home. But even before you know the cause, you can help your child manage the challenges at home.
Determining your child’s issues is a group effort involving you, your child, the teacher, and your child’s pediatrician. You can help by observing and taking notes on your child’s symptoms and behavior. That information will help the professionals when you begin looking for answers. Here’s how you might start:
- Learn as much as you can. The more you know about what’s causing your child’s issues with organization and time management, the easier it will be to find the best help possible. There are also simple things you can do at home to help her stay on top of things.
- Observe and take notes. By observing your child’s behavior you may notice patterns in when and how she loses track of time or can’t seem to start things. Taking notes will also be helpful when you're talking to your child’s doctor, teachers and specialists.
- Create to-do lists and checklists. Break down a task into manageable chunks or steps. That can help your child get started and lessen her anxiety about decision-making. Checklists with specific instructions and visual reminders can help her get started again if she gets distracted.
- Establish and stick to regular routines for your child. Kids who struggle to manage time often find security in having a regular routine. If the routine will change for any reason, try to prepare her in advance.
- Try calendars, planners, and apps to manage time. Depending on your child’s age, have her use a calendar or planner to map out chores, school assignments and activities. She might need help learning how to fill it out. Post a big family calendar to show her how it’s done. You can also try free or inexpensive mobile apps to help your child manage time.
- Try new strategies. It can be frustrating to deal with a child who regularly loses things, doesn’t finish chores and is late. See if some of the behavior advice in Parenting Coach can help.
- Connect with other parents. Issues with organization and time management are fairly common in kids with learning and attention issues. Many parents have an idea of what you’re going through. Understood.org can help you connect with them. It’s a good way to find support and helpful strategies.
If your child has issues with organization and time management, it’s not something she can control. But there are ways she can build her organization skills. Knowing what’s causing these problems lets you find strategies that can help.