Lots of kids have messy rooms and cluttered backpacks. Most will eventually clean up and organize their stuff because they can’t take the mess or are tired of looking for things (or because they’re told to do it).
But what if your child never cleans up and puts things away, no matter what you say or do? You may wonder what’s going on.
Some people see kids who are disorganized and assume they’re being lazy or defiant. But many kids really do struggle with organization and all the skills that go into it.
Find out why some kids have trouble with organization, and what can help.
Organization Challenges You Might Be Seeing
People sometimes think that being organized is just about being neat. That’s certainly part of it. But organization is more than just keeping track of your things. It’s also about organizing your thoughts, managing your time, planning, and knowing how to get things done.
Kids who struggle with this skill may have trouble:
Estimating how long things take and keeping track of time
Knowing how to start and complete tasks
Setting priorities and knowing what’s most important
At home, that can lead to:
Taking a long time to get dressed in the morning and get ready for bed
Forgetting to take important items back and forth from school, like homework
Forgetting to gather the right materials for an assignment or project
Not keeping things in a regular place so they’re easy to find
Struggling to think about, or do, more than one thing at a time
Having trouble telling a story in a logical way
There’s a lot that goes into being organized. Here’s an example of what trouble with organization can look like.
The science fair is coming up soon, but your child can’t think of any ideas. You throw out some suggestions, but your child gets angry and rejects them all. Later that day, your child decides to use one of your ideas. But after five minutes of trying to figure out how to do it, he gives up, saying the project is stupid.
You sit down together and lay out all the steps. But your child still puts off starting the project, saying there’s plenty of time and that there’s other work to do. The other work is something your child enjoys, and he gets lost in it.
The science project gets left to the last minute, and your child spends most of the time trying to find materials. The end result is sloppy work that doesn’t show what your child actually knows about the topic.
Every step in this example required organization skills. And there are lots of reasons kids can struggle with these skills.
What Can Cause Trouble With Organization
Having difficulty with organization typically isn’t about laziness. In the above example, the child wasn’t being lazy. In scenarios like those, kids are having difficulty prioritizing, organizing, and following through.
People sometimes judge kids for behavior they don’t understand. When kids are struggling, it can be a blow to their self-esteem. Being judged can make that even worse.
When young kids have a hard time with organization, it may just be a matter of development. Kids develop organization skills at different rates. Some may be ahead of other kids their age, while others are behind.
Not getting enough sleep can impact how well kids can focus and stay organized. Getting your grade-schooler or tween on a healthy sleep schedule can help. There are also steps you can take for helping your child (and you) get a good night’s sleep.
Organization is part of a group of skills known as executive functions. Some kids struggle with one or more of these skills. Kids with ADHD have trouble with executive function, including organization.
There are a few other factors that can impact focus and organization, too. These include stress, anxiety, and trauma.
What Can Help With Trouble With Organization
There are a lot of ways you can help. First, let your child know there’s nothing to feel bad about, and that you don’t think your child is “messy” or “sloppy.” It also helps kids to hear two things. First, that you know they want to be more organized. And second, that you’re going to find ways to help.
An important first step is to look for patterns. In what ways is your child disorganized? When do you notice these difficulties the most? Take notes on what you’re seeing at home. You can share those observations with the teacher and find out if the teacher is noticing the same things at school.
Your child’s teacher is a great source of ideas, information, and suggestions. So are other parents and caregivers who can share their organization tips.
Watch a short video on how to color-code your child’s school supplies.
Another way to help your child is to talk about strengths. It’s important to remind kids what they’re good at, and to give them examples of when they were very organized and really got things done. Tell your child that you understand the struggles are real and that you’ll work together to use strengths to improve trouble spots.
If you think your child might have ADHD, see next steps you can take. No matter what’s causing your child’s trouble with organization, there are lots of ways to help your child improve organization skills.