By: Molly Hankla, MA, BCBA, & Catherine Baker, PhD, BCBA-D
Staying organized is a major challenge for most of our children, especially a few weeks into the new school year, and particularly for kids with ADHD. Many parents share with us that it feels impossible for their kid’s backpacks and folders to stay organized as they devolve shortly into the school year. It may seem simple to create or maintain an organization system for your child’s school stuff, but simple is not always easy. When your child experiences difficulties with organization, lives in a constant state of clutter, or struggles to manage themselves on a daily basis, it can feel like an uphill battle to help your kid. Below, we’ll discuss core principles for teaching your child the skills needed to stay organized. Whether your child struggles to keep their thoughts and belongings organized, or they just have a brain that works differently, these tips will help them stay more organized throughout the school year!
1. Practice, practice, practice!
While you can (and should) practice self-management and organizational skills year-round, summer break is the perfect time to practice organizing school materials into their correct “homes.” This way, your child has more experience with sorting and organizing their new work once school begins. Summer is also typically a less stressful time of year, which is ideal for learning new skills. Take advantage of this and practice, practice, practice! Providing opportunities to practice is important to both reinforce your child’s developing organization skills and correct any errors as you see them before the stakes are high (such as turning in an assignment or finding their books to study).
How do you practice organizing? If you have any old binders full of work left over from the previous school year, sit down with your child and sort the materials into different subjects or groups. Be sure to use the same way you’d have them organize their new materials. You can have them organize their supplies in a variety of ways: by date, subject, or classification (worksheets, notes, study guides, etc.). You can even shuffle up their papers and let them practice a few times if you notice they’re struggling. If you don’t have any old school materials to use, you can easily make pretend materials by using copy paper that you label with different subjects or titles (for example, “Math Homework”, “English Test”, “Permission Slip”, etc.).
2. Color code each subject or group
Color can be like a cheat sheet for your brain. For children whose brains work differently, color can help add an additional signal or feature for them to attend to when trying to categorize items. Begin by assigning a specific color to each of your child’s school materials. In addition to the fun aesthetics of a rainbow-colored backpack, having color-coded designations for different things can help you and your child know where each item belongs. For older students who have materials for each subject area, setting a specific color for binders, folders, and dividers based on the subject can be helpful. For example, Math might be blue, English red, Science could be green, etc.
For younger kids, you may choose to color code by groups such as morning and afternoon classes, or “To School” and “From School” depending on your child’s needs. Very often this is already set up by the teacher – Take Home Folder is blue, Turn In Folder is yellow, etc. If your child’s teacher hasn’t assigned colors to school materials, you and your child can work on this together. Assign each set of materials its own color and start to review those color designations with your child over the summer as you are getting their new school supplies ready. Having a rule to follow with organization is going to help your child better navigate organizing their things on their own and will help you know how to assist if it’s needed.
3. Plan to follow up
Regardless of how beautiful your color coding is, or how strong your child’s organization skills are, there will still be stray papers and misplaced supplies. Plan to set aside time each day or each week specifically for your child to organize their out-of-place materials. This could be at the end of each night when packing up the backpack for the next morning, or at the end of each week before heading into the next. Either way, understand that keeping up organized folders, binders, and backpacks takes time and energy. Dedicate time in your child’s routine to maintain their organization system so progress is not lost.
4. Stay Positive!
When teaching your child how to stay organized, you will need to stay positive and practice often! While we as adults might have organization down, our children are still learning. As they make progress, be sure to provide plenty of praise along the way. It will take time, but as they build confidence and start to see the benefits of staying organized, it will become a habit they keep as they grow up.
For more information about how you can help support your child, check out our blog “8 Teaching Strategies for Children Who Learn Differently” and look into whether Fidgets could help your child stay focused in class. If you’d like more information about how other kiddos with ADHD may operate differently from their peers, check out “Time Estimation in ADHD” and “Impulsivity in Children with ADHD.”
Miltenberger, R. G. (2012). Behavior modification: Principles and procedures (5th ed.).
Belmont, CA, US: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.