When Children Are Disorganized: Reasons & Solutions
As an occupational therapist working with parents and children for over 10 years, I hear just about everything related to child behavior and development. A common concern brought to my attention by numerous parents is WHY their child is so disorganized.
As parents enter my office with their children, I often hear: 'Take off your jacket. Hang your jacket. Put your shoes away. Go to the washroom. Wash your hands. Flush the toilet’. Minutes later, the same parents express their frustration: 'My son forgets his lunch box, agenda, and homework. He constantly loses school books, hats, water bottles. He forgets to do his homework’.
Parents are very surprised when I tell them that they should stop being their child's GPS if they want the child’s organizational skills to improve.
Parents' reminders serve as a child’s external navigational system that guides a child through day to day life. By “GPSing” children, parents take over kids’ responsibilities and don't allow them to develop their own organizational skills. Reminders turn off the child's brain, as the child expects to receive the reminder, therefore, there is no need or motivation to remember things on their own.
In real life, there will be no external GPS available to help the child keep him/herself organized. The average teacher has 25 other children in a class and can’t navigate your child through his/her day. Unfortunately, without constant external navigation, a child gets lost as his/her brain has not become accustomed and trained to function on its own.
Parents often say, 'Victoria, we remind him BECAUSE he is disorganized.’
My answer is simple, 'If you have been reminding your child for the past 5 years to wash his hands and flush the toilet and he still doesn't remember to do so, then obviously your approach hasn't been working.’
A child may be naturally inclined to being disorganized and the parents may enable that personal weakness by becoming his GPS and providing continuous reminders. Regardless of the underlying reasons, organizational skills are trainable and learnable, but NOT through reminders. Reminders hinder organizational skills as children become reliant on reminders without turning on their own thinking processes.
Stop being your child's GPS!
Turn on your child's brain by using organizational strategies:
- Teach your child to use a calendar. This is a useful skill that will help your child be self-sufficient when the day comes that he/she will need to practice organizational skills independently.
- Make a visual checklist for daily routines such as morning routine, packing backpack routine, afterschool routine, homework routine, bedtime routine. This will help trigger the child’s memory because he/she will learn to do things in a specific sequence.
- Use a reward point system to reward your child’s success of following adherence to checklists. Positive reinforcement (i.e., “catching” the child doing something good and then providing a reward or praise) is more effective for learning than pointing out when the child is doing something wrong or “negative.”
- Help establish organizational aids, such as folders for completed schoolwork and “to be completed” schoolwork. You can make these school supplies fun, allowing your child to pick colors and styles that they like.
- Involve your child in activities that promote organizational skills, such as following a shopping list, laundry sorting, cooking using a recipe, etc.
- Let your child fail, as they need to face the consequences of their disorganization and learn from their mistakes. Don't bring a forgotten agenda or lunch to school for your child if they repeatedly forget it.
Help your child become his/her own GPS! You will be providing them with an invaluable lesson that will serve them immensely as they grow and as responsibilities become more challenging. You will be surprised to see how much your child is capable of learning and remembering if you teach organization skills using the right tools.