The term “organization” is often used as a way of describing a set of skills that most people develop over the course of childhood and adolescence. When we use this term, we often do not think of the broad spectrum of areas this really involves. Staying organized actually involves multiple mechanisms that psychologists refer to “executive functions.” Some of those include:
- Planning; Example: thinking about the most efficient order in which to accomplish a list of tasks
- Time management; Example: being able to correctly estimate how long a task will take
- Initiation of behavior; Example: starting homework now instead of procrastinating
- Impulse control; Example: stifling the desire to turn on the Xbox during a study session
- Effective problem solving; Example: choosing to do chores on time because it leads to praise and rewards
When a child or adolescent has difficulty with being organized, it can become very frustrating to the adults involved in his or her life. The failure to organize can be seen as being a result of laziness, a lack of motivation, or just not caring enough to do what is being asked of them. The repeated attempts to get the child or adolescent to keep their room/backpack clean, start tasks early enough to get them done on time, or keep an agenda/planner are often met with repeated failure. It’s important to remember that this process is often extremely frustrating to the child/adolescent as well, and that most of the time they are not doing it on purpose. Many times they are trying to do the right thing, but somehow they just cannot seem to get it right.
In some instances, these difficulties can be caused by one of a number of psychological conditions that impact the part of the brain that controls executive functions. The most common condition that impacts organizational skills is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, but other conditions (Autism Spectrum Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, Mood Disorders, etc.) also affect functioning in a way that can make doing “easy” tasks of organization very difficult for the affected individual. If the problems with organization are significantly impacting the child or adolescent’s life, a comprehensive evaluation may be useful in illustrating his or her areas of strength and weakness and can aid in setting up a plan to teach the necessary strategies to overcome the problem.
One step that is almost universally implemented in these cases is increasing structure in the home. Steady routines cause an increase in predictability of outcomes and can be very useful in helping a disorganized child or adolescent become more organized. Having set times for things like dinner, homework, chores, and bed will help lessen the difficulty the child or adolescent has with organizing these things in their own mind by providing that structure for them. It may be useful to set a time every Sunday night to go through their backpack and clean out all clutter. This will promote maintaining a schedule as well as begin to teach the child or adolescent how to differentiate between things that are needed and things that can be discarded. Teaching organizational skills is a difficult process that requires patience and consistency, but all that hard work certainly pays off in the end!