Whether it’s a mound of dirty laundry, crumpled homework assignments shoved into a notebook, or toys strewn across a room, disorganization not only affects how you interact with your environment but also how you feel about yourself. Organization is not just a habit: it’s a key executive functioning skill that depends on motivation, time management, and prioritization. Many kids, especially those with ADHD, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, struggle with keeping track of their schoolwork and managing their belongings. They want to do things better, but either don’t know how or refuse help due to embarrassment. How can you assist your child or teen to develop more effective tools for organization and build their self-esteem?
In order to improve organization, you have to rely on collaboration. You may think you know the best way for them to organize their clothes, order their notebooks, and declutter their desk. But your methods have limited efficacy if your kids don’t have buy-in or lack the tools to follow through on your requests. They may not be able to follow your standards because they don’t share your standards, because they are uninterested in the dreariness of cleaning or because they feel overwhelmed by the task. If you are arguing regularly about neatness and order, your kids are sending you clear messages that another approach is needed.
Kids often have their own ideas about order, cleanliness, and planning that seem completely logical to them. Perhaps they want to arrange the clothes in their closet according to color, put their tee-shirts and shorts on the bookshelves where they can see them, put their books in their dresser by subject, or have a notebook for each class instead of a binder. Whether these ideas seem odd to you is less significant than finding a mutual solution to clutter, and teaching them how to manage their belongings with fewer arguments. What matters most is that your child or teen is participating in the process of tidying their stuff and that you are honoring—or at least willing to try—an unusual idea that might make things work better. Kids want their ideas—however eccentric or simplistic—to be heard and considered. When you integrate what makes sense to them into whatever routine or solution you are creating, you increase their participation and their agency. Children and teens feel better about themselves because you are taking their ideas seriously and giving them a try.
Many kids find the process of organization ungratifying but are often pleased with the results. Since children and teens are motivated by gratification and, while this differs from person to person, interest stimulates their ability to get started on a task and stick with it until completion. When something is fundamentally unrewarding or uninteresting, they will struggle more with doing it unless the external reward of finishing is clear and meaningful. How can you present the topic of being organized as something that is appealing and valuable? When you show them that there will be less conflict as a result of working together on this issue, you’ll probably make it seem more appealing. Kids don’t want to be “nagged” and you don’t want to be a reminder machine. Working together to establish mutually beneficial systems for organizing is the key to family harmony.
Here are four strategies for improving organization in your home:
- Identify the goal: Improving organization begins with identifying the goal. Start with a short family meeting to discuss organization in the context of reducing family conflict. Both you and your kids hate the back-and-forth so use that as the background—the grand incentive —for discussing tidying up personal belongings and doing chores. Start with a brainstorm and write everything down. All ideas are valid in this conversation. Identify what is going well: name something that is working. Ask them to do the same. Then inquire about changes each of you like to see. What are shared goals? Can you pick one as a family to start with?
- Start with Self Smart Systems: Systems of organization work best when they make sense to people. Explore what these might be for your child or teen and recall together which techniques for keeping track of things have worked before and which ones have not. Begin with what makes sense to them. Everything needs a place to live and that includes online materials. Is there a basket for gloves and hats? A cubby or hook for backpacks? Folders for homework, handouts or reading materials? Plan a process around how your child will put things in their places and discuss how you’ll support this process by offering scaffolding instead of scolding. Many kids with ADHD benefit from using accordion-style folders for their papers instead of individual folders and having a binder for taking notes only. Kids need a similar storage system for online classes: files and folders that are clearly marked and accessible for class materials, separate browsers for school and fun stuff, and calendars for what’s due when.
- Use lists as tools, not weapons in a power struggle: Although lists are key helpers in creating order, they can also be sources of great tension in families, provoking arguments and fomenting resentment. Neurodivergent kids often find lists overwhelming: they don’t know where to begin, the tasks seem too numerous and they give up before they have even started. Start by making lists together and keeping them simple and clear. Outline steps for a task for kids with executive functioning challenges. Instead of having an item that says “clean your room”, write down what it means to clean a room: pick up dirty clothes from the floor and put them in the hamper, put your clean clothes in your drawers, take individual pieces of paper and put them in a pile on your desk, etc. Post this list in the bedroom where it can be readily seen and used. You may also want to place a laminated list of what should go into the backpack each day as a guide. It’s right where the stuff needs to go as a cue. By breaking down tasks like this, you are also teaching essential prioritizing and sequencing skills. This works for homework and chores too. We want to encourage kids to use their eyes to guide them and not their memory which is still developing and may not be reliable.
- Be a body double. When you consider your child’s true capacity for organization, you may soon realize that they haven’t yet developed the ability to do certain tasks on their own. That is where you show up as a body double: you are with them, acting as their assistant in the process but not directing it. They are following the list for that. You may help them create piles for school papers that they are sorting or folding the clean clothes from the floor that they are gathering up. You are present and offering encouragement but not doing the task. This assistance, while it might be time-consuming and bothersome, can also build vital parent-child connections. This could be a great time to chat about friends, hobbies, or the soccer team. Perhaps ask them to play a favorite new song. Maybe you talk about a recent movie that you saw together or a planned vacation. The important thing is that you are there as a support, guiding them along the way and redirecting them if they get distracted.
- Set up effective routines: Many adults and kids like to have some predictability in their lives and routines offer this consistency and dependability. Morning, homework and evening routines offer a comforting schedule that helps children and teens order their lives and reduce stress for everybody. With a bit of preparation and a dash of flexibility, you can establish daily routines that reduce family arguments and promote calmer days. Begin with clear expectations that you have discussed as a family and, if helpful, include meaningful incentives as motivators. In a family meeting, identify and prioritize tasks for leaving the house in the morning, doing homework, earning screen time, and getting ready for bed. Use backwards design to decide how much time is actually needed for waking, dressing and eating in the morning. To foster family tidiness, plan for a 5-10 minute clean sweep where everybody picks up their things and puts them in their places before going upstairs at night. Consider packing backpacks and getting lunch boxes (mostly) ready in the evening as well. Pick one routine to work on at a time and, when that’s running smoothly for three months, think about addressing another one. Without being rigid and setting realistic expectations, you will foster organization, planning and time management simultaneously.
Organization can be daunting for many children and teens, especially those who are neurodivergent. While some kids love order and neatness, others cringe at the thought of organizing anything. It’s important to remember that the greatest barrier to initiation is someone’s perception of the task. While many kids might see the value of dealing with disorganized rooms, backpacks, or notebooks, many of them may well lack the interest, skill, or focus to do it. Make tasks small enough that beginning them is within your child’s reach, create a collaborative approach, and offer scaffolding along the way. If things don’t go according to plan, stay cool, regroup, and keep your sense of humor. When things do go well, give your child or teen genuine specific praise and encouragement. Celebrating these wins will give you and your child further motivation to commit to other effective routines and organizing projects down the road.
You may contact Dr. Sharon Saline.