How to teach your kids to be organized

Parents, no matter what end of the organized spectrum they happen to fall on, are often flummoxed when it comes to teaching their own children how to become more organized. If you are lucky enough to possess a well-developed executive function, it can be very difficult to identify how to “teach” something that comes so naturally to you. If organization and planning is something you have long-struggled with, it might seem overwhelming, if not downright impossible, to teach another human being how to get buttoned up.

In fact, a middle school principal recently surveyed the 600+ parents in her school about educational issues, like: what skills they felt their children lacked, what they wished the schools would teach, and what they already did in order to help their children. One of the biggest surprises in the results was that an overwhelming number of parents (about 80 percent of those surveyed) said they felt that their children’s most serious problem was a total lack of organizational skills: how to organize a locker, a backpack, a notebook, a schedule…the list went on and on.

Neuroscientists have made considerable advances in the past twenty years in their understanding of how the brain develops and functions. Among their discoveries: the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that is otherwise known as the “Executive Function,” does not develop fully until age nineteen or twenty. Until then, the limbic system (our instinctive “caveman” brain) is driving the bus. So, like it or not, as parents we are responsible for first serving as, and then coaching into maturity, our children’s executive function.

Given the correlation between a well-developed executive function and success, here are four tips for helping your child(ren) develop this essential life skill.

1. Start Early

The development of the prefrontal cortex/executive function comes in fits and starts, with radical advances coming between the ages of three and seven. So, as a parent, you should start getting them used to basic organizational tasks by their third birthday. Routines to consider for all 3-7 year olds are: the toy clean-up, clean-up routine, morning routines that get them in the habit of getting dressed, brushing their teeth & making their beds, and of playing if-then scenarios related to behavior at a play date or birthday party. If you’ve missed that window, do not fear or throw your hands up in surrender – it is certainly possible to help your child develop and improve her organizational skills as long as she is living with you.

2. Start Small

If you have a child that is struggling with organization in general, don’t try to “fix” them all at once. Zero in on one area and focus on getting that under control first. For example, if you have a sixth grader who is falling behind on homework and has a messy room and has a messy locker, etc., ignore the messes for the moment and concentrate on establishing an organizational framework for homework. Start with a dedicated homework notebook (if they pick it out, they’re more likely to use it), establish a dedicated time and place for completing homework, and a system for checking their work before they organize it in the appropriate folders before bed each evening. If you have a young child, don’t try to establish a morning and an evening routine at the same time. Pick one (we’d recommend morning) and work on that until it is cemented.

3. Cement “Wins” with Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement, whether it’s adding a sticker to a prominently displayed chart, an enthusiastic, “great job!” or an actual physical reward, links your child’s behavior with a positive outcome, making it much more likely the desired behavior will be repeated. According to a behavioral guidelines checklist published by Utah State University, positive reinforcement is most effective when it occurs immediately after the behavior. The guidelines also recommend the reinforcement should be presented enthusiastically and should occur frequently. Just be sure the reinforcement you choose is age-appropriate (chore charts tend to be sneered at by teenagers).

4. Embed Routines

Fortunately, the human brain is a pattern-recognition machine. Learning how to plan ahead, organize stuff, or otherwise ignore your limbic system’s calls for instant gratification is hard “problem-solving” work. But with a little practice and consistency, those things can become routines the brain automatically runs when it encounters a situation requiring organization and planning. Routines are by definition second nature – effortless.