Getting kids organised

Are you losing your child under a mountain of mess?
Are you losing your child under a mountain of mess? 

Parents, no matter what end of the "organised" spectrum they happen to fall on, are often flummoxed when it comes to teaching their own children how to become more organised. 

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 organisation is something you have long struggled with, it might seem overwhelming, if not downright impossible, to teach another human being how to keep things in order.

In fact, a high school principal recently surveyed the 600-plus parents in her school about educational issues, such as 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: An overwhelming number of parents (about 80 per cent) said they felt that their children's most serious problem was a total lack of organisational skills - how to organise a desk, a backpack, a notebook, a schedule. The list went on and on.

Neuroscientists have made considerable advances in the past 20 years in their understanding of how the brain develops and functions. Among the discoveries: The prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that is otherwise known as the executive function, does not develop fully until age 19 or 20. 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 skill.

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 kids used to basic organisational tasks by the third birthday. Routines to consider for all three- to seven-year-olds include: toy cleanup, and morning routines that get them in the habit of getting dressed, brushing their teeth and making their beds. If you've missed that window, don't worry. It is certainly possible to help your child develop and improve their organisational skills as long as they are living with you.

Start small: If you have a child who is struggling with organisation in general, don't try to fix things 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 a messy desk, ignore the messes for now and concentrate on establishing an organisational framework for homework. Start with a dedicated homework notebook (if he picks it out, he's more likely to use it), establish a dedicated time and place for completing homework and a system for checking his work before he organises it in the appropriate folders before bed each evening. If you have a young child, don't try to establish morning and evening routines at the same time. Pick one (we'd recommend morning) and work on that until it is cemented.

Positive reinforcement: Such 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 behaviour with a positive outcome, making it much more likely the desired behaviour will be repeated. 

According to a behavioural-guidelines checklist published by Utah State University, positive reinforcement is most effective when it occurs immediately after the behaviour. The guidelines also recommend that the reinforcement be presented enthusiastically and frequently. Just be sure the reinforcement you choose is age-appropriate (chore charts tend to be sneered at by teenagers, for example).

Embed routines: Fortunately, the human brain is a pattern-recognition machine. Learning how to plan ahead, organise stuff or otherwise ignore the 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 organisation and planning. Routines are by definition second nature - effortless.