The problem: The child forgets to bring the right books and supplies home or to school. His desk, locker, backpack, and notebook are in disarray. He forgets deadlines and scheduled activities.

The reason: The neurological process that lets us organize, prioritize, and analyze is called “executive function.” Children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and related neurobiological problems have impaired executive function skills due to abnormal dopamine levels in the frontal lobe of the brain.

The obstacles: Punishment will not change disorganized behaviors that are related to brain pathology. It’s confusing to teachers and parents when students with ADHD are inconsistent in their ability to organize because it may seem like the child is just “sloppy” or “lazy.” If a child handles one task in an organized way, it’s tempting to believe he could always be organized if he wanted to, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Solutions in the Classroom

Children who take ADHD medication may show some improvement in their ability to stay organized; however, they still need teachers and parents to provide support and teach them essential life skills. The key to helping kids stay organized is constant communication between teachers and parents.

Provide additional supplies. If possible, provide the student with two sets of books and supplies—one for home and one for school. This way, there is less for the child to remember to bring back and forth to school, which will also help conserve the child’s mental energy for his most important task: learning.

Use the right supplies. Have ADHD children use assignment notebooks with larger-than-usual spaces in which to write. Also, if the child tends to cram and stuff papers in his folders, a binder with pocket-type inserts in which to stuff papers may work better than the standard three-ring binder with tabbed sections.

Give assignments in writing. If printed instructions aren’t possible, check that the child has written down the entire assignment and seems to understand what he needs to do at home.

Color-code books and supplies by subject. For example, use yellow for all geography book covers, notebook dividers, and files. Use red for everything related to history class, and so on.

Design a folder system that works. If ADHD students misplace or forget assignments with your standard folder system, work with the child to come up with an organization system that works for him. It may take time and experimentation, but keep trying, and listen to the student—kids often come up with their own good ideas.

Solutions at Home

Organizational skills rarely come naturally. Consider yourself your child’s organization consultant and spend some time teaching her the basics of planning and organization. Involve her when setting up organization systems so she is invested and allowed to make choices and decisions. Help your child practice her skills on a regular basis, and follow through with the systems you create together.

Enforce time concepts. Understanding time is essential for ADHD students to learn to keep on task and stay organized. Help your child practice by giving specific verbal cues—first, next, then, before, after—as you develop a routine. Make it fun: “First do 10 jumping jacks, then write your name backward.” Have your child give you directions, as well. A child who masters the concept of sequence will be better able to organize and prioritize tasks.

Make a calendar. Calendars offer multisensory learning opportunities by being a visual record of activities that you and your child write down and cross off, and it prompts auditory reinforcement as you talk about the day’s events. Calendars will also help your child develop other skills like accountability because he’ll see when you will or will not be available to help with a project, and can plan accordingly and assume responsibility for himself.

Create a filing system. Set up a color-coded file system, with colors matching the system devised for school, on your child’s desk. He then can easily store all of his science or English papers together in one place. This way, all of his work that doesn’t have to go back and forth each day can be easily found in one place.

Provide a place for everything. Keep a box for school supplies, a holder for CDs, a shelf for books, a bulletin board for announcements, an under-bed box for old artwork and papers. If your child rejects your efforts to help him stay organized, impose logical consequences; for example, if he loses a CD, he has to be the one to replace it.

Emphasize accomplishments and successes. Praise your child as you continue to work with him on new skills. Your support and perseverance help make organizing a positive and effective experience for your ADHD child, one that will prove to be a lifetime asset.

Solutions at Home: Quick Tips

Check assignment books. Double-check your child’s assignment notebooks or planner to make sure that homework is in its proper place once completed. With guidance, she can learn to write down all homework deadlines and avoid last-minute cramming and unpleasant surprises.

Keep copies of important papers. Make multiple copies of permission slips, event announcements, and other paperwork to post in several areas of the house. These will serve as visual reminders of important dates and deadlines.

Have a hole punch handy. Keeping a three-hole punch on your child’s desk will help him make sure that important papers can be easily punched and inserted into his school binder.

Have a weekly clean-out. Check your child’s belongings daily and help him organize them weekly. Once a week clean out and reorder backpacks, assignment notebooks, and work binders.

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