Ask the Experts

Q: “My Disorganized Teen Hates Checklists and Charts”

“Color plays a significant role in enhancing memory performance… When we arrange information — to-do lists, calendars, shopping lists — into color blocks, our brains can more quickly process the information, increasing our likelihood of completing tasks.”

Colorful stationery in the color gradient of the rainbow
Colorful stationery in the color gradient of the rainbow

Q: “I’m at my wit’s end setting up organizational systems for my 13-year-old daughter. Checklists and charts don’t work for her. She says she doesn’t like them, and they take her too long to read. So they get completely ignored, and none of her chores get done. I also have to remind her where all her stuff in the house goes. Any ideas for what I can do to help her be more organized at home and at school? Thanks.” —WitsEndMom

Hi WitsEndmom:
Have you tried color-coding techniques to help your daughter be more organized at home and school? In my work as an ADHD family coach and at home with my own kids, I have had much success using color-coding systems (especially for young children) for to-do lists, school supplies, and reminders.

Color Coding Improves Memory

Here’s why it works.

Color plays a significant role in enhancing memory performance.1 A 2013 study in the Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, revealed that color increases the chance for environmental stimuli to be encoded, stored, and retrieved successfully.2

When we arrange information — to-do lists, calendars, shopping lists — into color blocks, our brains can more quickly process the information, increasing our likelihood of completing tasks.

But apart from the science, color coding is a fun and easy way to help children get and stay organized!

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have ADHD?]

Color Coding: Next Steps

Here are my top eight color-coding tips:

1. Color code your child’s to-dos. Use different-colored sticky notes to help your child track when to do specific tasks like schoolwork or household responsibilities. You can also use the color of the sticky note to indicate the urgency of an assignment or responsibility. For example, anything highlighted in green, written in green pen, or on a green sticky note means “Go!” or top priority.

2. Color code to distinguish class notes from home-study notes. Some of my students find it helpful to separate what they learned in class from what they learned while studying or reviewing at home. Perhaps your daughter can take class notes with a blue pen and use a black pen for notes taken at home. This system can be helpful if she has a question about the material she is learning. She will know where she learned it and can quickly relay that information or question back to her teacher.

3. Color code school supplies. Have your daughter designate a color for each of her subjects. Then use that specific color for every binder, folder, notebook, etc., needed for that class. If your child uses a homework station, follow the color scheme for storage bins for class-specific supplies. For example, say blue is the designated math color. Then calculators and rulers get placed in the blue container to accompany her blue math notebook.

4. Use colored bracelets for reminders. Once your daughter assigns every subject a color, buy her a set of colored bracelets. (Inexpensive varieties are easy to find online.) She can wear these as a reminder to hand in an assignment or if she has homework in a specific class.

[Read: The Daily Habits of Organized Kids]

5. Organize your daughter’s activities by color. Use large totes in different colors to store athletic and extracurricular gear (dance in red, tennis in blue, and so on). This will keep everything organized in one spot and easy to grab when heading out the door to a lesson or game. You can also customize each bag with the name of the activity right on it. No more tap shoes hiding with the lacrosse stick.

6. Color code towels. Have your daughter select a color for her towels. Sew colored loops onto the edge of white towels, or purchase towels in that color so she can instantly identify them. This helps tremendously when it’s time to do or put away laundry.

7. Color code chargers, cables, and cords. Chargers, cables, and cords were always disappearing at my house – until I color-coded them per child. No more stealing chargers! It’s a win-win!

8. Use colored bins to store personal items. Have your daughter assign different colors to her stuff (hair care and make-up can go in a white bin, photos in blue, etc.). When it’s clean-up time, she will know what goes into each specific color bin. Knowing where everything is will takes the guesswork and agony out of cleaning up!

Color Coding for ADHD Brains: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!

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1Wichmann FA, Sharpe LT, Gegenfurtner KR. (2002, May). The contributions of color to recognition memory for natural scenes. Journal of Experimental Psycholgy. Learning, Memory, and Congnition.

2Cuba Bustinza, Dzulkifli MA, Mustafar MF. (2013, March). The influence of colour on memory performance: a review. The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences.