Secrets of the Organized Student

Kids with ADHD rarely keep their backpacks tidy — and that sometimes has serious consequences on overall academic performance. These 20+ organization strategies can help kids build the skills they need to stay neat — or at least neatish!

Organization skills for students with ADHD who need to use color-coded folders and Post-It notes
Organization skills for students with ADHD who need to use color-coded folders and Post-It notes

What Organization Skills Matter Most for Students with ADHD?

Students with good organizational skills have the ability to create and maintain systems to keep track of information or materials. A young child can, with a reminder, put school materials in a designated place. An adolescent can organize and locate sports equipment. Kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) have problems with these tasks. To be organized requires time, effort, and sustained attention. Of these, your children may have only time — and they’d prefer to be doing something else with it.

How Can Students Learn Organization Skills at School?

  • Make desk-cleaning a part of the daily routine. A half hour before dismissal, a teacher might say, “OK, let’s do a speed cleaning!” to her first-grade class, prompting kids to tidy up their desks and other common spaces. When the classroom is tidy, they can play a short group game before getting ready to go home for the day.
  • Talk about it. Have a class discussion about what it means to be organized. Ask kids to design a system for cleaning up their cubbies or a common play area. Talk about how to organize classroom routines to make them go more smoothly. Set up a suggestion box kids can use if they think of other ideas.
  • Instruct the class in how to set up and organize a notebook and binder. Each time you tell students something that should go in the notebook or binder, tell them exactly where it goes and supervise them to make sure it gets there. Work in pairs to ensure each follows the plan.
  • Use brightly colored paper for project assignments, providing details and due dates. Give each student two copies — one for the notebook and one to be posted at home.

[This School Year, Get It Together (and Keep It There)]

  • Stay organized yourself. Have classroom systems in place for daily routines — turning in homework assignments, collecting lunch money and permission slips, and so on. Teach students the systems, and appoint student monitors to make sure the routines are followed as much as possible.
  • Make organization a team effort. Divide the class into two teams, appoint team leaders, and award points for keeping desks clean, cubbies or lockers organized, or notebooks neat. With the class, create a checklist that can be used for inspections. Hold daily or random spot-checks and award points based on the checklist. The team with the most points at the end of the week gets to choose the class reward from a rewards menu.
  • Provide handouts that are three-hole-punched in advance.
  • Keep classroom systems simple. Use two color-coded folders — red for incomplete homework assignments, green for completed assignments. Use this for class work as well, and teach the class to move their work from red to green as the morning progresses. Make sure they pack the folders before they go home. First thing in the morning, ask them to get out their green folders with completed homework and place them on top of their desk for review.
  • Give bonus points, or some other reward, for improved organization skills. Reward disorganized students when they are able to quickly locate a certain book or paper in their desk or notebooks.

[Free Resource: How Teachers Can Manage Common ADHD Behaviors]

How Can Children Learn Organization Skills at Home?

  • Label where things should go. Affix pictures or text on clear plastic containers to show what goes in each container.
  • Schedule an after-dinner cleanup. Set aside five minutes after dinner to clean up the common areas in the house (living room, countertops, mudroom). Set a timer, put on some lively music, and have the family pitch in. Make it a daily routine!
  • Have your child stay put when cleaning up his work area. Instead of taking away the stuff that belongs in other rooms, have him make piles. One for the bedroom, one for the kitchen, one for the playroom. If he walks off to another area, chances are, he will get sidetracked.
  • Buy your child a corkboard and pins — for hanging up important papers that might get lost on a cluttered desk.
  • Assemble a homework supply kit. Place in a see-through plastic container, with a lid, everything she will need to complete assignments — from crayons and a glue stick to a calculator and dictionary. With this system, it does not matter where your child chooses to study. The necessary supplies can accompany her anywhere.
  • Provide plastic sleeves for notebooks — and insert them into your child’s notebooks or binders for storing important papers that are not three-hole-punched.
  • Color-code entries on a calendar — one color for school-related stuff, another for sports, a third for social activities.
  • Take a photograph of what neatness should look like — whether it’s in a backpack or your child’s workspace. Have your child compare his work to the photograph and critique himself. Did he do a five-star job (his work looks exactly like the photo), a three-star job (only a couple of things out of place), or a one-star job (he made an effort but seemed to run out of steam)?
  • Put up a large whiteboard that includes a space for a calendar. Give each family member a different-colored marker to write down tasks and events for the week, so each can easily spot his or her own.
  • Have your child design a system that works for him. An organizational system that works for you is unlikely to work as well for your child.
  • Take out the academic component. When helping your child organize his backpack or workspace, don’t say anything about his terrible handwriting or a paper his teacher has marked up with comments. Continue organizing. You are working on organization, not academics.
  • Ask permission before going into his backpack to assist him in organizing it. You wouldn’t want him going into your purse or briefcase without asking first.
  • Make organization a family affair. Sometimes entire families are organizationally challenged. If so, admit your difficulties and ask the family to choose a problem to tackle. Design a system and get a commitment from family members to stick with the program for a few weeks to see if it helps. Hold a meeting after one week to evaluate and fine-tune the system, and decide on a reward if everyone makes it through week two.
  • Tackle one mess at a time. Parents’ biggest downfall is having kids organize their room, backpack, and homework space all at once. Choose one task, get that system up and running, and, after a month or two, move on to another task.

[Free Download: Routines for Morning and Night]