The Hidden School Curriculum: Organization

This week I had three separate conversations with parents who are concerned about their child’s ability to organize themselves.   Kids with attentional difficulties often have organizational struggles for a variety of reasons.  In most cases the child is not able to attend long enough to grasp the full directions to a task, or got distracted mid-task and never finished (or barely got started).  Also, organizing requires all of our brains to s l o w down to put things in their proper context, category or place. ADHD brains do not do that well.

Many parents, aware that organizational tasks are overwhelming for their child, take on the responsibility of getting homework, backpacks and binders organized.  Parents want to take one thing off of their child’s plate of challenges, and organization seems to be a benign task to take on.  While this is fine and very helpful for young children just starting to confront organizational challenges in the early grades, this type of help can become a very slippery slope as children get older.

Here is the problem:  Organizational demands NEVER DISAPPEAR.  Every academic year organizational tasks get more complex, the pace moves faster and the demands are increased.  So, if we don’t help our children to learn to manage these tasks early on, they are always at a disadvantage to their peers and, as they mature, can begin to feel frustrated that they need to be “babied” as their mother packs her 10th graders backpack.

I don’t need to tell you that this scenario can be very problematic.  Teenagers do not want help from their parents, especially for seemingly basic tasks.  So, what often happens is the teenager rejects the help he relied on for so long, has no internal skills to manage organization, feels embarrassed that he can’t remember his homework, (lunch, day for track practice, to bring his instrument to band,etc.) and grades start to decline, self-esteem is damaged.

The unfortunate part of this is that parents thought they were being helpful (and their involvement was helpful).  But that kind of help is hard to maintain forever.  And forever is how long an ADHD person will need that assistance unless s/he learns some organizational skills and strategies at a young age.

In fact, for the ADHD child learning organizational skills is as important, if not more important, than curriculum tasks in the elementary school years.  Why? Because a child who cannot organize, cannot fully access a curriculum that demands higher order conceptual thinking and logic. If your 9th grader is trying to figure out where he left his pencil, how can he take notes?  And instead of using precious afternoon hours doing homework, disorganized kids are stressed out about which book they left at school and calling friends to get the homework assignment.  These problems seem annoying and small at first, but when it happens day after day, it is stressful and a waste of precious energy that should be going into learning.

Learning organization is like learning to read or do math–children need a firm grasp on the basic tenets of the concept before they can do the task effectively. For instance,  a child can’t add or subtract until she knows how to count, nor can she read if she does not know her letters.  Similarly,  a child cannot organize a 10th grade history essay, or clean her room,  until she knows how to keep one pencil for a week, write down homework in an agenda book and get it home every day.

So what is a concerned parent to do?  I will outline some strategies to approach my Steps to Success Program. Sign up for my newsletter for details. We will be launching a new Steps to Success in January 2014.