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Organizational Problems and the Beginning of the School Year

By: Rick Lavoie

An LD OnLine Exclusive

Or "I know the bus is here… but I can't find my backpack and I think that I left my coat at Taylor's house"

Parents and teachers understand that learning disabilities is a very generic term. That is to say that kids with LD are not only "different" from the general population, they are also "different" from one another. Some children with learning disorders have great difficulty learning to read… others read fluently. Some kids struggle with math… others are gifted in this area. Like the proverbial snowflakes, each LD child is different with a unique pattern of strengths and struggles.

However, if there were one single challenge that the majority of our kids face, it would be a lack of organizational skills. Jackets are lost. Book bags are forgotten. Headphones disappear. Mom spends a day each month rummaging through the Lost and Found box at school and at church looking for their child's errant hats, gloves, coats, gym clothes, calculators, scarves and books.

Simply, most kids with learning disorders have limited and inefficient internal structure. They are unable to organize their belongings, prioritize their actions, allot their time efficiently and meet deadlines. This lack of internal structure causes significant difficulty at home and in the community. As outlined in my book, It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success,, it even impacts the child's ability to make and maintain friendships because their chronic tardiness, unpredictability and undependable behavior makes them unappealing social partners.

But nowhere does this deficit have a greater impact than in the classroom. As your child begins a new school year, the wise parent would do well to learn more about the concept of organizational skills and learn some strategies to assist the child in this critical area.

One of the most important things to understand about organizational skills is the tremendous amount of frustration that this deficit causes. As a parent, you recognize how frustrating it is for you when your child has organizational difficulties. But you must remain mindful that it is a great source of frustration and angst for the child as well. His disorganized behavior and ever-confusing world are not purposeful. These behaviors are, largely, beyond his control. Therefore, scolding, punishing and reprimanding the child is both unfair and ineffective. He needs your support, encouragement and assistance. Remember the old adage, "Kids need love most when they deserve it least !"

I have significant ADHD and this impacts my organizational skills greatly. I have found - as you will - that the traditional, popular "organizations tools" (To Do Lists, checklists, date books, filing systems electronic calendars) simply do not work for me. I misplace the lists, lose the date books and forget to get batteries for the gadgets.

You see, those of us with attentional problems view the world differently from you. We are extraordinarily visual and we need to see things in order to remember and organize them. Therefore, elaborate filing and storage systems are doomed to failure. If it is out of sight, it is literally out of mind. We are pilers. We need to keep our important documents and materials in piles that are readily viewable and accessible. This "system" ain't pretty, but it works! You need to judge your child's 'organizational system' based on its effectiveness…not its appearance. "Messy" doesn't necessarily mean "disorganized".

Parents must understand that the child's organizational problems are generally related to his difficulty with temporal (time-related) concepts. They have difficulty determining the amount of time that a specific task may take, for example. As a result, they fail to allot or allow sufficient amounts of time to homework, chores, etc. and find themselves continually tardy and unfinished.

They also have significant difficult prioritizing activities and deciding which tasks should take precedence over other activities. He breaks his pencil point while doing his math homework and begins to re-sharpen his pencil. He suddenly remembers that Grandma sent him a 20 pack of new pencils that sit - unsharpened - in his drawer. This would be a great time to sharpen them…and his math homework goes unfinished.

The child also has difficulty in the area of "self talk". This is an organization skill that we all use when we approach a task or activity. We basically walk ourselves through the various steps and procedures that we will need to follow in order to successfully complete the task. ("I am going to go to the mall so I will need my coat, my car keys and my wallet. I should bring that gift certificate to Borders and the sweater that I am returning at Macy's. I need to bring the dog in the house, turn on the answering machine, shut off the stereo and put on the alarm system.") Kids with learning and attentional problems are unable to divide the main task (going to the mall) into its component parts and prioritize those tasks.

Again, it is important to remember that these troubling and troublesome behaviors are not purposeful and are not caused by laziness, lack of motivation or insensitivity. Rather, they are caused by the child's inborn neurological struggles.

Below are some tips and techniques that you may find useful as you and your child face the challenges of the first day of school.

  • Assignment pads will be ineffective and useless if they are not supplemented by a monitoring system where teachers, aides and/or parents assist in ensuring that the assignments are recorded accurately and completely. Even a Study Buddy could assist in this.
  • If the child continually forgets his books in school and is unable to complete his homework, ask if he can be issued two sets of books…one that stays at home and one that stays in school.
  • Maintain a monthly wall calendar in the child's bedroom. Discuss the upcoming week's activities (due dates, deadlines, sports practices, appointments) with him each Sunday evening. This reduces "surprises" which can be catastrophic for kids with special needs.
  • Play informal games with him where he is asked to estimate how long an activity will take ("Michael, we have to go to the dry cleaners, the car wash and stop at the ATM before we pick up Dad at his office. What time should we leave the house to be sure we get the errands done and be on time for Dad?")
  • Post checklists in his room that outline steps he needs to follow at bedtime, in the morning, weekend chores, etc.
  • As much as possible, maintain a structured, orderly, predictable environment at home by having regularly scheduled times for meals, bedtime, wake up, study hour, etc. This structured predictability will be comforting for the child.
  • Interestingly, many kids with organizational problems respond well to deadlines. Play Beat the Clock. Help the child estimate how long it will take for her to clean her closet. Set an oven timer to the predicted time. Tell the child to see if she can complete the task before the timer rings.
  • Use post-it notes to remind, cajole and nag ("Benji, don't forget to feed the dog.")
  • The book bag/back pack can be the child's best friend…or his nemesis. Because kids with learning problems are unable to distinguish between the "valuable" and the "useless", they tend to save everything. The backpack becomes a black hole of worksheets, handouts, slips of paper, assignments, toys, half eaten sandwiches, etc.

    Merely telling the child to "clean out your backpack" will be both futile and frustrating for both of you. A more effective approach is to - once each week - have the child empty his backpack entirely. Then assist him in deciding what material he needs to function effectively in school (e.g., history book, science notebook, ruler, five pens, three pencils, eraser). One by one, place these objects in the backpack. Once the necessary items are placed in the bag, allow the child to select two or three items that he wants (as opposed to needs) to take to school (yo-yo, baseball cards, baseball magazine) and allow him to place those objects in the bag. Any material that remains in the pile is discarded or put somewhere else. This eliminates the "black hole" phenomenon and he will find that the objects he needs for school are readily available.

  • The child's bedroom becomes her "office" during the school year and it is important to prepare the bedroom for the upcoming school year. An orderly and efficient bedroom can be a great asset for the child with learning problems, but maintaining this structure presents a significant challenge for these kids. Parents should remain mindful that the "cleanliness" of a child's room should be measured by different criteria than the rest of the house. This room is only portion of the "family real estate" that the child owns. He is entitled to a degree of privacy and respect. The wise parent allows the child to hang posters, decorate, design and accessorize the room as the child sees fit. Overlook occasional messiness and disorder. Lighten up. Close the door. Pick your battles. Color coding and open shelving can help the child in maintaining the room. It has often been said that the most ordered and orderly environment in the world is a kindergarten classroom. Everything and every activity has its place. Each section of the room is designated for a specific purpose. There is a play area, a reading center, and arts-and-crafts section, etc. All of the tools and items related to a specific activity are stored and used in a specific area. This is a useful model to use in your child's bedroom. Designate a study area, a project area, a video game section, etc. Homework and reading should be done in a specific area, not on the bed. His art project should be done on the corner table, etc. Once the room is organized and orderly, take photographs of the room from several angles and post them on the bedroom bulletin board. Ask the child to refer to the photos whenever she cleans her room. When the room looks like the photo, you're done! Install hooks in the room to facilitate the hanging up of clothes rather than discarding them on the floor. Label shelves and drawers to remind him where things should be stored. Keep a "clean up kit" in his room (sponge, whisk broom, etc.) so he can clean his room easily.
  • Keep a shoebox in his room that contains basic school supplies (pens, stapler, tape, markers, etc.) and check it occasionally to keep it replenished. This will prevent the nightly search for supplies when the child is working on homework.
  • Keep a dry erase board in the child's room for reminders and memos.
  • Set aside a specific time and place for the child's nightly homework assignments.
  • Put name tags and labels on his books, clothes, school supplies, calculator, etc.

In my new book, The Motivation Breakthrough (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, October 1, 2007), I offer more specific suggestion and strategies to use with the struggling child. Because these kids have minimal internal structure, teachers and parents must provide them with a predictable, consistent external structure.

Your child's success this school year will be, largely, determined by your ability and willingness to prepare them for the school year. It has been my experience that the successful ending of a school year is dependent upon a successful beginning.

Have a great year, Rick Lavoie

Lavoie, R. (2007). Exclusive to LD OnLine.