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Organizing — Organizing Materials

Disorganized Child

Woman helps confused child sitting at table that is covered with papers and books.

Anna Kroncke


Last modified 05 Oct 2023

Published 25 Apr 2022

What is Organizing Materials in Childhood?

Organization of materials in childhood is the skill of keeping track of belongings such as school supplies, clothes, and assignments. Kids who are well organized can easily find their shoes and socks in the morning, locate schoolwork in their backpacks, and arrive prepared for school or other activities.

When organizing materials is a challenge, your child may frequently be running late due to misplaced items. You may feel like the Lost and Found has a special section, just for your child. It also may be that your child has trouble making an action plan to get things done and cannot even begin because the materials needed have gone missing. Your child may have trouble finding the assignment, a pencil, and the notes from math class. 

If organization is a concern, you will notice that your child seems to lose everything. Their items, such as backpack, jacket, hat, and even tennis shoes, all disappear. They are rarely ready to go when you need to walk out the door.

Symptoms of Organization Problems in Children

  • Loses things: your child seems to lose everything. You may hear people say, “that kid would lose his head if it wasn’t attached.” You may find that you are constantly replacing your child’s lost glasses, misplaced backpack or missing school materials
  • Important items misplaced: your child leaves their things everywhere. For example, your child may leave their homework on the floor in their bedroom or their school ID lying out on the playground
  • Can’t locate essential items: your child misplaces their ID, ski pass, or keys: you and your child are constantly looking for essential items, even important materials that you found yesterday
  • Seems to be in another world: your child is not focused on the here-and-now. Instead, their thoughts are everywhere and this causes them to lose things or miss important instructions
  • Messy locker or bedroom: your child’s locker or bedroom looks like a science experiment 
  • Does homework but never turns it in: your child can complete their homework but struggles to hit the submit button on an assignment or hand it into the proper homework bin at school 
  • Laptop isn’t charged: your child is always looking for their missing Chromebook or showing up at school with an uncharged laptop 
  • Permission slips, slip their mind: your child forgets to get the permission slip signed for the field trip or special assembly. You may be running to the school to sign forms at the last minute

Development of Organization across Childhood

It is important to note that while some brain functions mature in early life, executive functions develop much later [1]. 

Attention skills begin developing during infancy and increase quickly throughout early childhood.

However, as your child reaches about seven to nine years of age, they are in a critical period for skills like cognitive flexibility, goal setting, and information processing. The foundation for these skills is thought to be fairly well developed by around age twelve [1]. 

During early adolescence (around ages eleven to thirteen), the executive functions emerge and are still not mature until around 21 years of age.

“As many parents already realize, this time can be a scary age to observe in your child. They are so full of opportunity and are vulnerable to risks, yet the reasoning, planning, judgment, and organization parts of their brains are not fully formed.”

However, the good news is that if your young teenager does not appear to have stellar organization skills, he or she may be right on track with peers. 

Patience and persistent support can help your child navigate these challenges.

Causes of Lack of Organization in Childhood 

Clinically, these organizational problems are related to executive functioning challenges. If your child is struggling with executive functions, there will be a significant impact on homework completion as follows: 

…initiating – getting started on homework

…organization – recalling due dates and locating materials

…working memory – remembering the steps to do the homework

…sustained attention – staying focused on the homework

… planning and organizing – making a plan to complete the homework 

All of these abilities reside in the thinking part of the brain. Recent research suggests that the executive functions listed above, also known as metacognitive skills, are developed within a cultural context. As we learn to use tools like language, clocks, and calendars, the essential planning functions of our brains develop. On the other hand, our executive functions that are motivational and emotional are more innate and are shared with other primates. [2]

Put simply, our ‘lizard brain’ has been around a long time in our human evolutionary history. This part of the brain is emotional, reactive, and focused on survival. Many of those abilities are present in infancy. 

The ‘wizard brain’ manages organization, planning, time management, task initiation and task completion. This part of our brain is newer from an evolutionary perspective. The ‘wizard brain’ develops throughout adolescence, in response to cultural training and practice. We do not expect a fully formed ‘wizard brain’ until early adulthood. 

Issues with emotional reasoningWhen your child is stuck in their lizard brain, their wizard brain essentially goes ‘off-line’. Because emotions come from our limbic system deep within our brains, they tend to drive most of our reactions when aroused or triggered. So when adults start talking, reasoning, and negotiating with the lizard brain, they are often frustrated that they make no progress. If you can wait until you and your child are calm to have a conversation, you will have greater success. 

If your child forgets their backpack AGAIN, parents resist the urge to yell or criticize. Remember that there will not be much progress if you are both in your emotional brains. After you have both taken a break, you can begin to problem-solve about how to remember the backpack next time. 

Perhaps, you need a special backpack hook, and your child needs to be reminded each day to place the backpack there. Because you have no time machine, you cannot go back and put the backpack thereafter it has been misplaced. Instead of berating your child, take a deep breath and after everyone is calm, design a plan for better organization in the future.

Having challenges with your child’s emotional upsets and meltdowns? Cadey courses are taught by licensed child psychologists and will walk you through step-by-step parenting approaches to help your child and restore peace in your home. Courses are available for parents of children and teens.

Issues with metacognitionif your child struggles with metacognition, you will notice your child struggles with task-oriented tasks such as initiating, planning, and organizing. Metacognition is the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought process. Organization of materials is part of metacognition [1]

Challenges with task completion: if your child struggles to get tasks done due to difficulties with attention or planning. It is much harder for your child to be organized when they have difficulty staying focused on tasks. As a result, they may ‘show up a day late and a dollar short’ due to incomplete tasks.

Lack of motivation: if your child is disorganized, it may be that your child is simply not as interested in these tasks and needs some help seeing the importance. Of course, we think they should want to do their chores and homework. Remember that children aren’t all born understanding the importance of daily responsibilities. 

Everyone struggles at times with motivation for certain tasks. Even if you are a motivated parent, think about how motivated you feel about going to clean out the garage. You are motivated, but maybe not that task. Sometimes, we forget this natural tendency when it comes to our kids. 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): if your child has ADHD, you may notice your child has poor executive functions in multiple areas, in addition to impulsivity, inattention, and distractibility. In terms of executive functions, inhibition is shown as the biggest weakness for children with ADHD. Wondering if your child’s organization skills challenges are a sign of ADHD? Take the Cadey course taught by child psychologists. Sign up today

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): if your child has ASD you will find your child may have significant challenges in planning and organization. This is not always the case, but when it is, children with autism are most impacted in the area of shifting their attention. This can impact organization because they may miss essential directives and steps from parents or in the classroom. Children with ASD may often struggle with other executive functions too and over 60% of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder also meet the criteria for ADHD. Wondering if your child’s organization skills challenges are a sign of autism? Take the Cadey course taught by child psychologists. Sign up today.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): if your child has experienced a TBI, memory, emotions, spatial skills, and executive functions may be impacted. Seeing a neurologist is recommended to determine if cognitive rehabilitation, neuropsychological evaluation, or other support and services may help.

What to Do About Lack of Organization in Childhood 

The good news is organizational skills are teachable. These skills may or may not come naturally to your child, but these skills are amenable to intervention and support. As you make progress here it will make life easier for you and for your child.

Patience and persistent support: can help your child navigate these challenges. Becoming angry and upset with your child will not help. Instead, have patience, help your child learn these important skills, and know it will take time. 

Set up systems and routines: teach your child how to pack their backpack, have your child do homework at the same time each night, record completion of homework assignments on a white board, planner, or google doc. Have a step by step plan your child can visually follow to do these tasks as they are learning.

Maintain a daily routine for your child: work together with your child to have a daily routine and talk together about how long different tasks take. This can help your child know what to expect. Create a visual schedule for your child to look at listing tasks that need to be completed and a place to mark completion. 

Have a weekly cleanup: work with your child and help them organize their backpack, clean up homework folders, and organize and clean their study space. 

Prepare for the day ahead: have your child pack their backpack, set out their clothes for the morning, pack their lunch, plug their devices in a space not in their room, and have shoes and a coat, ready to go by the door. 

Create centers within your child’s room and provide a place for everything: have an area where your child does their school work, another area for books, an area for toys, an area for clothes, etc. Teach your child how to organize these areas. Work with them for a while until they can keep it neat on their own. 

Have a set of supplies at home and at school: allow your child to have what they need at home and at school. If your child can leave items needed at school and also have them at home this cuts down on frustration and allows for greater ease. This essential toolkit can live in both places and your child does not risk losing important materials. 

Color code book and supplies: supply and teach your child how to organize their supplies by subject. Each subject area has a certain color folder and notebook. If assignments are also done online color code the title word in the same color. 

Positive reinforcement: Use positive reinforcement or reward systems to reinforce the good behavior you see. If your child uses the chart, follows the schedule, turns in assignments, reward that. You can assign stickers, stars, coins, marbles, or other ‘tokens’ to each reward. Have your child earning towards meaningful reinforcers. If it does not work at first, see if your reward is good enough and see if the task is manageable. For example, first maybe your child needs 4 stars to earn that reward, then at the next reward level, bump it up a bit and require 8 stars, and so on. Consider making the reward as immediate as possible until your child starts finding success. Adjust your reinforcement plan to the point that your child is being challenged but can be successful. 

When to Seek Help for Organizing Materials in Childhood 

If your child’s skills are functional enough to earn good grades and only lose the occasional library book, this difficulty may not be cause for concern.

The time to get involved is when your child seems distressed and disengaged and when grades are dropping. 

If your child is falling behind and refusing to get organized, your child may have a problem worth remediation. Another reason to be concerned is if your child has poor attention overall.

That is, if your child is generally ‘tuned out,’ in his or her own world, and seems to be avoiding school or other activities, help may be needed. It may be that your child requires some support to be more organized or that therapy is required.

Professional Resources for Lack of Organization

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Psychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context. Can diagnose related disabilities such as anxiety, autism or ADHD
  • Neuropsychologist: to consider overall neurocognitive functioning. Neuropsychologists are experts in executive functions and neurological disorders. Particularly after a TBI this may be an important referral
  • Neurologist: to consider any extreme deficits in memory or executive functions and to rule out brain injury or other neurological problems
  • School psychologist: to test IQ and consider the academic impact of any challenges happening at school; may have an organization group or club
  • School counselor: to help with organization skills, particularly for middle school and high school students
  • Executive functioning coach or tutor: to help your child get organized. Genetics can often be a factor in the challenges and strengths our children have. Often when a child is unorganized parents may be as well. If you are having trouble helping your child in this area, consider a coach or tutor to work with your child on organization

Similar Conditions to Organizing Materials in Childhood

If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for information about other related symptom areas.

  • Rigid behavior: children who are inherently ‘set in their ways’ may be inflexible, become very nervous with changes in routine, or may have organizational problems
  • Memory problems: some children lose things or fail to keep order in their lives when memory problems are a concern. They also may be unorganized and forget due dates or assignments. If you feel your child is struggling with memory, an evaluation would be helpful that could consider both memory and executive functions
  • Other executive functioning challenges like planning, shifting, inhibition: children who have trouble in one aspect of executive functioning often have these challenges in all areas. They may also have significant difficulty with focusing

References for in Organizing Materials in Childhood 

[1] Anderson, P. (2002). Assessment and development of executive functions during childhood. Child Neuropsychology (8), 71-82.

[2] Alfredo Ardilla May 2008 Brain and Cognition 68 (1) 92-99. On the evolutionary origins of executive functions. 

Goia, G.A., Isquith, P.K, Retzlaff & Espy, K.A (2002). Confirmatory factor analysis of the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function (BRIEF) in a clinical sample. Clinical Neuropsychology (8), 249-257.

Barkley Russell, Taking Charge of ADHD, 4th Edition (2020)

Goia, G.A., Isquith, P.K., Kenworthy, L., & Barton, R.M. (2010). Profiles of everyday executive function in acquired and developmental disorders, Child Neuropsychology (8), 121-137.

Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.

Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2010). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention, second edition.

Eide, Brock & Eide, Fernette (2006). The mislabeled child: How understanding your child’s unique learning style can open the door to success.

Lewis, Jeanne & Calvery, Margaret, & Lewis, Hal (2002). Brainstars — Brain injury: Strategies for teams and re-education for students.

Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado. The Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado is the go-to resource for help and services for survivors of an injury to the brain, their families, and providers.