6 Ways to Help Kids Who Organize Differently


"6 ways to help kids who organize differently" by Lisa Lawmaster Hess (CatholicTeacher.com)

Image credit: Pixabay.com (2011), CC0/PD

Shining a non-judgmental light on our students’ organizational processes and procedures helps them to understand themselves better.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

It’s recess time and, for the third time this week, ten-year-old Monique is spending her play time cleaning out her desk. You know Monique loves recess and you feel bad about keeping her in again, but she just can’t seem to get it together. Papers that are supposed to go into her binder end up stuffed in her desk; papers meant for the take-home pocket of her folder either get stuffed into the folder (but not a pocket) or mysteriously disappear. The end result is that she can’t find what she needs when she needs it. And, when she does manage to find a paper (usually belatedly), it’s often wrinkled or torn.

Monique is bright and creative. Why can’t she do this?

Well, for one thing, organization and intelligence are two different entities; in fact, some of the brightest and most creative kids are the ones who struggle the most. Some, like their adult counterparts, are too busy to keep up with everything. Some try to comply, but can’t seem to do so, while others march to their own drummer – or perhaps even an entire band of their own creation. And for some students, staying organized simply doesn’t matter or perhaps they find inspiration in all the little things with which they surround themselves.

How do we help the Moniques in our classrooms?

Model, but don’t insist. While students in the primary grades may benefit from their teachers’ insistence that they do things a certain way (the ubiquitous take home/bring back pocket folder, for example), students in the intermediate grades who have not mastered these systems are likely to need something different. If a bright, otherwise compliant kiddo doesn’t manage to get papers into the proper pocket of a folder, perhaps it’s the folder that’s the problem.

Accept that they think differently. One of the best gifts an adult can give a child is acceptance, and that includes accepting that a child’s thinking and methods might diverge from the norm. While it’s easy for an adult who struggles with organization to empathize with a child who’s going through the same thing, it can be difficult for naturally organized adults to fight the urge to impose their own methods on those who seem to need them so desperately. It may be convenient for us if all of our students do things the same way — but is that what’s best for them?

Acknowledge their strengths. Every child has organizational strengths; some simply hide them better than others do. The child who stuffs everything into his desk may take some time to retrieve what he needs (and it may be wrinkled when he excavates it), but he knows exactly where to look because he’s consistent in where he puts things. The student who leaves all of her work on her desk until she completes it may shrink her work area, but she instinctively understands the need for a way to keep track of what’s finished and what isn’t. If we take the time to ask our students about the why behind their methods, we might discover that they do have a method – one we can help them channel into a workable system.

Encourage them to explore. Tools should always work in our service. If that pocket folder or three-ring binder isn’t being used, maybe it’s worth looking for a tool that will be. Once we know our students’ whys, we can help them find substitutes for the standard tools. We teach them much more about their personal processes by allowing them to experiment with different tools than we do by forcing them into a system that’s the wrong fit for the way they think.

Praise the process. As you help your students take baby steps toward organization, help them notice what works and see if they can tell you why. Once they can explain their thinking and describe what comes naturally, they can seek out tools that match their thinking and develop systems that actually meet their organizational needs instead of checking all the standard boxes.

Be patient. Kids who struggle with organization are no happier about it than we are. It’s embarrassing to watch classmates regularly retrieve unwrinkled papers and find a book or a writing implement with ease when you’re sitting in the middle of what feels like chaos. If the systems we modeled for them worked for them, would they put themselves through this? Helping our students to understand how they think about organization validates their uniqueness, builds their confidence and frees them from the self-loathing that accompanies weeks’ worth of recess spent whipping an errant desk into shape.

When we teach our students reading, writing, and math, we meet them where they are and take them where they need to go. In writing and math in particular, we encourage them to show their work so we can see where they ran into a problem. Like these academic areas, organization is a life skill. Shining a non-judgmental light on our students’ organizational processes and procedures helps them to understand themselves better. Allowing them to take their ideas to the next level and choose tools that work for them teaches them to value their own perspective and apply critical thinking skills to their decision-making. Finally, allowing them to think outside the box when it comes to organizational systems encourages creativity and divergent thinking skills.

My hope for Monique and her non-traditionally organized peers is that the next time their teachers decide to keep them in from recess to clean out their desks, they pull up a chair beside them. Then, instead of telling Monique and her friends how their desks should look, the adults will ask what made their students choose the methods they chose. This will require patience; it’s rare that anyone asks Monique or her counterparts these questions. But if we take the time to talk to our students about organization instead of talking at them about how it’s done, we might inspire instead of frustrate.

And we might all go outside for recess.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.

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