Organisation Skills For Children In Late Primary Or High School

Does this picture look familiar?

I can imagine most parents will be nodding their head whilst reading this.

Its 8.30am on a Monday morning, school begins at 9am.

Your child has 20 minutes to get themselves organised before you all make your way to school.

Its now 8.45am and your child still isn’t ready. You are wondering what they have been doing for the last fifteen minutes.

We now have five minutes to get ready to leave the house. Everyone is now in a rush and the calm family breakfast feels like a long lost memory.

You keep telling your child what they are meant to be doing. It can’t be that hard?! Get dressed, brush your teeth, pack your lunch and get into the car.

Why can’t we just get to school on time?! You are in grade 3 now.

Sound familiar?

You are not alone. Organisation skills are a challenge for many children.

So what exactly is organisation?

It sounds simple.. you just get everything ready, right?

In fact, organisational skills are multifaceted and highly complex.

To be organised, one must first initiate an idea, think of the next step/s, and adjust their responses to meet the demands of the environment.

Lets look at an example of brushing your teeth:

First I need to:

  1. Use my core or foundational cognitive skills, such as: arousal, alertness and consciousness
  2. Use my long-term memory to help me perform this skill. For example., do I have prior knowledge in order to perform this task? Have I done this before?
  3. Use my short-term memory to locate the items that I need. For example., have I memorised the steps that I need to do?
  4. Next I need to sequence my ideas. What do I do first? Second? Third?
  5. Hmm.. there is no toothpaste.. now I need to use my problem solving skills to figure out what to do next. For some children, this becomes the ‘stuck’ point.
  6. I then use the use reasoning skills to go to the pantry and get some more toothpaste.
  7. Do I remember what step I was up to? Have I gotten distracted? Have you told me something else I need to do? Ohhh the TV is on. I want to watch the show.

This in a nutshell is organisation. It contains lots of steps and this is just one of many that your child may be participating in during the morning school routine.

In fact, organisation skills are used throughout the day during activities such as:

  • Following routines
  • Getting ready in the morning
  • Organising the items required for school and performing school activities
  • Completing homework. How many children leave their homework to the last minute!?

Often a common concern that we hear from parents is ‘how will my child be able to get the items they need when they are at school?’ Think about how many times you as a child went back to your locker to get the items that you need. Many children will often have four to six different subjects per day at school. That is a lot of items to get organised!

So how do I know if my child is struggling with organisation?

Children who struggle with organisation may:

  • Present as distracted, for example., not attending to tasks or looking to peers to see what they are meant to be doing.
  • Have poor task initiation, e.g., may have challenges translating a thought in their head down onto the paper or have difficulty knowing how to start a task. For some children, thinking about how to write a story can be a real challenge!
  • Have difficulties following steps containing multiple instructions, e.g., brushing teeth, packing school bags, completing assigned tasks at school, and remembering to complete homework.
  • Need constant verbal reminders or prompts in order to stay on task. Often parents or carers will remark that they are ‘always reminding’ their child to finish the steps of an activity.
  • Present as a child who fleets between activities. For example., if multiple activities are available, children will complete one or two steps of an activity and then move onto another activity.
  • Have difficulty with narrative tasks, such as, telling a story or recalling what they did on the weekend.
  • Forgetting items that they require, e.g., leaving items at home or in their locker.

What can be some of the consequences of a disorganised student?

  • Decreased academic performance, such as not being able to complete activities to the same level as their peers, being late to class, or forgetting to complete homework activities.
  • Task avoidance or refusal and low self-esteem, e.g., ‘it’s too hard’
  • Behavioural challenges, either as a means to avoid a task, distract others, or as a consequence of their emotional state.
  • Parents and teachers who may feel ‘worn out’ by always needing to attend to the disorganised student.

How can Occupational Therapists help your child with their organisation skills?

  • Task break down
    • Occupational therapists can help your child to break down the task into manageable chunks. Completing activities in a step-by-step fashion not only helps them to develop their skills in a chronological manner, but also helps them to build their own self-esteem and self-efficacy. Its much easier to complete an activity if you do it one step at a time.
  • Visual schedules
    • Visual schedules are a series of pictures or words that break down a task into each individual component. These schedules can be created to suit the needs of your child and can be used in both a discrete manner or within classrooms. Visual schedules help to empower children to perform tasks themselves and build their independence.
  • Checklists
    • Gathering all the items you need for class can be daunting. Checklists provide clear and easy to follow steps to ensure that your child has everything they need. How often has your child left something at home, e.g. their hat, water bottle, or lunchbox?
  • Diaries
    • Diaries are a great way to help children keep on top of homework tasks and plan ahead.
  • Creating consistent routines
    • It is far easier to be organised when a set routine is in place. Many children thrive on routine and helping families to implement a consistent approach can be beneficial for organisational skills.
  • Consideration of the environment and helping children to ‘de-clutter’
    • For some children, performing schoolwork in environments that have fewer distractions can be beneficial.
    • Implementing a folder system can also work wonders. For example, creating folders according to subject area, or administration processes from teacher to parent, such as permission slips for school excursions.
    • Putting systems in place that will help your child to be organised. For example., finding the right stationary item in a messy pencil case can be an emotional trigger for some children. By assessing the antecedents, we can implement strategies to help with your child’s organisation before it becomes a concern for your child.
  • Building cognitive strategies
    • For many children with organisational challenges, a piece of the puzzle is missing. Occupational therapists can help families to explore where the child requires assistance and design tailored interventions to build their skills. Some examples could include:
      • Sensory processing interventions, for example., you can’t brush your teeth if your body is too busy seeking or avoiding stimulants in your environment, such as auditory, visual, or tactile experiences. You also can’t concentrate when your body is ‘trying to get the wriggles out’.
      • Play skills, e.g., helping children to learn how to play. For some children, this process needs to be explicitly taught. Occupational therapists can help your child to initiate and respond to play scenarios.
      • Sequencing activities, e.g., helping your child to figure out what happened first, second, and third.
      • Building foundational skills. For example, has your child mastered their foundational handwriting skills so they can perform the expected class activity?
      • Attention and concentration games to build child’s tolerance to attend to tasks.
      • Designing supportive visual aids, such as, ideas sheets, visual schedules, and timers.
      • Building self-esteem, such as resilience.
      • Developing problem-solving skills and flexibility.
      • Helping children to regulate their emotions, for example., managing frustration in a more age-appropriate manner.
      • Relaying with a multidisciplinary team, for example., speech pathologists and psychologists.

Often in Occupational Therapy we need to go backwards in order to go forwards!

What can you do at home to help your child with their organisation skills?

  • Start by creating a plan and starting small.
  • Declutter! It is much easier for your child to be organised if there are less choices to choose from.
  • Provide your child with processing time. Often children are processing huge amounts of information at once, and providing your child with extra processing time can assist with their organisation. A good rule is wait 30 seconds and if the child hasn’t completed the next step, remind them again. Often people will tend to over prompt a child and whilst this is well intended, it can sometimes confuse your child even more. Ask your child to repeat instructions back to you to ensure they have understood what is required of them. Or ask the child to teach you!
  • Provide specific instructions. Stating ‘get ready’ doesn’t specifically outline what your child needs to do. By delivering instructions in a more specific manner, it can help avoid assumptions and thus help your child with their organisation.
  • Add visual gestures to verbal prompts. Often words can go in one ear and out the other. Adding a gesture can help children to initiate an action.
  • Make learning fun! Does your child need to sit at a table to complete their homework? Learn about what helps your child and integrate it into your routine, for example, tossing a ball back and forth whilst doing maths homework, racing down the hallway to collect the right answer, writing equations in sand, or using playdoh. The possibilities are endless! Utilising multiple learning methods can help your child with their ability to stay with a task and help translate information into their long-term memory.
  • Implementing visual schedules into your child’s day. The TomTag Toolkit can help your child to pack their bag independently!
  • Look at your child’s performance and assess where the task may be breaking down.
  • Break down the steps for you child to reduce the cognitive load. How many times have you sat in a lecture and after an hour, left wondering what on earth the teacher said? This is what it is like for kids with organisational challenges. For example, a cutting and pasting activity becomes first a cutting activity and then a pasting activity. Maths homework becomes a series of small equations performed over a series of days, rather than a 45-minute block of homework.
  • Play memory and problem solving games such as Uno, Jenga, Charades, Go Fish, Guess Who, Battleship, Rush Hour, Building Games, and Cubissimo.
  • Encourage your child to beat the clock! Providing clear timeframes can help children to stay on task and can increase motivation.

Interested in completing some further reading on this topic? These websites are a great starting point:

If you have concerns regarding your child’s organisation skills, please consult an Occupational Therapist at Building Blocks Therapy

Alice McKinnon

Occupational Therapist