Disorganized Students: Helping Your Child Develop Successful Habits

Mon. 09/18/2017

Has this happened to you? Your once-thriving child starts to struggle. Homework isn’t handed in, doesn’t come home or maybe its missing all together. Textbooks and study guides are left at school the night before a test. Sunday afternoon rolls around and your child suddenly remembers there’s a project due the next day. Teachers complain. Tears fall.  Everyone is frustrated. Chances are you’ve got a disorganized student on your hands – one with weak executive functions.

Blame Executive Functions (EF)

Not all experts look at EF in the same way however, many view it as a group of abilities that allow children to manage their thoughts, actions and emotions in order to get things done.  Executive functions enable children to plan, organize, prioritize, focus and keep attention to the right task at the right time. A disorganized student is experiencing difficulties with EF.

Middle School: The trigger for exposing difficulties with organization

The transition to middle school is not easy. Think about it, your child goes from an environment with one or two teachers to one of multiple teachers, different physical classrooms, varying teaching styles and different rules. They are suddenly juggling multiple assignments each night, remembering a locker combination, bringing their gym uniform to school, negotiating hallways and common areas with more students, more noise, more, more, more.

From time to time most students will experience hiccups with EF. It’s normal. But, for a subset of students these challenges are much more frequent, if not all the time. Many children with EF difficulties present with academic, social and/or behavioral difficulties. These children:

  • Exhibit mild to extreme disorganization
  • Are often described as lazy, unmotivated, unable to get work done, confused
  • Have disorganized expressive oral and written language
  • Have academic difficulties that appear in middle school even though the child was successful in previous grades.

There are specific hallmarks of executive dysfunction, some or all may be evident:

  • Difficulty with working memory
  • Easily distracted by external or internal stimuli
  • Perseveration of responses or strategies for doing things
  • Difficulty initiating activities such as homework or independent school work
  • Difficulty maintaining effort in seat work in class or with challenging tasks
  • Difficulty with recognizing and/or utilizing feedback to improve performance
  • Difficulty modulating activity without cues
  • Poor self-awareness deficits
  • Difficulty with procedural memory such as the steps in long division or dividing fractions.

How to Help Your Disorganized Child: Know when to step in

Many parents allow their child to reap the consequences of their actions.  You forget your homework; you’ll have to turn it in late. You forget your instrument, lunch, soccer cleats, oh well, next time you’ll remember.  For some children this works, for those who have difficulties with one or more EF, this “social consequence” strategy doesn’t work and will only ratchet up the stress and frustration. Instead, work with your child to become organized and on-track. Develop organizational systems together.  Talk about what system(s) or strategies work and why.  Gradually withdraw support as your child becomes successful.  Praise independence in using his or her “external supports or systems” that enable independence with school and with life.   Here are some examples of systems you can set up with your child:

  • Set up a system and use a calendar. An organizational system that works for you may not be the right one for your disorganized child. Be willing to explore different strategies until you find one that works. Use a calendar and review it with your child every day. You can also use the calendar to help your child break down larger assignments and help them get jump-start assignments that they need to work on but aren’t due for in the near-term.
  • Manage time. Use time management techniques such as the use of checklists, prioritized “To Do” lists, and prioritizing assignments. Estimate how long a task will take and then check on the accuracy of your estimate.
  • Use a homework folder system within a canvas, zipped trapper keeper.Establish that homework is not complete until it is in the folder and ready to go back to school.  Designate different colored folders for each academic subject and help your child store appropriate papers in the appropriate folders.
  • Prune papers. Take out papers that are old or not relevant to current instruction. If your child worries that he may need it, set up a filing system in a file box or file drawer or three-ring binder that he leaves at home for “extraneous” papers, past tests or homework, or study sheets.   Discard these papers at the end of the school year.
  • Use technology for middle and high school students.This should include your school’s online system,—Blackboard, Haiku, etc.—to track your child’s assignments and whether they’ve been handed in. Don’t hesitate to check in with your child’s teacher via email or even text, if that’s an option.
  • Use all the resources available to you.Your child’s teacher, school resources, other parents, information from the internet, etc.  You and your child are not alone. There are several books written for parents; google Guare and Dawson, Christopher Kaufman, Russel Barkley, (first name) Cooper-Kahn, and the CHADD and UNDERSTOOD.org websites, just to name a few well respected sources.
  • Keep your cool. Be emotionally supportive. Let your child know you’re in it together and you will figure it out. Help your child to understand the problem and know there are strategies he/she can use to get organized. They are not in trouble and you understand they are not doing this on purpose. However, be sure your child understands that difficulty with executive functions is an explanation, not an excuse.  Managing weak executive functions takes work, dedication, motivation, and practice. Patience is key!
  • Know when you need expert help. If you’ve been unsuccessful helping your child improve, and/or your relationship has turned into a never-ending battle—it’s probably time to call in an expert. Most students with modest EF issues will, with time and help from their parents and teachers figure out how to self-manage. But children with severe EF issues called executive functions disorder, including many students with learning differences, need professional support. There is no one test for executive functions disorder. It is assessed through anecdotal teacher, parent and student data along with a variety of individual, standardized tests administered by qualified professionals.

For more information regarding executive functioning, contact The Summit School. To schedule testing contact Nancy Rhodes, Summit Outreach Coordinator, at or 410-798-0005 x147.

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