Organizing Materials

Is your child keeping a disorganized locker or messy desk?

Is your child:

  • Losing things?
  • Leaving important papers on the floor?
  • Misplacing school ID, ski pass, or keys?
  • Seeming to be in another land, not focusing on the here-and-now?
  • Having a school binder with papers stuffed in all over the place?
  • Having a messy locker?
  • Never having a pencil?
  • Losing overdue library books?
  • Doing the homework but never turning it in?


Your child’s locker may look like a science experiment. You might find overdue library books, smashed old milk cartons, and broken pencils strewn about his desk or locker.

She may show up to school with all the homework done but forget to turn it in to her teacher. He may get ready to leave for school but forget his keys, his school id, and his lunch.

You may find that you are constantly replacing your child’s lost glasses or misplaced backpack.

When your child goes to show you the homework for tonight, you may notice that her binder is so messy that you cannot begin to make heads or tails of it. Her subjects may be all mixed together, with papers crunched into pockets, such that her binder appears to have no organizational scheme whatsoever.

Children with poor organization skills may be very upset when the schedule or routines change unpredictably. Transitions at school or in life may be difficult for an unorganized child.

They may be seen as ‘followers’ [6] among their peers, copying other children instead of maintaining their own organization or remembering directions and instructions.


Clinically, these organization problems are related to executive functions.

The type of organization can be defined as,

“the ability to create and maintain orderliness in thoughts, activities, materials, and the physical environment” [6].

These skills are monitored by the frontal lobe of your child’s brain, which is where organization, planning, and task initiation take place.

In terms of executive functions, the organization of materials fits into the ‘Metacognition’ category [1]. Metacognition involves task-oriented skills such as Working Memory, Initiate, and Plan/Organize.

If your child has trouble organizing materials, it may be that the completion of the tasks is hard for him or her. For example, your child may have difficulty getting started on homework (initiating), finding the materials needed to do homework (organization of materials), remembering the steps (working memory), and making a plan to complete the homework (plan/organize).

If your child is very disorganized, it may be that your child is simply not as interested or focused on these tasks and needs some help, or that your child has poor executive functioning, or that your child’s organization skills are on track but still developing.

It is important to note that while some brain functions mature in early life, executive functions develop much later [2]. Attention skills begin developing during infancy and increase quickly throughout early childhood. However, as your child reaches about seven to nine years of age, he or she is in a critical period for skills like cognitive flexibility, goal setting, and information processing.

These skills are thought to be fairly well developed by around age twelve [2]. 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.

Other good news is that these skills are teachable. That is, organization skills may or may not come naturally to your child, but these skills are amenable to intervention and support. 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 you child is falling behind and refusing to get organized, he or she 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, it is time to get some help. It may be that your child needs some support to be more organized or that therapy is required.


If your child is disorganized, the first thing to think about is how much this problem is ‘getting in the way?’ Is it possible that this lack of organization is more of a problem for you than it is for your child?

This problem is only worthy of remediation if your child is really struggling. Look for a drop in grades, sad mood, or general disengagement.

One potential option is to check in with your child’s school counselor. Counselors often have organization groups, and some may have curricula to help kids get organized.

Sometimes, a favorite teacher may be able to mentor your child and provide some strategies for planning and organizing.

If the problems are more significant in that your child is inattentive, disorganized, and has poor follow-through on tasks and assignments, further intervention is needed.

These problems may be a sign of ADHD or of another disability. In this case, evaluation may be required, and specific therapies can provide treatment.

For older children, Cognitive Behavioral or Behavioral therapy is helpful to work on organization and planning strategies.


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

  • Rigid behavior: children who are inherently ‘set in their ways’ may be inflexible, or become very nervous with changes in routine, may have organization problems
  • Other executive functioning challenges (Organizing): some children who have problems organizing materials have associated with issues in working memory, task initiation, planning, and self-monitoring
  • Memory problems (Remembering): some children lose things or fail to keep order in their lives because they simply cannot remember where they put their supplies and materials. They also may be unorganized because they cannot remember 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


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors. Many children with ASD have trouble with metacognition; however, in terms of executive functions, the skill of cognitive flexibility is the weakest for ASD [3].
  • ADHD: Children with ADHD tend to have 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 [3].
  • Specific Learning Disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities): Many children with learning disabilities struggle to organize their projects and materials for school. Children with reading disabilities tend to have some impairment in executive functions overall but much less so than children with ADHD. Due to high comorbidity (around 60%) between Learning Disabilities (LD) and ADHD, it is possible that a child who struggles with learning tasks may have many executive functioning impairments from either ADHD, LD, or both
  • Gifted and Talented (GT): some gifted students struggle with organization of materials due to intense focus and passion in other areas (that renders organizing uninteresting or mundane); perfectionism (that makes it seem ‘impossible’ to be perfectly organized so children say ‘why even try?’); or the tendency to be scattered, moving from task to task without taking the time to get organized [4]


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.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or to consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • Psychologist: to consider symptoms in a mental health context. Can diagnose related disabilities such as Anxiety or ADHD
  • Neuropsychologist: to consider overall neurocognitive functioning. Neuropsychologists are experts in executive functions and neurological disorders
  • 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 academic impact
  • School Counselor: to help with organization skills, particularly for middle school and high school students

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • Wisconsin Card Sort: test of adapting to changing rules and shifting attention; organizing problem solving approach
  • TOVA: continuous performance test of sustained attention and impulse control
  • Tower of London: tests visual planning, rule following, and problem solving


[1] 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.

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

[3] 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.

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


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


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


[7] Lewis, Jeanne & Calvery, Margaret, & Lewis, Hal (2002). BrainstarsBrain injury: Strategies for teams and re-education for students.


[8] 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.

Image Credit:
Description: Child having problem with concentration
Image ID: #639794610 (iStock)
By: : KatarzynaBialasiewicz
Organizing the disorganized child
Previously Licensed on: May 20, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Psychology.

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