Teaching Organizational Skills to Children with ADHD


While I do believe ADHD is sometimes overdiagnosed in our children today, there are telltale signs that a child has true Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Among these are hyperactivity, hyperfocusing on everything (rather than one thing), struggling to learn from past experiences (actions and consequences), and acting without thinking.The key sign of ADHD in students we’re focusing on today, however, is the struggle with organization.

Children with ADHD Struggle with Organization

Psych Central’s article, “Organization Strategies for ADHD,” says this is because, “The symptoms of ADHD include restlessness, lack of concentration, inability to focus and impulsivity.” ADDitude’s article,  “Organization Strategies for Students,” says, ” Kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) have problems with these tasks. To be organized requires time, effort, and sustained attention.”

Organization requires systematic thinking. You need to be able to be able to break down processes. Let’s take the process of succeeding in math. This sample student is in 3rd grade, and he’s good at math. His teacher has told him the way to do well in math is simply do the work (which she knows he’s capable of) and turn it in. It sounds simple enough, but look at all the steps that are really involved.

*Click to enlarge image.


As you can see, two tasks that others might take for granted, doing an in-class assignment and finishing homework, are much more complicated than they first seem. This next image is an example of all the things that could go wrong in completing these 2 “simple” tasks.

*Click to enlarge image.


All the green arrows represent chances the student has to break the process. From leaving the book at school to putting the worksheet in the wrong folder to dropping the worksheet at a friend’s desk, the student has a chance to fail the assignment, and not because he’s incapable of doing it, simply because he’s not organized enough to finish it and turn it in.

Students with ADHD often lack the ability to focus on one thought process enough to see what they need to do in order to make it through the whole process. As I explain in my post on ADHD, ADHD doesn’t mean you can’t focus; it means you focus on too much. There are too many wonderful things in the world for one single thing to hold your focus.

In addition, students with ADHD are notorious for losing their school things. Health Central’s article, “Dealing with Symptoms of Adult ADHD – Losing Things,” says that even for adults with ADHD, losing things is a problem. Things just “disappear.” The Center of Disease Control says that one of the symptoms of ADHD is that children with true ADHD often, “forget or lose things a lot.”

Tips to Teach Organizational Skills to Children

As all children do, kids with ADHD need help learning organizational skills. While some children are naturally better at this than others, it’s a skill that can be learned if the child learns at an early age the skills and understands how to use tools to aid his organization. While losing a worksheet in 3rd grade might not be the end of the world, losing an important document at work might mean getting fired. The best way for adults with ADHD to cope is by learning and practicing organizational skills when they’re young.

Here are the 4 habits we’re discussing today:

  1. Simplify school materials.
  2. Practice consistent routines.
  3. Make lists/Keep a planner.
  4. Discuss the steps as you practice them with your child.

OrganizationwithADHD1By simplifying school materials, I mean making sure the only things in the student’s desk and backpack are items that have a role in learning. Having unneeded items in a desk or backpack simply takes up precious energy and thought processes the student needs for focusing soley on his education.

Students with ADHD find it all too easy to shove homework assignments in their desks, School Reminder slips for their parents into pencil boxes, and everything else into the bottomless depths of their backpacks. The last thing Little Johnny needs is 10 old assignments, five candy bar wrappers, and an old pair of gym shorts to distract him while he’s getting ready to leave school.

When it comes to finding the right school supplies for Johnny, the idea isn’t to overload him with more useless things (in his eyes) to keep track of. Instead, it’s to help him simplify. The less Johny has to keep track of, the better off he’ll be. Help Guide suggests that adults with ADHD go paperless as much as possible to clear space for thinking and to have fewer things to lose.

OrganizationwithADHD2While it’s impossible for young students to go paperless, it is possible to help them go through paperwork daily. For example, when Johnny comes home from school, before he even goes to play, help him spend 5 minutes going through his backpack. Mom or Dad can help him go through his paperwork and backpack items, discussing out loud how to decide what to keep, what to toss, and where to put it all.

Creating routines of simplification and organization is what students need. They need to fall into a rhythm. It might not be natural, but if Johnny goes home and then immediately goes through his backpack every single day, it will eventually click. If you need, you can always add this activity to Johnny’s to-do list for after he gets home. (Click here for my post on helping kids with ADHD stay on task.)

The reason dialogue between Jonny and his parents is so important is because children with ADHD lack the ability to naturally follow a thought process through self-talk (an inward dialogue) to organize all his papers. Discussing the reasoning behind, “The test needs to go into the Graded Semester Folder,” and, “The homework needs to go in your Homework Folder,” can really help a child begin to understand (as much as he might not like it at first) the thought process behind organization.

OrganizationwithADHD3Blake Taylor, author of “ADHD and Me” says that one of the greatest ways he learned to get organized as a teenager was through color-coordinated filing folders. Filing folders need to be plainly marked so they’re simple and easy to read. Also, color coordination helps the student learn to remember which folder holds which subject.

Even though I don’t have ADHD, I used this method in college. The orange folder was for Methods of Teaching P.E., blue was for Methods of Teaching Elementary School Math, and so on and so forth. I even color-coordinated my notebooks, if I had any, to go with them. That way, I knew exactly what classes I had supplies for in my backpack simply by glancing at the colors. I didn’t lose my papers as much because it was easier to organize them in the first place. If it helped the student, you could even have him color coordinate his highlighters and pens. (They make them in all colors, these days.”

OrganizationwithADHD4Finally, learning to keep a daily planner is priceless. If your child is young, and your school doesn’t do it, it might be helpful to talk to your child’s teacher and see if she can help him keep his planner. Now, I’ve seen a child with ADHD struggle with his planner because he struggled with the physical aspect of writing. If it helps your child, see if you can get him a voice recorder, or even an electronic tablet (if he’s old enough to use it properly) to help him type out his assignments.

Parents are going to know what suits their children best. If the child needs to use color-coordinated pens to write his different assignments in his planner, that’s fine. If not, it’s important to develop a method of keeping a planner system that fits the child. Discussing your child’s abilities to keep a planner with his teacher can be invaluable. It’s not that the child must have a traditional planner. He does need, however, a surefire way to look back and know what’s due when.


Like I said, the goal isn’t to overwhelm your child with a whole bucketload of new things to do. What’s important is help him him find a way to practice and develop habits of his own to stay organized. It’s much harder to learn organizational skills as an adult when the stakes are high than it is as a child when life is forgiving. It’s not impossible for these kiddos…it just takes a bit more practice. And with the right support and guidance, it’s something that’s definitely within their grasp.

If you have any suggestions, questions, or comments about organizational strategies, please share them in the Comment Box below. And don’t forget to sign up for my weekly newsletter to receive extra resources I don’t include in my blog, encouragement, and a gift as a thank you for signing up. Thanks for reading!

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