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Out of the Whirlwind: How to Help Children Get Order From Chaos

  • Sarah Hamaker Contributing Writer
  • Updated Oct 23, 2012
Out of the Whirlwind: How to Help Children Get Order From Chaos

The coat lands by the front door, followed by a backpack, lunch box, school papers and homework, before the shoes in a heap put a period to the child’s arrival home from school. As many parents can testify, children are by nature disorganized. 

“Organization is not inherent,” says Valerie Ottinger, owner of New Outlook Organizing in Melbourne, Fla. “Some people are born more organized than others, but we all have a learning curve when it comes to organization.”

Complicating matters for children is the fact that organization is an executive functioning skill, which means it’s a cognitive ability housed in the frontal lobe of the brain. Since children develop their frontal lobes at different speeds, the pace at which organizational ability comes to fruition can be varied. 

“It’s very developmental,” says Ann Dolin, president of Educational Connections, Inc., in Fairfax, Va. “Some kids don’t get the organizational skill set together until second grade or beyond.”

But that doesn’t mean organizational skills cannot be taught. In fact, it’s vital for parents to teach children how to make order from chaos. “I believe organization is one of the most important skills to develop,” says Dena Wood, co-owner of The Trigger Memory System. “It’s necessary in every aspect of our lives. We’re keeping track of assignments and due dates, work projects and business contacts, or budgeting and carpool information. We have to be organized. The more organized we are, the easier these tasks become.”

Plus, organizational skills are easier to learn as a child. “It’s very hard for people to all of a sudden learn to be organized when they have been disorganized their entire life,” says Rachel Paxton, who runs the website The good news is that parents can teach their children good organizational skills, which will benefit them in the short term and long term.

The Learning Curve

By recognizing that organization can be taught, parents can develop a plan for helping their children become better organized. “Many children struggle with being organized because they are not taught important organizational skills by their parents,” says Paxton.

Here are some ways you can help your kids bring order to their lives.

Develop routines. Children thrive on structure, and having routines for things like the morning and bedtime will help them stay on track. “Often this can be done through example,” says Wood. “Explain that you always throw away the prior day’s newspaper when you bring in the current issue so that you don’t end up with a big, heavy pile of papers. It’s very helpful for your children to realize that you are constantly putting thought into being organized.”

Spell it out. Children need specifics—the more instruction given for a task, the better. “Vague instructions such as ‘clean up your room’ are not helpful to the naturally disorganized child,” says Wood. “Break the task or process down into specific steps that allow your child to see that they are on track and moving forward.”

For example, write out every step for household chores on index cards or in a notebook. Ottinger recommends taking “after” photographs, such as of a properly cleaned room, so the child has a visual aid.

Give a helping hand. Have or create specific places for toys, school stuff, coats, shoes, books, etc. For example, in the winter, put a bin or basket under the hall table for hats, scarves, mittens and gloves. Hang hooks near the front door for backpacks and coats. Make sure you have enough storage space for toys (or downsize the number of toys if you have too many).

Show them the way. While having specific instructions is a good start, physically explain how to clean her room. Kids learn best by example, and taking the time to show them the how part of cleaning reinforces the written instructions.

Shift responsibility to the child. To learn organization, children should be responsible for their things, person and chores. “Children as young as five or six can learn to wake up to an alarm clock and get themselves dressed for the day,” says Paxton. “A child can become better organized by deciding to take responsibility for his or her own life.”

Designate a launching pad. To help children get ready for school each day, have a staging area for backpacks, shoes, lunches, homework, after-school activity equipment, etc. The launching pad can be a space, bin or box that the child puts in everything needed for the next school day. 

“This helps them launch into the day in an organized fashion,” says Dolin. “I often tell parents to set a policy of everything for the next day needs to be packed up by a certain time the night before.”

Pick your battles. Parents should start the organizational process by jotting down their top five things related to disorganization that bother them the most. For example, your list might include things like backpack left on the kitchen floor after school, dirty clothes never put in the laundry basket and toys left in the hallway. Now pick one to tackle first. Ottinger stresses that it will take training and repetition to get the child to remember to put his backpack on the hook by the front door. “Bit it has to be done one thing at a time; otherwise, kids will be overwhelmed,” she says.

Have fun. Make organizing a game for the whole family. Use a kitchen timer for a five- or 10-minute, pre-dinner “Clean Sweep” of picking up around the house. Crank up the music, set the timer and yell “Go!” Time limits are great motivators for children because they see there’s a concrete end to the task.

Maintain the order. Develop a maintenance plan for staying organized. Dolin suggests setting aside 15 minutes each week for parents and children to clean out briefcases, in-boxes, backpacks and school binders. “When families do it all at once, it brings in an element of fun,” she says. “Also, kids see there’s a factor of maintenance involved in organization.”

Parents can break these suggestions down into manageable chunks by focusing on one at a time. However you tackle getting organized, the important thing is to begin now. 

“An individual can posses a great deal of talent, but if he or she doesn’t have at least minimal organizational skills, … it is unlikely he or she will be able to do much with that talent,” says Wood. “While organization may not come naturally to us, it's most definitely a skill that can be learned and developed. And, as with most skills, it’s easier learned earlier rather than later.”

Sarah Hamaker is a certified Leadership Parenting Coach™ through the Rosemond Leadership Parenting Coach Institute. She’s also a freelance writer and editor. Sarah lives in Fairfax, Va., with her husband and four children, who are learning the art of organization. Visit her at

Publication date: October 26, 2012