One of the first things I look at when observing a new client in the classroom is how well they keep their belongings organized. This gives me important clues about how well they can attend to detail, manage themselves and keep track of what is important, not only in the physical environment, but also in other areas such as prioritizing their time and keeping track of information.
How does poor organization impact learning?
Learners with learning difficulties frequently struggle with executive functioning skills, one of which is planning and organizing. Organization skills encompass three key categories that serve as a catalyst for more effective academic engagement: managing their things, managing their time and managing information. Below are some ways that well-developed organizing skills contribute to overall learning achievement:
Following an instruction: Being able to follow an instruction requires the learner to organize the information and to be able to organize this information to execute the steps to complete the tasks. A poor organizer may find it difficult to organize the steps required, which leads to inefficient execution of the steps and often, non-completion.
Reading: Learning to read requires a learner to organize information such as which upper-case letter and which sound goes together, or which sight word belongs to which item. An effective organizer can quickly and accurately retrieve such information, allowing them to learn more effectively. A disorganized learner, conversely, has difficulty retrieving information and acting on it quickly, which slows down their overall ability to read and comprehend what they have read.
Writing: Reading and writing skills are also supported by strong organization skills. For example, writing an informational essay requires research, recall of subject-specific vocabulary and keeping track of the information that has been gathered in order to organize it into a coherent piece of writing. Difficulty with organizational skills makes it challenging for the learner to synthesize all the information and frequently, results in incomplete or incoherent written work due to the strain on their mental resources as they need to work harder to keep track of and use the information effectively.
Math: This subject depends on rules and procedures to be implemented efficiently during the initial learning stages and later on, the ability to categorize information to make sense of more abstract concepts. A learner with poorly developed organization skills may have difficulty not only with categorizing information into predetermined sets but coming up with their own categories for sorting information. This in turn impacts their ability to quickly and efficiently retrieve the rules and facts impacts their ability to quickly and accurately solve a problem, straining their cognitive resources to the point where they become frustrated and give up.
A good organizer frees up many of their mental resources as they are able to develop strategies to help them remember and keep track of where their things are, when and how much time they have to complete assignments or study for tests, and how to keep track of large amounts of information and to organize that information for quick and easy retrieval when it is needed. As such, organized learners are:
Less likely to lose their belongings, which means that they are spending less time looking for their things and more time on-task
Less likely to forget about tests, homework or assignments because they have been taught or have learned how to keep information organized and easily accessible
More likely to experience an increase in self-esteem since they are in trouble less frequently for forgetting items or running out of time to complete tasks
More likely to experience a decrease in anxiety because they develop a sense of being in control of their things, time and important information and can easily and efficiently access what they need in a short amount of time
Less likely to become frustrated as more of their mental resources are freed up, rather than having to expend a great deal of effort in trying to retrieve information.
How can you help at home?
Organization skills need to be taught explicitly. This is especially true for learners who have specific learning needs or have difficulty attending to the minutiae of daily life.
At the foundational level, teach your child to take charge of their belongings. Work with them to develop a system for organizing their stationery, books and bags. Since this is the most concrete aspect of organization, starting at the level of managing things makes it easier not only to grasp the concept of categorizing and sorting, but sets them up with the skills required to organize time and information.
Make time to organize part of the daily routine. Set aside time to clean out book bags, sort out what needs to be done for the next day and pack bags for school. Use this time as an opportunity to practice organizing skills with guidance until being organized becomes a habit. Suppress the urge to do it for them! The daily routine is a valuable opportunity to teach this skill as it is on-going.
Incentivize your child for being organized – don’t rely on the sense of satisfaction to keep the behavior going. Remember, this will be hard for your child initially, so call in the reinforcements (or reinforcers, if you will)! Set up star charts or reserve preferred activities until all the organizing has been done. This also keeps your child accountable for their things, time and information. Once the behavior is automatic and your child can organize quickly and efficiently, you can begin decreasing the rewards gradually until the behavior itself becomes its own reward.
Further skills that should be taught is how to use a homework diary and drawing up to-do lists and writing down important tasks. Some children might prefer a separate sticky note for each task (crumpling up and throwing it away when the task is done) to a traditional list – work with your child to figure out what works for them.
An organized desk is a sign of an organized mind. And an organized mind is one that is free to spend it’s resources on what matters – learning!