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Organization Problems in Children

Young boy puts toys in basket.
Marcy Willard
Marcy Willard
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 23 Aug 2022
Published 08 Mar 2022

What is Organizing in Childhood?

Organizing (also known as executive functions) in childhood refers to the child’s set of thinking skills that include planning, initiating tasks, self-monitoring, paying attention, and using effective problem-solving approaches. 

“A good way to understand executive functions is to think of the term executive. In a company, executives need to be able to work under a deadline and make plans for how to get things done. Likewise, your brain’s ‘central executive’ controls these skills, organizes, focuses on, and monitors the activities necessary to accomplish your goals.”

All of these skills are regulated by the prefrontal lobe in our brains. Some refer to these skills as ‘higher-order thinking’ abilities. 

Well regarded psychologist, Dan Siegel, provides the model of the upstairs brain and downstairs brain. The upstairs brain is responsible for thinking and problem solving, and the downstairs brain is responsible for feelings and survival. 

Dr. Siegel has shown in his research that parents can help their children’s developing executive functions by responding appropriately during ‘teachable moments’ in childhood. 

“Teaching your child how to calm down when upset nurtures the downstairs brain. Collaboratively developing problem-solving strategies with your child builds the upstairs brain.”

Children with neurological disorders, such as ADHD or autism, tend to struggle with executive functions. Although struggles in these areas can be substantially limiting and challenging, the good news is executive functions can be taught. 

In the articles in this facet, you will be guided to understand and name which skills are challenging for your child and learn some everyday strategies you can employ at home. Further, you will learn how to tell whether or not to seek professional help for these difficulties.

Types of Executive Functioning Skills in Childhood

Initiation: the skill of getting started on tasks 

Planning: the skill of seeing an end goal and plotting a course toward achieving it. For example, a child may have a country report due in a month. To pull this report off successfully, this child would need to be able to plan out a topic, research plan, outline, write, edit, and complete a final draft 

Shift: the skill of switching between important tasks by moving from one task to another, such as writing a report and then making dinner or playing at recess and then going to music class. It requires the ability to stop doing one thing and start doing something different

Organization of materials: the skill of keeping track of school supplies and making one’s binder, locker, or desk neat and orderly 

Monitor: the skill of keeping track of one’s progress toward a goal or objective 

Metacognition: the skill of ‘thinking about one’s thinking.’ With good metacognition, an individual can develop a strategy for solving problems or completing tasks

Symptoms of Poor Organizing Skills in Children

Not shifting

  • Seeming to get stuck on activities or ideas
  • Becoming upset over surprises or changes in schedule
  • Insisting on doing things the old way, even when a new way works better

Not planning 

  • Forging ahead without thinking it through
  • Forgetting when assignments are due
  • Coming home and not being sure how to do the homework
  • Failing to follow multi-step directions
  • Getting lost without specific instructions at each step of a problem

Not initiating

  • Procrastinating
  • Taking forever on homework

Not organizing

  • Losing things
  • 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
  • Doing the homework but never turning it in their teacher

Causes of Poor Executive Functioning in Childhood

  • ADHD: children with ADHD have differences in the prefrontal cortex of their brain. They have trouble taking in and filtering information to discard what is unimportant and maintain their focus on the tasks at hand. It can be hard to shift tasks, organize information, plan, and initiate something new when a child has ADHD.
  • Emotional symptoms like anxiety or depression: children who are anxious or depressed are likely to be overwhelmed by emotional symptoms and thus cannot keep up with executive functions like planning and organization.
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: children with autism have a neurodevelopmental disorder marked by differences in processes in the brain. In approximately 60% of children on the Spectrum, they have a co-occurring diagnosis of ADHD, meaning their planning and organization skills are significantly impacted. A child with autism is likely to need support with planning, organizing, initiating, and especially shifting. Those with ASD have the most difficulty shifting from one task to another. 
  • Processing speed: children with difficulties here struggle to complete simple tasks quickly. A child with a slow processing speed may have difficulty remembering and organizing information that is provided rapidly or within a time limit. This challenge will show up more often when an environment is busy with extra information that the child also has to process, such as in a loud and crowded classroom.
  • Mild trauma experiences (trauma with a small ‘t’): children with ‘small t traumas’ have been through common negative experiences that happen in childhood. A child’s executive functioning can be affected even with a seemingly mild distressing experience, such as family strife, school change, loss of a pet, or peer drama. If your child suddenly becomes unorganized, it will be important to get curious about what could be happening emotionally. Small t traumas cause ongoing emotional upset, often referred to as toxic stress, which can lead to persistent emotional regulation problems. In this case, trauma treatment is required to help your child develop improved executive functioning skills.
  • Significant trauma experiences (trauma with a capital ‘T’): children with ‘big T traumas’ have been through events that cause a significant threat to a child’s safety or sense of self-worth. These traumas include experiencing domestic violence, witnessing the death of a loved one, extreme bullying, or a sudden change in caregivers. It is very common for children to have significant executive functioning issues after experiencing traumatic events. Care for children with big t trauma experiences must be provided by experienced clinicians who are experts in trauma-informed care.
  • Head injury: children of any age who have experienced head trauma to the extent of having a concussion may experience challenges with their executive functions. If your child has a concussion and you notice that they struggle with remembering, problem-solving, following instructions, or paying attention, it will be important to talk to your doctor and possibly follow up with a neuropsychologist or neurorehabilitation.

What to Do about Executive Functioning Deficits in Childhood

At home, keep in mind these ‘do’s and don’ts.’ 

DO keep instructions simple when you can. Give one direction at a time, have a structure and definition for tasks you expect your child to complete. If you say ‘clean your room,’ have a chart with clothes hanging in the closet, Legos in the Lego bin, and the bed made.

DO use a lot of charts and visuals. Having a chore chart, a bathroom routine chart, or a homework chart that allows you and your child to see the tasks, check them off and earn praise or reward is a great idea for a child who has trouble with organization.

DO give immediate positive feedback and reinforcement to your child whenever you can. Keep in mind the idea that we should have five positive things to say to our child for every negative or critical statement we make. 

DO help your child maintain a calendar and a schedule. Start early with a calendar with the school or preschool schedule, plus holidays, plans for days off, dentist appointments, etc. Have your child help draw the icons, mark off days to a fun trip, etc. This experience will help them later on with longer assignments and planning. 

DO use timers and reminders/warnings about time to shift. Even though you do it every night, use a timer to signal the end of free time or TV time and give warnings before expecting your child to shift to PJs, brush teeth, etc. Wait out the protests. Echo that you get it, that you know it is hard to stop doing fun things. 

DO have an organized space used only for homework/ work assignments. Whether it is a desk in the bedroom organized for schoolwork or a small lap desk with a lid that can store pencils, paper, calculator, etc., help your child have a dedicated space. Do not have your child do assignments in a noisy room with TV, music, etc. If your child does need music to focus, try instrumental. Set the stage with a routine for getting work done.

DO have a space for the backpack or school bag. Have a system to check for assignments and a place to put completed work. Have a section or folder of the backpack for assignments and another section for what to turn in the next day at school. After your child has had a snack and a break, review the backpack and address anything that needs to be done for the next day.

DO reward your child for engaging in quarterly clean and organize sessions. Go through the desk, closet, and dresser regularly so that your child’s life is not covered in clutter. They will not be organized if they can’t find anything themselves. 

DON’T be vague in your directions. Be specific. So do not say, ‘clean up this mess of a room.’ Give specific tasks and give them one at a time or provide a shortlist. 

DON’T expect your child to figure it out on their own. Organization and planning are such challenging tasks. Your child needs you to help them figure this out and practice these skills.

DON’T be afraid to ask for help from an organization coach or tutor if organizing is too much for you. Some adults also really aren’t good at being organized. If it is a huge pain, hire the help. 

DON’T lose your temper and make threats or statements you don’t mean. Say you are taking a break and leave the room. If you do not feel calm, it will not go well.

When to Seek Help

If many or all of these skills are impaired, your child may need clinical help. The key factor to consider is called ‘impairment in daily functioning,’ meaning that the deficit is ‘getting in the way’ of your child’s success and happiness. If so, a psychologist, neuropsychologist, learning specialist, executive functioning coach, tutor, or school psychologist may be needed to help your child grow in their executive functioning skills.

Professional Resources on Executive Functioning in Childhood

  • 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 the academic impact
  • School counselor: to help with organization skills, particularly for middle school and high school students
  • Coach or tutor: to be an executive functioning coach or tutor that can help your child get organized and learn improved study skills

Similar Symptoms to Executive Functioning Impairments in Childhood

  • Rigid Behavior: children who are inherently ‘set in their ways’ may be inflexible or become nervous with changes in routine. Rigid kids often struggle with organization because they want to do things their way and are resistant to guidance from teachers or caregivers
  • Selective attention: children who are only able to pay attention when motivated or interested in a specific task may struggle to stay organized
  • Sustained attention: children who have trouble focusing for more than a few minutes on a task. Children who struggle with this skill may drift off-task every minute, which will impact organizational skills and executive functioning
  • Shifting attention: children who have difficulty changing their focus when asked to move onto another activity will struggle to follow organized routines in the classroom. For example, if the teacher says to “stop iPad time and come to the rug for storytime,” the child will not comply
  • Memory (Remembering): children who are unorganized may struggle to 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
  • Behavior (Behaving): children who have poor frustration tolerance, anger, and aggression will have executive functioning issues. They may demonstrate poor inhibitory control (ability to stop oneself). It may feel like the child has ‘no stop sign’ and behaves in an erratic manner which will impact executive functioning
  • Emotional regulation: children who have consistent problems with crying and meltdowns when plans are changed may have poor executive functioning in terms of self-regulation and impulse control
  • Social skills (Socializing): children with social challenges may also have executive functioning issues. For example, an impulsive or inattentive child may feel like ‘a bull in a china shop,’ which will impact social interactions

Book Resources on Executive Functioning in Childhood

1] Nicole Kreiser, Ph.D. ‘Intolerance of Uncertainty’: IMFAR conference (May, 2016: Baltimore). Conference notes.

[2]: Madrigal, S., & Winner, M.G. (2008). Superflex. A superhero social thinking curriculum. Think Social Publishing. San Jose.

[3] Greene, Ross W. (2001). The explosive child: A new approach for understanding and parenting easily frustrated, chronically inflexible children.

[4] Huebner, Dawn (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety (What to do guides for kids).

[5] Seigel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2014). No drama-discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind.

[6] Dewdney, Anna (2007). Llama Llama mad at mama.

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

[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). Brainstars — Brain 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. 

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