Getting Kids Organized

I’ve been there. Maybe you have to.

You walk into a neighbour or friend’s home and think, “Ugh. How can this house look immaculate when she has three kids and works full time!?”

What keeps that home so together is a trait called “executive functioning.” It’s a skill – planning, organizing and completing simple or complex tasks – that some of us have more DNA for than others. It’s also a trait that our children inherit that either wrecks havoc on schoolwork, desks, and backpacks – or propels them straight to the exemplary column.

My DNA for executive functioning (EF) trailed far behind my sister’s – who inherited enough for three of us. So I had to compensate for this missing link. I’ve taken courses, hired coaches, and sat in conferences to learn the magic of getting and staying organized – two very different animals. I’ve learned a lot.

First, your kids are either born with strong EF skills or they’re not. If they lined up their shoes and toys when they were toddlers or intuitively knew how to put toys back, their brain is wired for the organization. You won’t have to do too much to help them along in the homework, desk patrol, and clean-out-the-backpack arena. A simple reminder will usually work – or a set day of the week to do it. Until they become teens and their EF skills hibernate.


If they didn’t get that EF trait, it’s our job as parents to help those adorable but dishevelled and disorganized children build skills so they can still thrive in school. The good news is that all the frustration, effort, and patience it takes you is an investment in their future. Your kids will need these skills in college, in future jobs, and yes, to coach their own kids.

Sarah’s STOP

One of the organizational resources I tapped is an executive function expert named Sarah Ward. She gives an amazing talk about EF skills and how to acquire them. One of her flagship ideas is called STOP. It’s a great technique for kids who struggle reading social and spatial cues – and the precursor to getting more organized.

STOP stands for Space, Time, Objects, and People. Use it to coach your kids on how to better orientate themselves (situational intelligence): Stop – Where am I, what do I need to have with me here?; Time – What is happening now? Later?; Objects – How is the room organized?; People -What are people’s facial expressions and body language telling me? Once they master STOP, they will be on their way to conquering tasks like being ready for gym class, getting homework finished and turned it, and cleaning their rooms! Read more about Sarah Ward’s program here.

PAVE the way to organization

A pneumonic I created to help keep kids more organized is PAVE the way to organization. P = Picture it (originated by Sarah Ward); A = Agenda Action; V= Visual maps; E= External structures. The first three steps require your child to do the work once you establish the foundation; the last step is the parents’ role.

celan desk

Picture it means visual prompts – photos – of what your child’s desk, backpack, bedroom, cubby, and “ready-to-go” state ideally looks like. Take photos and attach them to doors, bathroom mirrors, desks, backpacks, and sports bags to serve as reminders. Most kids respond well to visuals. Ask your kids if they match the picture or if their backpack, bedroom, or desk matches up. No more nagging is needed.

Agenda & action is for third graders and up who use a weekly school calendar to organize their work. An agenda is a great tool but only as good as the words written down and sequence of action followed. Show your child how to write down when a project is due or a test is scheduled AND the action steps needed to prepare for that day. This is a step most teachers don’t have time to teach. Coach them to use it daily.

visual map

Visual maps are similar to corporate mind maps and graphic organizers that kids use for prewriting. But instead of using words, kids use pictures of their thoughts and ideas to create outlines for reports, projects, and presentations. This helps them visualize the concept or what they will write about. Visual maps also work for spelling words, math story problems, and book reports.

External Structures are verbal supports from a parent that encourage children and keep them motivated. These include previewing (being proactive and alerting your child to what’s ahead), reviewing (revisiting and praising the progress and effort made or what might be done differently next time), and reminding (gentle nudges – not nagging – about events, activities, homework, etc. that need attention).