When Organization is Not So Important

If we are to be successful in life, what could possibly be more important than organization? A secretary with good organizational skills. A best friend who shares notes with you. A good teacher who gives you a week at a glance at what you are going to learn. A smartphone that you know how to use as a tool instead of a toy. Not hating to learn.

That last one is really important so let me restate it: not hating to learn is more important than being organized. Period. School should not be a soul-sucking activity, nor should parenting. But I get it — kids need to be able to do basic organizational tasks like complete homework, remember to brush their teeth and take medicine on a schedule. So where does it go wrong? How does a 16 year old still not manage his life — academic or social — despite our best efforts?

Part of what happens, I think, is that we go all or nothing with our kids. One minute they have no responsibilities and the next they are expected to juggle everything. I think about my own daughter who mastered potty training, basic hygiene and getting her own breakfast around 18 months old, and then there were no new expectations until she was a teenager. Then came the maintaining of her room, of her body, of the kitchen, of her schoolwork, of her friendships, etc. Kaboom! All at once. She did it. Well, not the bedroom or the kitchen, but the rest of it. She did it because she both wanted to be and could be mostly independent. But she still gets lonely when she is away from us. And she still makes mistakes. And she still procrastinates. And she is 16 with no apparent learning differences.

So imagine the 16 year old with learning differences, especially a boy whose hormones will be raging for another 5 or 6 years. He’s an organizational nightmare because his hardwiring and his hormones say so. They are in charge, not he (and certainly not you). This means that sometimes just working on one organizational tool at a time — the in/out folder, getting assignments written down, using a common calendar. But just pick one, and stick to it until it feels routine for your child. It will feel routine for you much faster than it will for him, so try and be patient.

Be encouraging with each little step — it is a win every time you all get closer to a routine. It is important to set a goal for each week For instance, “if you can use this bit of organization 3 out of 5 school days, we can go do something fun”. Please do not use candy or dessert as a reward. To associate food with these tasks just feels a little too much like an eating disorder in the making. You can have it add screen time to the week or maybe afford the opportunity to go to the movies. You may need to come up with your own list of activities you will be willing to do and ask your child to do the same. This way there is less bargaining, and you can assign which activities go with which level of achievement.

Positive reinforcement, bringing joy to the process and facilitating success — these are the skills you need to master. So take a deep breath and jump on it. School is about to start and your student’s limbic system response needs to be in fight mode, not flight mode. Let’s do this!

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