Taming the Disorganized Child: Tools to help you with your distracted and disorganized child
By Maria Deniston, MS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist and Jill Yochim, MA, Educational Specialist
James, a middle-schooler, comes home from a long day at school and looks forward to downtime playing video games. After dinner, he searches for 15 minutes to find the scrap of paper where he wrote down his homework assignments, while his mother does the same, providing help that he does not appreciate. Upon finding the scribbled down assignment, three paragraphs on the night’s social studies reading, James shuts down. He says it’s too much. For half an hour his mother cajoles him, trying to convince him that he can get it done while he argues back. Finally, she gives him an ultimatum–finish the work or no video games. Resentfully, James reads the social studies text for 15 minutes and writes three acceptable paragraphs in another 25 minutes. The assignment, which has created tension between them, took 40 minutes to complete. The evening’s entire homework saga, however, took nearly an hour and a half.
Cassie is a seven-year-old who can’t seem to get ready for school in the morning without constant nagging from her mother. Her mother has given her three things to take care of by herself: brushing her teeth, getting dressed and brushing her hair. Inevitably, when it is time to head out the door, none of the tasks have been completed and she is in her room mesmerized by one of her Barbies. Her mother is exasperated with telling her repeatedly to “Brush your teeth” or “Get dressed!” and tired of being rushed every morning. She finally brushes Cassie’s hair and dresses her because if she doesn’t they will be late. She can’t understand how Cassie gets distracted so easily or her daughter’s inability to accept the structure she tries to provide.
Disorganized or distracted behavior seems analogous with childhood. Children are known for getting distracted easily, especially when there is so much to lure their attention–music, TV, toys, their natural need to fidget, etc. But some kids struggle more than others. For those who struggle the most, distraction or disorganization can actually lead to a lifetime of perceived failure, lack of self-esteem and an inability to function in the world.
To avoid this, children need to develop a range of skills and habits that they may be missing in key areas, like planning and organization, time management, task initiation and impulse control. As children try to learn these skills and experience success, they are more likely to sense how their actions can have a positive impact on the world around them. If not, they may give up on wanting to try. With enough negative feedback, they may get overloaded and shut down.
So how do you help the disorganized child develop skills and habits in these areas? Work on getting the habits to become automatic. Kids need lots of practice. Use structure to establish order. For some parents this is tricky. Perhaps, organization doesn’t come easily to you so you’re unsure how to begin. Or you are so organized you can’t understand how your child isn’t, and you tend to do things for him. Identify your own tendencies so you can better understand your child and your relationship. Structure may seem constraining, but within it is freedom. Starting with a lot of structure and slowly pulling back over time will help your child develop the habits you want.
Here are four steps and examples to get you started:
- Make measureable attainable goals: Re-think your expectations and set short-term goals. Children need to feel like they’re making progress. Break a task into smaller steps and take one task at a time. If you give your child too much to take on at once, he may feel overwhelmed and be unwilling to try. Remember to focus on small achievements and give credit when they are accomplished.
With a child like Cassie who has trouble getting out of the house in the morning, try breaking her tasks into smaller parts. See if she can complete one of the tasks, like brushing her teeth, without supervision for a few weeks before you introduce another one. Create a visual chart of what she must do. Or tape a picture of Cassie brushing her teeth to the inside of her door. When she wakes up in the morning, she sees the picture and is reminded of what she needs to do. Add tasks like brushing hair and getting dressed after brushing her teeth becomes a habit. Reduce your expectation from having her complete all of the tasks to mastering one task at a time, and she will have a greater likelihood of success.
- Provide external structure: Give more help at first to establish the routine, and then take it away slowly over time. If you provide motivation and positive reinforcement at the outset your child will develop new habits and routines in the long run.
For instance, try getting his backpack straightened with the acronym PACK: Purge, Accessorize, Categorize, and Keep It Up! (developed by Donna Goldberg in The Organized Student). Reference PACK often and make sure he understands the steps. Help him Purge what he doesn’t need. Provide leading questions so he comes to decisions on his own, such as “What do we do first?” Accessorize with pouches or cases that can hold small, miscellaneous items. Categorize papers and make compartments so that everything has a place. For younger kids, you can even take a picture of what is supposed to be inside the container and stick the picture to the exterior so he knows what goes inside. Keep following the practice every night (Keep It Up!). Eventually, he will develop the habit of going through his backpack on his own.
- Engage your child in the process: Find the right motivator.
James’s parents sense his frustration and decide to talk with him about what they can change together. They empower him to control his schedule by giving him the freedom to choose how to spend his free time but developing parameters on how to earn it. They create a color-coded schedule with his school commitments in green, family in blue, and sports in orange so that James can visualize his scheduled and unscheduled time. His motivation is all the unscheduled, white space that he sees after 7:00 PM. A color-coded schedule shows him his commitments and helps him understand that he has free time to look forward to once his obligations have been met.
- Adapt his environment: If your child needs stimulation to stay alert, provide alternative seating, like a ball chair, so he can wiggle around while he works. Reduce visual distractions or create a special space just for homework. For the child who has trouble sitting still, give motor breaks. Physical activity is good–distracted kids need to release energy so they can try to focus calmly on their task. If something doesn’t work, try again and adapt it to fit with your child.
For an active, fidgety child, give him a break from sitting to run a few laps or ride his scooter. Exercise or heavy work can calm him so that he can focus on his schoolwork afterward. Set boundaries by suggesting a five-minute race outside on the condition that when you come in, it’s time to study. Keep trying new strategies . Sometimes a minor tweak can make the difference.
- Look for small successes leading to big gains over time.
The goal for the disorganized child is to get him to self-monitor and to create the ability to complete what’s expected of him without even thinking about it. For organized adults, this comes easily because they’ve had years of experience or childhood training from a parent who provided structure and reinforcement. For children with a propensity for being disorganized and distracted, setting up an environment where small accomplishments are celebrated and skills are built over time can lead to a happy, confident child who grows into an independent, confident adult. You too can feel confident that you have provided the tools necessary for your child’s success.
We know texting while driving has consequences, but what about texting when doing homework?
It’s something almost all kids do, and most parents have also been known to check their text messages at their desk. If we’re being honest, most of us have our cell phone within arm’s reach when we’re at work, and we will glance at it from time to time. When we’re defending the practice we call it “multitasking.” How bad could it really be?
Pretty bad, according to a recent study that found the mere presence of a smartphone reduces a person’s ability to focus. In the study, undergraduates asked to leave their phones in another room did better on cognitive tests than those who were asked to silence their phones and leave them face down on their desk or in a bag.
In the experiment, even students who said they weren’t thinking consciously about their cell phones still experienced a loss in ability, which means some of this distraction is happening on an unconscious level. This is bad news for those of us who think we’re pretty good at not being distracted by the phone when we’re working.
“I hear about these issues about technology all the time,” says Matt Cruger, director of the Learning and Development Center at the Child Mind Institute. He says that with the kids he works with, he isn’t concerned about their capacity to be able to do homework, but with “the capacity to really get in the mindset of thinking about homework-related activities.” In other words, they could do their work if they were able to focus on it. And while trouble focusing on homework is hardly something new for children, captivating new technologies aren’t making it any easier.
Why are tech devices so distracting? For starters, most apps and web content are engineered to be as user-friendly and addictive as possible. They ping us with notifications when we get a new message or when someone has posted something we might be interested in. They are reliable sources of validation that tell us when someone likes something we’ve posted.
And we know there is always something new to look at. Even if we haven’t heard the buzz alerting us to something new, we might find ourselves restlessly reaching for the phone to scroll through the constantly updating feeds full of pictures and headlines and jokes curated just for us. We might also feel some pressure to keep up.
But there are also some less-obvious reasons why kids may be particularly hooked. Phones are where young people do a lot of their socializing now, especially as they reach the pre-teen and teenage years, when their major developmental goals are to start crafting an identity separate from their parents and to prioritize forming friendships with their peers — goals that are made for spending hours on social media.
Compared to adults, kids also have a less developed ability to control their impulses. If it’s sometimes hard for their parents to unplug, imagine how hard it is for a child who struggles with impulsivity or a teen with a new BFF to resist checking her phone. Prioritizing getting started on a book report or even studying for tomorrow’s test won’t be nearly as compelling.
Many adults and kids share the idea that when we are texting or monitoring feeds while we work we are still being productive — we are able to juggle everything at once. But neuropsychologists aren’t optimistic about how productive multitasking really is. “Having multiple sources of technology at your fingertips and available at all times probably is almost a guarantee of a reduction in performance and productivity,” says Dr. Cruger.
For one thing, there’s what experts call “resumption lag.” That’s the period of time between when you were interrupted from a task and when you resume it. Transitioning between tasks isn’t seamless, and the time spent collecting your thoughts prior to resuming a task add up.
A study out of Stanford in 2009 examined how well multitaskers are able to process information. People considered heavy media multitaskers were found to have more difficulty ignoring irrelevant but distracting things in their environment. As a result they actually performed worse on a test of task switching ability when compared to people who were lighter multitaskers.
Multitasking means working less efficiently even when you think you’re applying yourself. That’s because people dividing their attention aren’t able to engage in their work with the fluency they might otherwise have. “They’re not free to think about what’s the best way to do something,” Dr. Cruger explains. “Kids will start a task, try to get the task done, but not take the time to travel along and figure out how to do the task best.”
While the work might still get finished, multitasking adds up to shallower thinking and more time spent actually working. But it’s hard for kids to see it that way. “If you haven’t really established a disciplined routine for learning and thinking, it’s hard to have a sense of what to compare your current performance against,” notes Dr. Cruger.
Kids who struggle with attention
There’s a kind of myth that kids who have ADHD are uniquely suited to multitasking.
At a Child Mind Institute event about how children are affected by technology, Ali Wentworth, actress, comedian and host of the event, described how she found her teenage daughter the evening before: She was doing her homework on one screen, texting on another, with Gilmore Girls playing on a third. When Wentworth protested, her daughter told her, “I have ADHD. This is how I do my homework.”
In reality, multitasking during homework can be particularly difficult for kids who have ADHD.
“There’s pretty compelling literature that suggests that nobody is actually good at multitasking, but I think kids who have ADHD also have a set of cognitive distortions about their skills and capacities,” says Dr. Cruger. “They’re probably worse at multitasking than people without ADHD, but they often think they’re better at it.”
That might be because the constant stimulation offered by tech devices is very appealing to kids with ADHD. Short bursts of attention, with immediate rewards, are easier for them than paying sustained attention. But trying to do both at the same time — juggling homework and Snapchat — would be particularly difficult for them.
That’s because people with ADHD struggle with executive functions, which are the self-regulating skills we use to do things like shift between situations, control our emotions and impulsivity, and organize and make plans. These are all skills that are integral to doing homework and they are weakened further when we are dividing our attention across multiple platforms.
“One of the psychological impacts for people with ADHD is they have to make smart decisions about how to use their resources wisely because they have limited attentional resources and they have limited capacity to do the hard work of learning naturally,” explains Dr. Cruger. “It just takes more effort for them.”
Given that kids with ADHD are particularly susceptible to the stimulation that tech devices provide, and that focusing on homework is already harder for them, successfully doing both would be incredibly difficult.
Related: What Is Working Memory?
A distraction-free mind
Setting up a homework routine that minimizes distractions is important, especially if your child struggles with attention, or seems to be finding that her homework is taking much longer than it should.
Let her know that the goal is to make doing homework easier and less stressful. Removing those distractions should improve her homework experience and leave her with more actual free time.
If it’s difficult to get your child’s buy-in, establishing regular homework breaks where she gets to walk away from her homework and check social media or check her texts can make this an easier sell. But to be effective, the breaks should be planned and discrete — they shouldn’t bleed into homework time and ideally they should happen away from her study space, which should be a place for focusing.
This sort of discipline might not come naturally to kids or adults, but learning to unplug from distractions is a life skill that will become increasingly important as technology becomes more absorbing, and the need to learn and stay focused doesn’t go away.
Do Video Games Cause ADHD?
Strategies to Make Homework Go More Smoothly
How Using Social Media Affects Teenagers
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