How to help your child get more organised: tips from a Hong Kong teacher

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 8:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 November, 2015, 8:31pm

My son is so disorganised I have given my helper a list to make sure he has everything each morning. The teacher also reports he cannot organise himself well and needs to be watched and directed in most activities. What can we do to help keep him be more organised?

It is interesting that you have given the list to the helper. Getting organised begins at home. And being disorganised is easy if you know someone else is going to take care of everything for you. How is he going to learn how to do it himself, so he can do it at school? Model the behaviour you want to see, show your helper how you want her to teach him, create lists that he can use and praise him for the things he remembers to pack up.

Often this type of support starts early. Packing your bags together and talking about what to take; the interaction of planning helps to stimulate your child's thinking and develop their ability to plan, and follow a plan, strengthening their ability to organise. In fact research on computer games suggests the ones that do stimulate children's learning are the ones that encourage them to think about what they need in advance. Planning, an activity computer games are poor at but everyday life is very good at. If your son has not fully developed this thinking process you can always start working on it with him.

Pack bags together side by side. Asking questions of him constantly. "Should we take water?", "Why?", "Oh, yes, that's a good idea", and so on. Add these phrases into your discussions so he starts to feel his thinking is needed and he begins to understand what you will think is a good idea. If he wants to take something that is unneeded you can let him and ask, "Why do you think we need that?", "It is really heavy". During or after an outing unpack your bags and talk about what you used and why it was a good idea to take it or how it might be useful in the future. Putting the needed items in context will develop his critical thinking skills, see the importance of packing the right things and make him feel successful at the useful items he has packed.

Create a list that he is able to use ... PE kit on Thursdays, violin Monday, kung fu kit, piano music and extra snack, Tuesday, and so on.

Demonstrate to the helper how to support him, and not just do the work. Remind her that part of her job is to teach him. Your teaching your son will show her how to stand back and guide him. Also explain to her that it will take extra time for her to do this patiently so relieve her of some work at times so she can stand with him and guide - especially during the busy morning times when you are there to observe and support her efforts. Tell her clearly "I will get my breakfast, so you have time to support his packing, but don't do it for him".

Create a list that he is able to use. Depending on his age this might be a set of pictures or a list. You can create columns for days of the week and review what items he needs on each day: PE kit on Thursdays, violin Monday, kung fu kit, piano music and extra snack, Tuesday, and so on. If he is old enough, give him the list, or create a picture list of things he needs to pack. Do this together, taking pictures of the items, putting them in order; talk about what he thinks the order should be, and why, to help him develop connections to being organised and why it is important.

As he improves you can play games such as can you pack your bag without the list? Cover it up or do the packing in another room, then check the bag together and give him a star for each item at first and later a star for the full list remembered. An extra star if he remembers something needed because today is a special day and the item is not on the list. Little children will be very excited to get five stars and want to try for more the next day.

For older children choose a simple reward, like getting to choose the fruit for dessert or a sticker from a special sheet of stickers you bought together. 

For older children choose a simple reward, like getting to choose the fruit for dessert or a sticker from a special sheet of stickers you bought together. Older ones can accumulate enough stickers to choose the pizza on Friday night or an evening with dad playing basketball. Always offer rewards based on the age and ability of your child and try to keep the focus on the rewards of being prepared for an activity itself.

In the beginning, find time at the end of the day to review how the day went because he was organised, such as "Was your teacher happy you remembered your homework today?", "Were you ready for swimming quickly today?", and the like. Let his teacher know what you are doing so she remembers to compliment him, too.

After a few intensive weeks you may be able to ease up, but keep using the lists and talking about how happy you are with his efforts. He needs to understand that being organised is important and make it a part of his own thinking.

Kris Gienger teaches at a Hong Kong primary school