BrainSTARS: Organization

Jeanne E. Dise-Lewis, PhD, Margaret Lohr Calvery, PhD, and Hal C. Lewis, PhD, BrainSTARS
BrainSTARS: Organization

A student with organizational weaknesses is unable to organize her workspaces, her learning process, and her daily life independently. Parents and teachers need to set up and maintain organizational systems.

Use everyday activities

1. Prepare your child in advance if there is something you need her to do. Remember to focus on the positive: tell your child what to do and avoid telling her what she should not do.

2. Create routines and schedules for everyday events (meals, leaving for school, bedtime) and as much as possible, stick with them. Prepare your child for a change in the routine, and give her a visual reminder about the change, if possible.

3. Provide visual reminders and teach their use. Break down multi-step activities and sequence them, using pictures or phrases.

4. State the clearly defined behaviors you expect from your child. For example, at breakfast, say “Please sit at the table and eat until we are through. Take your plate to the sink, then you may be excused.” OR, “At story time, we all sit with our hands in our laps and listen to the story.”

5. Use a daily planner to make the structure of his day obvious to your child. A planner allows your child to prepare herself for transitions, so that she is not taken by surprise. A daily planner is also a useful way to send information back and forth between school and home. Finally, it can serve as a source of data collection when difficulties arise, helping you to find patterns in your child’s behavior.

6. A chore your child does every day provides a natural way to practice organizational skills. Help your child select a chore that you know she is capable of doing successfully and will enjoy.

7. Take an active role in directing everyday conversations to help your child organize what she wants to say. Consider using an “interview technique” in which you ask her clear questions about the topic. For example, avoid “ how was the science fair?” Instead, use, “what was your favorite project at the science fair?”

Change the environment

1. Simplify the task of sorting through school papers and getting them to the correct destination. Provide your child with two folders, and two folders only.  One should be marked TAKE TO SCHOOL and the other marked TAKE HOME. Go through your child’s backpack and TAKE HOME folder. Sign papers and place them in the TAKE TO SCHOOL folder. Organize her homework assignments with her, and direct her to put finished assignments in the TAKE TO SCHOOL folder.  At school, she should look in the folder at the start of each class and turn in assignments.

  • Review the TAKE HOME and TAKE TO SCHOOL folders with your student both at home and at school, daily.

2. At the beginning of each semester, ask for a list of required assignments, tests, and projects for the semester, so you can help your child anticipate and arrange her work.

3. For long range projects, teach your child to use a large planning calendar. Backward-chain the steps necessary to get the project completed by the due date.

4. Provide a daily contact person to review schedule, materials, and assignments before and after school.

5. Use a “back-and-forth” notebook to convey necessary information between teachers and parents, which your child may forget.

6. Assist your student in getting started on an activity or task by prompting her with, “Okay, what is the first part of this project?”  If she responds with an idea that is relevant but not a good starting point, write the idea down, and prompt “That’s good, but before you can do that part, there is something you’ll need to do first.” Assist her in this manner to brainstorm the relevant aspects of the project or activity.

7. Your student will be more organized if she does not have to do several activities at the same time. For example, do not require her to listen and take notes at the same time. Assign a good note-taking buddy to give your student the class notes at the end of each class, or provide an outline of essential points.

8. Use true/false, multiple choice, and matching formats for tests.

9. Break down information into smaller steps or parts:

10. A student who has difficulty organizing what he wants to say may feel peer pressure to respond more quickly than he is able. Teachers should state their interest in the quality of the students’ responses and establish a classroom policy of allowing ample time for students to think about their answers before responding in classroom discussions. Outside the classroom, be sure to allow the student time and support necessary to enter a conversation and say her piece.

11. Give your student advance notice that she will be called upon, allowing her to prepare an organized response. For example, “Tomorrow, I will ask you to talk about three causes of the Civil War.”

12. A student with weak organizational abilities will often mimic or follow the example of friends or peers, because she has a hard time thinking of what to do on her own. If necessary, help your student select the most socially appropriate or competent peers and encourage her to hang out with these students.

Teach new skills

1. Children with organizational difficulties often miss “the big picture.”  They have difficulty understanding unstructured situations. Therefore, they are prone to have problems at recess or during lunch periods when spontaneous, hard-to-predict, and action-oriented behavior occurs. Rehearse safe and predictable activities that your child can do at these times to reduce the likelihood of aggressive behavior or episodes of poor judgment.

2. Practice and rehearse the behavior you expect your child to show in each setting. Add structure to unstructured settings by telling her what she should be doing.

3. Teach your student to use a divided notebook with pockets to organize notes and assignments.

4. Teach your student organizational strategies for taking tests, such as:

  • Read all directions twice
  • Read over the entire test before starting
  • Estimate the amount of time you will need to complete each section or question
  • Answer all questions you definitely know first
  • On multiple choice items, narrow down your choices by crossing out the answers you know are wrong
  • Outline your ideas briefly before you answer an essay question

5. Teach your student how to outline material using either a standard outline or a web. Teach her to highlight key information (who, what, where, when, why).  Review her work and rehearse it with her.

6. Work with your student to set up an organized desk or work space, and teach her to keep all materials in their proper places.

7. Teach your student to label clearly all texts, notebooks, and workbooks, using a system for identifying materials needed for the same class (eg, a large red M on the spine of the math text, math notebook, and math supplies box).

8. A child with organizational weaknesses often appears forgetful or seems to have memory problems. The real difficulty is that she does not organize new information when she is learning it so that she can recall it easily later. Teach your student to pay attention to an important event or new information, to purposefully note it, and to ask herself how she will remember it later. Think of your hall closet. At any time it might contain, boots, coats, hats, soccer equipment, a tennis racquet, gloves, the phone book, shopping bags and a dog leash.  If you organize the closet, putting the hats and gloves in a basket, leash and umbrella on a hook, coats on hangers, sports equipment on the shelf, then it becomes much easier to retrieve a specific item.

9. Teach your student time management skills and work with her to develop an awareness of about how much time is required for different activities.

See other BrainSTARS articles.

Posted on BrainLine October 1, 2013.

From BrainSTARS, Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams And Re-education for Students, © 2002 Jeanne Dise-Lewis, PhD. Used with permission. The manual is available in English and Spanish. For more information or to order copies, call 720.777.5470 or A short video on how to use the BrainSTARS manual is available at