Q: How did you discover the need for organized thinking in family life?
A: I’ve been a developmental-behavioral pediatrician for 20 years, and I see a wide range of kids — kids with autism, kids with ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome, learning difficulties, behavior problems — and the complaints that the parents came forward with were always related to executive dysfunctions. “Why can’t my child get ready in the morning? How come my child will do their homework but forget to turn it in? Why does my child struggle making friends? How come my child always argues with me?” My intent was to help make raising an organized child clear and accessible for families so that we could help teach these executive functions from a young age.
How do you narrow all of that down into a five-step process?
A: There are themes that apply across ages, and you just apply them differently:
1. Be consistent. Parents need to be consistent, they need to teach consistency. They need to have the same routines consistently.
2. Introduce order. Kids need to have a sense that there’s a beginning, a middle and an end to everything. A project isn’t done until it’s finished.
3. Give everything a place so that we recognize there is spatial order.
4. Practice forward thinking, which means anticipating, estimating, planning.
5. Promote problem solving, which is imagination, grasping the big picture and taking perspective.
Can a disorganized parent raise an organized child?
A: When we value something, that value is transferred to our kids. A parent can say: “Listen, I’m doing the best I can. I’m working on it. You need to be working on this, too.” And that value transfers to kids who can develop their own organizational skills. Nobody is totally disorganized. They may be really messy and not always on time, but good at stepping back and showing the big picture. They can emphasize those areas of strength when they’re teaching their kids to be organized. And, for a disorganized adult, these five steps apply to them, too. If I can make it more simple for an adult to be organized, it will only rub off on their kids.
With the school year on the horizon, how can parents make the changes necessary to get both themselves and their children better organized?
A: If we look at preschoolers, we should start by introducing routines. Routines help us be more successful in our school days. Having a routine teaches that things have a beginning, a middle and an end. We take out the toy, we play with the toy, and we put away the toy. That will help us in school.
We should have routines around where things go. We come home, we take off our shoes, and the shoes go in a certain place.
At this age we’re also teaching about independence. You want to let them try things, struggle and figure it out. If we’re getting them ready, putting on all of their clothes, pouring their milk, then they don’t learn those skills.
Q: How does organizational thinking change as children age?
A: Children, by the time they’re in third grade, can be making their breakfast and packing their lunch, and that requires an element of planning. As they get a little bit older they [can be] telling parents what they should be shopping for so that those things are available to them. It’s these tasks in life that involve planning that we should involve our kids in.
We should allow them to manage their homework more as they move through elementary school, manage their sports bag and really think about the routines around each of those kinds of tasks.
For kids who struggle, there are things we can do to support [them]. We can make lists or mini-routines where we write out: “Here are the steps to making your breakfast. Here are the steps to making your lunch.” We can organize their environment and say, “All the lunch foods are on this shelf in the pantry and this shelf in the refrigerator” so that they don’t open the refrigerator and go, “I don’t know what I want.”
It’s learning to take the routine things we do in life and put order to them.
Older kids will have additional responsibilities and interests outside of the home. How do we incorporate those into our routines?
A: By middle school, even late elementary school, we can use calendars so that kids can see what’s coming up. When they have events, we encourage them to record them on the calendars, and we talk about planning, even with these young kids. Talking about the issues that occurred the year before and coming up with planful solutions to deal with them is useful. As kids get to be teenagers, we are giving them more independence, but we’re emphasizing that routines are important.
What's your best advice to parents as they prepare for a new school year?
A: The role of your parenting evolves over time. A young child needs a parent that’s a coach, who tells them how to do things, who calls the plays for them, who says, “When we get home, we’re going to do our homework, if you need help let’s work on it together.”
But by late elementary school that role should shift. Parents ought to, if the child is developing appropriately, be more of a manager. “It looks like the team needs to be working more on homework. It looks like the team needs to get a bit more exercise.” But not telling them, “Okay, we’re going to go outside, and we’re going to run for 20 minutes.” It’s not telling them what they have to do first and [what] they’re doing second, but it’s talking in terms of themes.
And by the time a person is ready for high school, ideally the parent becomes a consultant. “I’m here if you need me.” With that in mind, it gives the parent the idea that “Okay, if I’m going to be a consultant by the time that they’re in high school, then I need to be backing off sooner in order for my child to have a chance of getting there.”