Teaching a distractable kid to focus? Talk amongst yourselves.

Tony’s trying to help his son learn to organize himself:

I was searching through older articles looking for tips on helping kids build organizational skills. Our 7-year old son is quite bright and active, but has extremely poor organization skills. Partially the way a 7-year old boy is wired, I’m sure, but it’d be nice to work on strengthening him in this area. We’re hoping to come up with some ways to get him to focus on single tasks and maybe organize his own schedule a bit, as per this hack. We may tweak it a bit to be more task-oriented, but it’s a great hack.

Anyways, if appropriate, I’d love to see a discussion about it.

More than appropriate! A fantastic topic for discussion, especially with kids back in school. Our son has great difficulty organizing himself as well, and we have found that the two best supports are routines and visual prompts.

Routines: We’ve come up with routines for school mornings, mealtime, coming home from school, evening, and bedtime. We encourage him to complete them in order so eventually it will become rote habit. We also reward him with a "point" each time he completes his routine.

Visual prompts: Routines and other reminders are posted around the house, in the kitchen, his bedroom, etc. During the summer, I took to writing a "daily agenda" and then planned with him how he was going to do the things he wanted to do (play his game time, etc.) within the constraints of the agenda. Calendars, planners, anything that makes time and location concrete. When he was younger, we used the Melissa and Doug magnetic calendar and responsibility chart.

Granted, both of these require a lot of coaching, but it’s the first step in learning to do it himself.

I would also encourage you to talk to your pediatrician (or, even better, a developmental pediatrician) about his focus problems. There could be a medical component to this as well.

What are your suggestions for helping a child learn organizational skills?


  1. Brian says

    I find that while you have to have routines and all those other crutches, the simplest things, like saying please and thank you make a big difference when switching gears with our toddler. When she hears that, as she’s accustomed to, she instantly knows that mommy and daddy mean business (not that we are mean, we say it politely) and that it’s time for a little structure. It also really helps you as a parent keep your cool to be mindful to say please and thanks.

  2. says

    I find anytime you can make cleaning into a game it becomes a lot easier to keep their attention. (At least for a little bit)

    For toddlers if you use colored bins for their toys so they know that each color is for a certain thing it almost makes it a game in itself to put them away when they are done playing!

    – Kathlene
    Is Your Family Connected?

  3. Andrew says

    We have been having some behavior issues at school and have been discussing some sort of check list/reward chart. I stumbled across this which is designed more for teaching money responsibilities(This might merit it’s own conversation), but has some interesting charts.

    But Melissa & Doug also make a responsibility chart. That we may look into.

  4. says

    I write columns called, My Parent,My Mentor for some parenting mags. One of my favorite organizational tips is “tools for the task.” Basically, this means having all the tools needed to do a particular task together in one spot. For homework time, each of my kids has a homework drawer. They grab the drawer, which has everything needed for their age, when it’s time to do homework. My son, in 1st grade, has things like crayons, paper, pencils, etc. My daughter, who is older, has a calculator I use for checking homework, tons of pencils with erasers, everything she could need. This approach saves anywhere from 10-15 minutes a day…looking for misc. supplies, etc. That’s over an hour a week. Same concept goes for their clothes, hygeine supplies, etc. My kids wouldn’t think of doing homework without their “homework drawer.” This is a tool that will become so much a part of your kids lives, even they will begin to incorporate it in other ways as they get older!

  5. Rebecca Hansen says

    I really love “the tools for the task” idea. As the mom of five highly capable but diagnosed ADD/ADHD kids, AND a Title 1 Instructional Aide, I can attest to the fact that having it all there can save TONS of time and frustration. We can easily lose an hour looking for a pencil. Another thing that we found very helpful, besides profound reliance on visual prompts and schedules, was biofeedback sessions.
    I really thought it was a lot of “hooey”, but after meeting with our pediatrician and giving it a try, I am sold. Our insurance paid for it, and it made a HUGE difference for our middle son when we opted to stop his medications. He was probably 10 at the time, and is 13 now. Not super organized still, but he’s doing very well in all areas.

  6. MidlifeMidwife says

    I think all of the ideas so far are great. I’d also like to say that it helps not to over-stimulate kids who are distractible. You need to limit things like video games, TV shows, and computer activities. I also think that adults sometimes set kids up for failure without realizing it. If my child can’t handle certain activities, then we just don’t participate in them at all. That way, he isn’t out of control and I don’t have to spend a lot of time yelling at him (for behavior he isn’t aware of or can help).

  7. says

    You are so right! It is key to consider what your child can handle. And for ADD/ADHD kids, they can become a different person with the slightest change in stimuli, like an additionl child in the room. I find that individualizing based on what they can handle really helps and when your child is ready…say, for sleep overs…it will all evolve naturally.

  8. says

    I’ve found something that helps enormously is for ME to be organized and focused as a model for my child. If I’m disorganized, then she is. If I model being organized it’s easier for her. Not easy as I have ADD. The tools for the task thing is key – having an organized house helps. Eventually though we had to admit with our child that the key thing that helped her pull everything together despite all our other efforts was Ritalin. She is a different, and much happier, child when she’s taking it. NOT the answer for everyone I know, but when it works, it works!

  9. says

    Similar to the homework drawer, my 9-year old uses a Mead organizer that I got at Walmart for less than $10. On the front, there is an outside pocket large enough to hold plenty of items. Behind this pocket are slots for pencils/pens. Then you unzip the main compartment to find three pockets to hold papers, a three-ring binder to hold notebook paper and then a back pocket to hold other kinds of papers. In the three-ring section, I have put his project assignment in a sheet protector since it’s something he has to refer regularly. This has worked really well for us. When it’s time to do homework, he just picks this up and goes.

  10. says

    I work in a foster home with seventeen (at the moment) children from six months to about first-grade age, and usually have three to four caregivers on site at any given time of the day. Needless to say, we have to get daily activities done for each child, and be highly economical and practical in the process. We have a few very “distractable” kids, and some experience routine for the very first time in their lives with us. Because of this, I would highly emphasize some sort of daily routine that *everyone* follows, no matter what. Also, it helps to find something that the “distractable” kids will focus on. Some of ours get bored when it comes to working on paper, no matter the medium, but break out the sidewalk chalk or a stick/shovel/rake/implement of destruction, and they will come to work with you and you will be the one telling them when work time is over. They adore that they “get” to use such grown-up tools, and of course because they are supervised, injuries are rare and minor. Don’t believe me? Come visit.

  11. barb says

    Love the chalk idea. There are lots of alternatives for spelling words – shaving cream on the wall of the tub/shower comes to mind, as does a stick in the sand. Check out Michelle Garcia Winner for organization tips for kids – she’s brilliant!