Helping the Disorganized Child

Presenter: Mary Moody, M.A.
Mary Moody Passed away in 2014. She was a fountain of practical advice and information who cared deeply about children who struggle in a regular class. We invited her to do workshops in BC more than a dozen times for the PITA-Whistler conference and other ProD events. -Ray.

Note taker: Marjolein Thompson, student teacher from UBC-O. (My notes are in italics) Most of info. Taken from Mary Moody’s hand-out entitled ‘Helping the Disorganized Child’—Concepts Inc. Educational Resources.
Introduction: Disorganized children often receive a tremendous amount of negative attention from school staff and parents who feel that they could do so much better if they could ‘just be organized!’ We will examine both the common and the little known characteristics of disorganization and tackle some strategies to help the disorganized child better cope with the demands and expectations of school—and life. We cannot necessarily ‘cure’ the disorganized child, but we can definitely teach and practice survival skills. An added bonus is that all students in the class benefit from purposeful, specific attention to organization.
What are the characteristics of ‘disorganized’ children?
Most children are free to do what they like at young ages, before entering a structured environment such as kindergarten. They can eat when they are hungry, sleep when tired, play with whatever they choose and have no need for line-up skills or putting up hands to ask questions. When school begins they all of a sudden feel like they are stuck that old-fashioned ice-cube tray where the grid comes down on the water and ‘locks’ into place. All of a sudden they are faced with social and academic patterns for EVERYTHING…Being disorganized when young is ok but by grade 6 it is no longer funny, it is a problem. It is in the executive function of planning where the child has a problem, and his previous experience determines his pattern of behaviour. For example, have you ever gone to a completely different culture where your previous pattern of behaviour did not match the culture? Where the body movements, the non-verbal communication, were completely baffling to you and your learned pattern of behaviour totally incorrect in the different culture? If you do not know or cannot remember the pattern (time, place/space, materials/activities, social etc.) you cannot be organized.
When we use the term ‘disorganized’, all sorts of pictures—and students—come to mind. What are some of the characteristics of ‘disorganization’? List them under the appropriate heading, and yes, many overlap!
· TIME– We are immersed in a time based, segmented life at school. The disorganized child has no sense of time. The ‘hard-core’ disorganized child cannot tell 1 minute from2 hours, much like an artist loses himself in his muse and forgets all about time.
· MATERIALS/RESOURCES. This is a disorder of the patently obvious, that which the majority of people take for granted as totally normal, expected or evident.
· ACTIVITIES –such as a situation where the bell goes after recess and all the children notice that everyone else is running towards the doors to go back inside but that one disorganized child has no notion that everyone has left, he is so immersed in his swinging.
· SOCIALIZATION—i.e. Asperger syndrome/Autism? This can be quite serious. A person with social disorganization does not pick up on non-verbal communication/volume/pitch etc. but only understands gross, given facts. This person may be at risk for possible suicide, dealing with the constant negative reinforcement (being shunned) by his peers in all social situations.
· There is one more set of characteristics: coping behaviours. These are learned behaviours resulting from failing to be organized. Often they become stumbling blocks in and of themselves. Examples? The learned behaviours are like saying ‘I don’t care. Or ‘whatever’ and pretend to be happy with their ‘0’. In order to escape the many demands, they hide from them. They don’t understand why others are getting the pattern and they are not. These children are also at risk for drug abuse.

What framework is helpful in organizing ‘organization’?

There are a multitude of paradigms available to explore and explain the concept of organization. Since we are looking for understanding and strategies, we’re going to take a very functional view of organization.
· Being organized (i.e. understanding the big picture, aggregate picture or gestalt) basically involves four factors: time, place/space, materials/resources and activities.

· To orchestrate all the factors involved in a task, we must have awareness and be able to manage them by analyzing, synthesizing, prioritizing, altering and applying. (There are many more thinking skills involved than these five, but these are concrete enough that we can tackle them particularly in the classroom.)

—————————————————————Time —————————-Analyze, synthesize, prioritize
AWARENESS —————————Place/Space ——————————MANAGEMENT
—————————————-Materials/Resources —————————–alter, apply

A child who is disorganized at the management level (most of the disorganized people fall into this category) especially regarding managing time have an issue with prioritization. For example, a student spends 95% of her time on a beautiful title page worth 5% and 5% on the book report body worth 95%. Then they get 5/5 on the title page but do extremely poorly on the body of the work. Preparing for deadlines is important, or he will not be able to prepare for tests nor time himself during the test. Class discussions on prioritization are very helpful for all children.
A child who is ‘terminally disorganized’ at the awareness level is in serious trouble, and will likely flunk life if someone is not there to ‘hold his hand’ or direct him right through life. You only take out what you hook into. If you don’t hook into the pattern it starts a vicious cycle and you keep falling further and further behind.
The #1 thing to focus on in a child’s IEP should be organization skills. These are lessons that are massive life skills and should not be overlooked in favour of teaching ‘subjects’. When trying to organize a disorganized child, we don’t go down to the basics enough to reach them. They need to relearn the basic skills of organization (prioritizing etc.)
Materials/Resources: Some of the disorganization is genetic, some is environmental (i.e. the whole family behaviour, such as being late all the time). It is important in many situations to also train the parents in order to alter the learned pattern. A child who has a messy locker ( Locker organizer is good for this) or desk at school also has a messy backpack, bedroom! A child who likes to doodle on everything could be given a doodle section in the back of his binder where all doodles go. That would teach the importance of keeping other things clean. (You wouldn’t doodle all over your resume would you?) Another good strategy in your classroom is to have a ‘FIX-IT’ station
Time: A possible strategy for a child who is chronically late or has NO understanding of time would be to give that child a beeper which would tell them when it is lunch time or hockey practice time…A child with an awareness issue would, even at the high school level, be more apt to say it is lunch time or it is home time, or snack time over what time it really is because he has no concept of time. When there is no real understanding of the clock, it is helpful to map out the clock for the child, show him analog time and how it is broken down, and then announce the start of activities by adding the time. (Mary Moody also mentioned there are far too many kids who do not read analog clocks nowadays since they have only ever needed digital time to get around.)
Spatial: The spatially disorganized child is easily lost. This comes from a lack of being able to generalize. (For example, he gets off the bus all the time at the front of his house and goes into the gate, runs up his path and into his door. If once his bus stops at the back alley instead, he runs up the wrong path to another house and realizes it’s not his own house! The pattern that he has memorized has changed spatially and so he is confused.) The spatially disorganized child needs the most amount of space. (Take up the biggest amount of house, most of mess is hers, needs biggest desk at school to accommodate all the stuff, etc.) Also, she does not know where her body is. Consistently forgets the ‘personal space’ rule, may not like gym, is clumsy, etc. “An arm-length away” is a personal space rule. The severely disorganized child would need to hold out his arm to know where to stop. This becomes socially unacceptable but it can be hidden if the child ends up ‘high-fiving’ everyone with his outstretched arm. Kindergarteners often have these issues but it can persist right into adulthood. She is often the last kid to learn how to tie shoe laces or picked for a sports team in gym. Balance problems and walking with arms out slightly, or with a funny gait, having left-right issues, not being able to cross-over, etc. In short, a lack of motor organization. Here brain dance would be of benefit, to teach the cross-overs and body organization that may help the child relearn the correct pattern…
Copying from the blackboard: If you can’t copy, you can’t re-visualize. Long and short visualization skills are used for transcribing symbols. Many kids forget what they are copying after their eye leaves the blackboard and they will be so confused they will most likely skip 4 lines entirely when their eyes find the same word a few lines down. PLEASE DON’T SPEND MUCH TIME ON COPYING, TRANSCRIBING FROM BLACKBOARD or OVERHEAD doesn’t teach the kids a thing. A much better way of having them take home the correct information (and not leave out 4 lines such as the disorganized child would, then having nothing to study from!) is to put the information you want them to have on a hand-out, but leave some blanks so that you take 95% of your time going over the information together rather than wasting time transcribing symbols.
One of the teachers in the room remarked a total forgetfulness on the part of the disorganized child to write his name and date on the top of the sheet, where it is common sense with everyone else when asked to do so. Another teacher had a strategy for this issue: At the end of the exercise a teacher can ask everyone to put a checkmark beside their name and beside the date to confirm they have put those on the sheet—so the kids double-check if they did it. This also teaches kids to make checklists.
Another common problem with the spatially disorganized child is they don’t have an awareness of the size of their paper. They have in some instances been working on the same size piece of paper for years (8.5 x 11”) but still cannot remember that if you have very little paper left you need to write all of your letters smaller or they will not fit. Instead they squeeeeeze it all in or turn the page over and continue on the same line on the back of the page! Some children draw their letters (not printing them naturally so that they flow, but starting awkwardly at the bottom and finishing with a little extra line to make it correct. These children never learn to write, they print for the rest of their lives, slowly, meticulously, one letter at a time. These kids cannot handle a multitude of requests at once (i.e. Take out your math books, turn to page 33 and get out a pencil.—they only hear the last one, the first two have been forgotten.) These children need simple directions, one at a time.
The disorganized child also benefits from being placed in charge of something, especially the structure of the day. For example, if this child is given the lesson plan for the period or the day plan sheet and the teacher asks the child to remind what is coming up, or what is next, this really benefits the child become aware of the pattern, and not be disturbed by the unpredictability factor. In fact, the whole class can benefit from this: place the lesson plan outline and objectives in a box in the corner of the blackboard. By being given the predictable pattern, the child feels more confident.
You don’t organize a lesson plan like you organize a wood workshop (she gave a funny analogy on how she organized her husband’s tools in the workshop by colour instead of function or measurement type (metric etc.)…and her husband said it would take him months to ‘undo’ her organizing of his stuff. Everything has an organizational pattern and takes discreet skills.
Strategies to help the disorganized child in school—and in life.
Each of the observations, suggestions on the following pages can be done with an individual child, as a class or as a school strategy. An excellent exercise for a post-session staff meeting is to discuss the material below and decide which of the items would be feasible to adopt as a school-wide strategy. To facilitate such a review, note items that are an individual (I), class (C) or school (S) strategy.
General strategies:
We frequently note, praise and encourage academic success verbally:
“Good mark!”
“Great answer!”
“Good thinking!”
Often, however, we do not note, praise and encourage successes in organization, planning and socialization. We expect these skills: “they should know that!” Well, if they don’t, then we need to cover it again! If you expect it, expect to teach it!
Note, however, we do take the time to note lack of organization, planning and socialization:
“Johnny, your desk is a mess!”
“Suzie, what do you mean you didn’t bring a pencil?”
“You spent far too much time on that first question!”
We need to constantly reinforce positive actions in organization, planning and socialization—yes, that includes high school students too.
“Great watching me!”
“Good eye contact!”
“Good active listening, you two!”
“Wow, you sure grabbed hold of your anger well there.”
· The child may need a skeleton map to help her get around the school.

· Encourage the buddy system to help students with different areas of need, such as recording assignments, checking homework, finding the right room.

· Teach the student to use self-talk to keep organized; i.e. to verbalize the steps out loud until she can do so internally.
· The child may not “look and learn”. In other words, the activities, strategies, skills, procedures and rules that she has seen around her are not absorbed and applied to her own behaviour. Also, because she may not be able to visualize, she cannot see the logic and interconnectedness of a series of tasks within an activity. She may need everything verbally explained. This is called “verbally mediated” learning.

· The child may be overwhelmed by the seemingly countless number of components involved in doing a task. On the other hand, perhaps she can see the “big picture”; however, she has no idea how to break the task down. (Like telling a child to clean up his room but the task is so huge and daunting the child doesn’t know where to start, how to break it down into manageable tasks). On the “third hand”, she may have a faulty picture of both the whole and the parts. You will be able to ascertain this by some general queries.

· Whatever the difficulty, your plan must be based on the KISS principle: keep it short and simple. Count, clearly discriminate and sequence the steps in a task. This procedure calls on rote memory—a strategy that most students can follow, particularly if they have disabilities in conceptualizing the “whole”.
· Spend some time brainstorming very clear definitions of “neat” desk/locker/book, “being planned”, “get ready for recess”…What are the attributes and non-attributes? These are phrases that describe “big pictures”: what are the components? This may seem VERY obvious to you, but it may not be the case for the students! A good locker organizer will help keep your child more organized and get to class faster.

(Some text removed from Marjolean’s notes. -Ray.)

CONCLUSION: Disorganized children often receive a tremendous amount of negative attention from frustrated school staff and parents who feel they could do so much better if they could just be ‘organized’! If organization skills are so crucial to self-esteem and success in school and life, then we must take the time and effort to teach them, practice them and reinforce them on a continual basis. We cannot necessarily cure the disorganized child, but we can definitely teach survival skills. An added bonus is that all students in the class benefit from this practice, not just those with, what one teacher called, “terminal disorganization”. Organization survival skills can be taught!

***Notes posted by Marjolein Thompson, UBC-O student, student teacher