Teach Your Child To Be Organized? This Pediatrician Says Yes, You Can

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"Raising an Organized Child," by Damon Korb. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Raising an Organized Child," by Damon Korb. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

It's a scenario many parents will recognize: Your child has left for school, but their lunch is still on the counter, their finished homework is on their desk and the cleats they need for soccer are by the door — and all the yelling and nagging aren't changing a thing.

Pediatrician Dr. Damon Korb — a father of five — says it's never too late to help create an "organized" child, and that the steps can start in infancy.

Here & Now's Lisa Mullins talks with Korb (@DrKorb) about the path to organization, which he writes about in his new book, "Raising an Organized Child."

Book Excerpt: 'Raising An Organized Child'

by Damon Korb

Organized thinking is defined much more broadly than neatness. A messy room and crumpled papers in a backpack will only scratch the surface of organized thinking. Think of the most organized person who you have ever met. Certainly, his or her house is likely kept orderly, but the most impressive thing about organized people is how they think. They have a tremendous sense of the big picture that allows them to effectively and confidently make decisions and budget their time. These people always seem to be thinking 2 steps ahead. Now, what does being organized look like in children? Well, they may be more prepared and independent than, and less likely to get caught up in “the drama” with, their peers. Yet the opposite is true for a child who has problems showing insight, anticipating, or grasping the big picture.

Raising a disorganized child is particularly frustrating for parents, because a child’s struggles are often both inconsistent and difficult to define. Tasks that seem second nature or common sense to parents, such as turning in a completed homework assignment, finding one’s shoes, or getting ready for bed, become insurmountable obstacles for a disorganized child; despite scores of reminders and demonstrations, the miscues continue. Parents become frustrated by their child’s repeated struggles to take ownership of daily routines. They want to know why their child cannot complete tasks. As a disorganized child gets older and enters school, parents may become acutely aware of, and preoccupied with, all their child’s difficulties—sometimes overlooking their child’s many strengths. Parents may begin to feel guilty and then wonder whether they enabled their child’s disorganization by doing too much work for her. They question whether they will be dressing, feeding, and doing homework with their child even when she is a young adult. How can they enable their child to develop into a competent individual when they feel compelled to support most everything she does?

As a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, I have been offered the unique opportunity to care for thousands of young individuals who struggle at school for a variety of reasons, such as variation in neurodevelopment (when the nervous system, which controls how we think, move, learn, and behave, develops differently than expected), cognitive deficits (intellectual ability that is far below average), language delays, attention dysfunctions (problems with focus, concentration, and self-control), and emotional issues. Some of these children carry a diagnosis such as autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, obsessive-compulsive disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, anxiety, or quite often a combination of these conditions.

Families share with me how each of their lives are affected by these circumstances: the hours of homework, the pain of watching their child struggle, and not to mention how the financial and time drains of multiple therapies take a toll on a family. For some, the effect is unbearable; it has been reported that when a family has a child with special needs, 80% of these families’ marriages end in a divorce.1–3 Having a child struggle is serious business.

Often it is the fear of the unknown that puts stress onto the family. Parents ask me, “What will my child be like when he is an adult?”

Sometimes, very tongue-in-cheek, they ask, “Will my son ever move out of the house?” I think that when they ask me this latter question, they are only half joking, because progress is slow and the unknown future for a child who struggles can be terrifying to a parent.

A child need not have a severe disability for it to create stress in the family. Most children struggle in one way or another because of subtle variations in their neurodevelopmental abilities. Misunderstood weakness in memory, attention, organizing, or social cognition (how people under- stand and apply information about other people during daily interactions) can wreak havoc on a child’s social or academic status. These issues can often be addressed through accommodations and treatments, once the problem is clearly identified.

Fortunately, for most of the children I serve, a relatively clear, although often arduous, treatment plan exists. I call these plans Developing Minds Action Plans. For example, a child with dyslexia can find success with months, to years, of an intensive, multisensory reading program. When a clear treatment plan is available to families, I witness the empowerment they feel as they set out to support their child. In the absence of a clear plan, families appear overwhelmed by the prospect of supporting their struggling child. Often, they turn to unproven therapies, sometimes spending thousands of dollars, searching for solutions, adding financial stress to an already difficult situation. Raising a disorganized child is particularly frustrating for parents, because a child’s struggles can be pervasive, inconsistent, and difficult to define.

Having worked with children for decades, I can say with confidence that most organized children do not suddenly appear—they are raised. The brain functions required for organization start forming shortly after birth. When nurtured, children grow up empowered by their independence. Each child takes a unique developmental path; some brains develop earlier and some later. Some children, such as those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or a learning disability, develop differently, making tasks such as organization more difficult. The key to supporting children is to meet them at their level of development and gradually push them forward by challenging them to learn new skills. Tasks in life become increasingly complicated as children grow older, and brain development in the ability to remember and understand organization is required to keep up with these demands.

The purpose of Raising an Organized Child is to provide a guide for parents on how to raise an independent, self-assured, and organized child. Doing so will boost your child’s independence, ease frustration, and promote confidence. The information is intended to help parents understand the struggles of their disorganized child, thereby minimizing parental frustration, and subsequent misunderstanding, through understanding and support.

Excerpted from Raising an Organized Child: 5 Steps to Boost Independence, Ease Frustration, and Promote Confidence (American Academy of Pediatrics).

This segment aired on July 5, 2019.



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