Helping the Disorganized Child

Sam Sr. is running about forty minutes behind. He has a meeting at nine, but he’s half dressed and has gotten interested in fixing the fax machine.


Sam Jr. is hopping around in his pajamas and one sock. The water is running in his bathroom because he was going to brush his teeth, but he’s forgotten that. Now he’s building a space station out of Legos. The bus is outside and there’s no possibility that he will get on it. Beth—wife of Sr., mom of Jr.—is describing this morning to me, and although she’s laughing, she’s also near tears.

A household with a disorganized parent—typically a dad who has ADHD—and a child—typically a son—who’s also disorganized, results in chaos.

“It’s usually the mom who holds it together,” I explain to Beth. “This may not seem fair, because you’re the most organized person in the house, but I think you should come to an Executive Function Seminar at RNBC.” Executive function is the term that describes the ability to organize oneself, govern one’s impulses, complete tasks and live with a schedule.

“You may not be able to change Sam Sr.,” I tell her. “And in most ways you wouldn’t want to. His style of thinking has really worked for him.” (Sam Sr. is a successful commodities trader.) “But Sam Jr. is suffering academically, and missing out on things because he can’t get it together. It’s going to be a lot of work, but you can really help him.”

Beth came back a few months later, and again described her morning. Sam Sr. hadn’t changed. But she reported that Little Sam got up, put on the clothes they laid out for him the night before, and went into the bathroom. She’d taped a card to his mirror that said, 1. Brush your teeth. 2. Stand on your head. So he brushed his teeth, came downstairs and said, “Okay! Watch this!” and stood on his head. (He’d just learned how to do it and was really proud.)

She said, “Bravo! You’ve gotten good at that. Now, remember our deal? If you can finish breakfast by 8, you can be on the computer until 8:20.”

At 8:20, Sam Jr. picked up the backpack he and his mom had packed the night before, which contained a separate red folder for that day’s homework, and walked to the corner to wait for the bus.

“I’m still the one in the middle,” Beth says, “but I used to be in the middle of chaos and now I’m in the middle of order. It’s definitely an improvement.”

Tips For Dealing With A Disorganized Child

Kids like Sam aren’t self-starters. You need to monitor their progress.

  • Have realistic goals: Start with where the child is and take things one step further.
  • Mornings are the worst, so do whatever you can to prepare the night before.
  • Make it fun. (Stand on your head! Wear something red today! Come tell me a joke!)
  • Repeat. It will take a long time before the child does everything he or she needs to do without direction, so you’ll need patience.