From the Archive

This article was originally issued in the Summer 2012 edition of GT Focus. References to NAGC refer to the previous name of Potential Plus UK


Does your family run like clockwork? Is it super efficient, well organised and structured? Or are there things that you would like to improve for the benefit of you all? How does your bright child fit into all of this? Does he or she help the family improve their organisation or do they contribute to the chaos?

The purpose of this article is to look at the organisational skills of children with high learning potential and how they can be improved within the context of the whole family. In particular, it sets out to address three issues:

  • Why bright children sometimes lack organisational skills
  • What you can do to improve these skills
  • What kinds of things you can do as a parent to help the whole family move from disorganisation to organisation

Although there will be families who actively enjoy disorganisation because of the spontaneity and creativity that it can cause, most of us believe that disorganisation can lead to problems both within and outside the home. Certainly, issues mentioned by parents contacting the Information and Advice Service or on the training workshops we run include that disorganisation can lead to:

  • excuses being made for things that have not been done
  • double booking of events or activities
  • no decisions every being made
  • stress at home
  • family arguments
  • untidiness
  • homework being forgotten

The list is endless.

“ My son has always been a bit of a daydreamer. Whether it is getting ready for PE at school or tidying his bedroom he always seems to have 101 far more important things to think about than the mundane”  Parent

Many calls on NAGC’s Information and Advice Line mention this difficulty. Parents are worried about their child’s organisation skills and are frustrated at having to constantly be watching over their child, looking for lost things and chasing letters that should have been brought home from school. The disorganised side of them seems so at odds with their abilities in other areas.

So how come bright children can be so disorganised? Why can they not apply their intelligence to being more organised?

Many children with high learning potential have asynchronous development; an intellectual development which can often be at odds with their social and emotional development. This can make them intellectually mature but often immature when it comes to their emotions. For  some of these children they simply do not see the need to be organised; they have far more important things to do than being constrained in this way. This intellectual and emotional imbalance usually starts to even out by thirteen or fourteen… to be replaced by the raging hormones of teenagehood.  Link these issues with low boredom thresholds and potential problems due to, for example, special needs and it can often be a recipe for organisational disaster.

Specific problems which children and young people with high learning potential can experience include:

  • Time management.

“ He always leaves his homework to the last minute. I sometimes feel like doing it for him just to get it out of the way” Parent

  • Goal directed persistence. Many children with high learning potential can become obsessed with one thing to the exclusion of everything else (e.g. playing computer games!). These obsessions need to be carefully handled or it can turn a child away from learning altogether, especially where the learning objectives are mismatched.
  • Task initiation – Many children and young people with high learning potential experience difficulties in starting a task altogether. There can be many reasons for this including:
    • perfectionism, especially amongst girls
    • fear of failure
    • inability to put down all the knowledge in the child’s head, especially when time is constrained
    • inability for the child to structure his/her thoughts coherently
    • other problems e.g. slow handwriting compared to the speed of the thought processes
  • Sustained attention – often children with high learning potential can become obsessed with an activity in spite of everything and this can mean that the rest of their life remains disorganised – they simply are not interested
  • Organisation – because their brain is functioning on a different level, they are not interested in the more mundane activities of tidying up or organisation

“ He just can’t seem to organise himself to get his homework done on time. We have so many rows about this. He may think it’s no big thing but I’m the one who has to face his teacher at parents’ evening. I just wish he was more organised” Parent

  • Planning and prioritisation – sometimes our children are not taught to plan or prioritise their lives – or even tidy up! We all assume that they will know how to do it when it is not in fact the case

However, as in any family, our children are only one side of the equation. As parents, we influence how they act in so many ways. For example: what about our own organisation skills? Go on, admit it; do you enjoy washing up; cleaning; sorting out diaries? Many of us also find these mundane jobs boring and this can rub off on our children:

“ How can I expect my child to organise her bedroom with relish when my bedroom is almost equally untidy. I guess she just takes after me and I’ve never changed.” Parent.

In addition, in family life we often forget to set the important boundaries or we don’t stick to them rigidly whilst we ‘sweat the small stuff’ and make a fuss about the things that are not really that important.

“ I wish I had stuck to my guns years ago about the things that really wind me up now; remembering to make sure homework was done, keeping the lounge neat and tidy. Instead, we fought about things like keeping the bedroom clean. I wish I hadn’t. After all I can just close the door on the bedroom and forget about it.”  Parent

Setting boundaries and being consistent in their application is an important part of parenting and can be critical as the child grows older and starts to push the boundaries to exert their independence. Many parents tell us that they wish they had applied such boundaries when their child was younger as it is more difficult the older their child gets.

What then can you do to improve your child’s organisation skills, and indeed move the whole family from disorganisation to organisation?

I would argue that there are three things that you need to put into place to achieve this:

  1. Structure
  2. Support
  3. Strategies

First of all, as parents you need to work with your partner and your child to put the right structure in place to support your organisation. You may find it useful to break down the jobs you need to do into small doable tasks that you can get into the habit of repeating over and over again, possibly at the same time and on the same day. If you need to, you could develop a step by step plan with your family which you could put up on the fridge door. You know your family and what would work for them. Humour is often a gentle ‘prod’ to get the family to follow the structure and can be better than a thousand words; why not use post it notes and stick them to the items you need organising?

In creating these new routines, you need to remember to keep them simple, always leaving your keys on the hook by the door; always doing your homework after dinner etc.

One suggestion which many parents say works for them is visualisation i.e. seeing what the room looks like when it is tidy; seeing all the steps you went through to find your missing credit cards. This can be linked to repetition for those children (or adults for that matter) with poor levels of working memory  to ensure that   instructions are followed through.

“ I noticed that if I gave my young son more than two or three things to remember as he was, say, going up the stairs; by the time he got to the top he would forget what they were. So, we make up a silly son or a poem or a saying such as ‘six silly elephants clean their tiny teeth’ so that it sticks. Making it fun somehow seems to help it work.” Parent

It is important that you get the right structure in place for your family, one that is easy to implement. However, don’t worry if it doesn’t work first time just try a different approach and reward success when it comes.

As well as getting the right structure in place, it will be important to make sure that the right support is provided to you and individual family members to ensure success. This includes ensuring that you set small reasonable goals or steps in your organisational plan and focusing on the things that are really important and that all of you can ‘buy into’. Once you have agreed that with all of your family, you need to make sure that you put it in place positively, trying not to criticise what has not been done but recognising the steps which have been achieved, however small.

One tip that parents say they find useful is to teach your child how to be organised ; working with them to structure a piece of work or task and then stepping back next time s hey can do it on their own next time.

“It suddenly struck me that I would say ‘go and tidy your bedroom’ but didn’t have a clue whether he knew what that meant. So, I taught him some ways in which he could tidy up and lo and behold I have a child who tidies his room!” Parent

However, it is important to note that, once you have shown your child how to do something, they should be encouraged to do the item for themselves. Our impatience presents a tremendous barrier to our child’s organisational skills  as we will often prefer to step in and get things done ‘properly’ rather than hang back and get our child to do it for themselves. If you fall into that category, resist the temptation, especially where our child consistently manipulates us to do their organising for them.

“When I sat back and thought about it, I realised that my daughter had used a whole book of excuses for not laying the table for breakfast or dinner. She gets less chance to do that now as we have a points system for all of us. If we all work together, it means we go out for a pizza once a month.” Parent

Finally, it is important to remember that we are models for the way our child acts or behaves; if we leave the house a mess or fail to organise ourselves properly, this teaches our child that it is acceptable for them to do the same.

As NAGC goes around the country talking to parents, we pick up literally hundreds of practical tips and ideas for how to organise the family. Here are just a few of the strategies that parents have out in place to help:

  • Buy an annual wall planner for the whole family to use so they can see at a glance what is going on
  • Put up a whiteboard in the kitchen and use as a weekly wall planner and put in place the rule – if it isn’t on the wall planner it doesn’t exist.
  • Use the theory of nursery storage – all the magazines in one colour box, all the books in another
  • Declutter your life – but everything into 3 piles – keep it, toss it, donate it – and get into the habit of doing this regularly
  • Incentivise throwing out old toys by letting children (under adult supervision) sell toys on eBay and then buy something with the money made
  • Work with your children to create a timetable for jobs – implement this consistently
  • Make the organising fun/creative
  • Make the task quick e.g. the 1 minute wonder (how much can we tidy up in this lounge in one minute)
  • Use humour
  • Streamline meal planning – decide on a 3-week menu you will all eat and put this in place every week to cut down on debate about what to have for a meal, enable freezing ahead etc
  • Own coloured boxes – each member of the family has their own coloured box that they keep e.g. in the hall. Anything that is found around the house goes in their box and so is never misplaced

We are always looking for good ideas to help organise you and your family. If you have an idea that you would like to share with others, please email the idea to and we will feature some of the best in future newsletters.

One of the ideas that parents came up with recently was to write a summary for parents of what to do to improve organisational skills in 10 simple steps which could be put on the fridge door. We have written these below both for you and your child. If you find these simple steps useful write and tell us and we will do them for other issues.


A Simple 10 Step Plan for Parents

1.     Don’t  sweat the small stuff – only focus on the things that really matter

2.     Make sure the ‘parents’ have buy in – and be consistent

3.     Put a structure in place in the house – and stick to it

4.     Don’t be a perfectionist – start small and build up

5.     Develop habits and routines

6.     Model the behaviour you want to see – you are a mirror for your teenager

7.     Show them how to do it – don’t assume they know

8.     Don’t criticise – be positive

9.     Use humour to get things back on track

10.    Notice/reward effort/success – however small


A Simple 10 Step Plan for Children and Young People

1.    Develop a plan and routine – and stick to it

2.    Prioritise what you have to do

3.    Understand how you work best

4.    Break down take into do-able chunks

5.    Make it fun/set a goal/challenge e.g. what can you finish by 10am

6.    Always put your things in the same place e.g. keys by door

7.    Don’t be too hard on yourself if you fail – learn from your mistakes, problem solve and do it better

8.    Ask others you would like to copy

9.    Make lists and tick off what you achieve – you can see your progress

10.  Start with the worst jobs – it will be easier after that.