The Solution For A Disorganized Child

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My child is a mess. When Tom comes home from school, papers are scattered everywhere — stuck in books, clipped inside his notebook and wadded like bubblegum wrappers in the bottom of his book bag. As for homework and studying for tests, we scream and fight because he puts everything off until the last minute. I keep asking him over and over, “When are you going to study?” What can I do?

Megan M.

Scottsdale, Az.

Dear Megan:

While you may think you have Tom’s best interest at heart, asking him this question over and over just creates more stress than he can handle and makes Tom behave in the manner you described.

As Tom keeps waiting later and later to study, he becomes stressed and panicked over what he needs to learn. I’ve seen this procrastination in many children during my twenty-plus years in education counseling. To the casual observer, Tom appears lazy, unmotivated and irresponsible.


First, we must identify the real problem. Labeling Tom lazy or a procrastinator is what many tend to do but this does not help and is probably not true.

The question is why does Tom delay studying? (If Tom were using my strategies, he wouldn’t have to study but that’s for another column).

The answer goes back to Tom’s disorganized school papers. Tom does not know how to get organized to have what he needs for each of his classes. He probably doesn’t save any previous quizzes, tests, homework or other graded papers so that he can review when test time comes.

Since he can’t refer to these papers that show him what questions he missed, Tom has no idea what he still needs to learn. As such, he knows he must study everything, even what he has already mastered. This causes studying to become an overwhelming task for Tom because he hasn’t developed strategies to help him fill the gaps. And, the bigger the studying task, the more paralyzed Tom becomes.

Without papers to use as study guides, Tom is dependent on the teacher giving out study sheets or pointing students toward the material that will be on the test. Rather than becoming an independent learner, Tom is overly dependent on his teacher to tell him what to study.

If not corrected, when Tom becomes an adult, he will be overly dependent on his boss or supervisor to tell him what to do on the job. People like Tom are generally the first to get pink slips when the economy takes a downturn if they are even capable of hanging on to their jobs before the downturns.


In Tom’s case, the academic prescription is fairly simple.

When shopping for school supplies, you should buy Tom file folders to use for an at-home filing system and a set of pocket folders that traveled with him to and from school for each of his classes or subjects.

In these travel folders, Tom should organize papers by purpose and label his folders as such. Here are some labels that he can use:

Due Today

Papers To File

Plan/Due Later

For Parents

Extracurricular Activities

Travel folders will help Tom keep his books and book bag neat. This will also provide a quick transition to Tom’s home filing system.

At home, Tom may want to label his at-home files by subject. He also needs to decide whether or not using different colored folders for subjects will help him. Tom may want to have files within a subject file. For example, he may label a blue file folder English and then want to have dividers or smaller files within his English file folder to organize according to the type of paper. He may choose to have a sub file for the class syllabus, one for tests, one for quizzes and even one for homework.

The bottom line is this: Tom should find his own way to file. The key is to find the best way according to purpose of the paper Tom is filing.

Organization is the first step in developing strategies for learning how to learn. We adults recognize the value of an organized person in the working world, and we each have ways of organizing everything from our time to the grocery list to collecting coupons. So why should it seem out of place to help our children, from the earliest grades, become organized?

A filing system is a simple, inexpensive first step toward organization. Once that system is established, carrying out the daily filing is less of a chore for a student of any age.

Let Tom help you shop for the filing system and allow him to devise it himself.

Lend your help and support to Tom as he sets up a filing system that works, but remember, it’s a student’s job to learn, an educator’s job to teach and your job as a parent to monitor.

Parents are not responsible for filing papers each day and studying from those papers. That’s the student’s job. However, parents should make sure their children empty out their purpose folders each day and file their papers at home.

As you watch, Tom’s organization habit will grow.