Is Clutter Controlling Your Child’s ADHD Life – or Yours?

Two years ago, when I first moved to Colorado from New York, I met Beth Blacker, Founder and Chief Clutter Controller of It’s Just Stuff. I love her enthusiasm and passion for helping anyone struggling to create and maintain organizing systems for daily life. As a specialist in ADHD, I certainly know how complex and deeply rooted these struggles can be.

In this article, Beth shares some really good organizing tips and advice for children with ADHD (& their parents) and has a special offer of a free 30-minute virtual consultation.

Clutter and ADHD

Cindy: How did you get started as a professional organizer?

Beth: I think I was born with that weird gene that needs order and a place for everything. My parents never had to tell me to clean my room. In fact, I was always looking for better ways to organize my stuff, especially anything related to school (supplies, homework, papers, etc.).

As an adult, I have lived in many different housing situations, everything from tiny apartments in New York City to a 4000 square foot home in Tampa and now back to about 900 square feet in Boulder. Each situation required creative storage solutions. Friends would always ask me for suggestions, and over time it morphed into an actual business. In 2011 I officially launched It’s Just Stuff. I focused on individuals with much deeper organizing pain points than a basic closet purge, stemming from various issues, including ADHD. As I became more and more familiar with the true definition of ADHD, especially in our conversations with you, Cindy, I came to realize that all of the processes and procedures I implemented for myself throughout my life was actually my brain’s way of overcompensating for my inability to regulate my own focus which is, as I have learned, the definition of ADHD. I have a ridiculous amount of energy, and sitting for long periods has always been hard from a more physical standpoint. Still, mentally I can hyperfocus for an entire day once I get in “the zone” and suddenly realize I haven’t eaten or even gone to the bathroom for 8 hours. It is an excellent trait if you are trying to meet a deadline or have to pack up a client’s home in less than 8 hours, but I don’t recommend it as a daily practice.  

Cindy: So, what do you think are the best organizing tips for a child with ADHD and the parents trying to help them navigate life?

Beth: As you well know, anyone struggling with ADHD is dealing with various degrees of neurobiological and brain pathology abnormalities, so their perception of their reality is never going to match with anyone else’s. Suffice it to say we cannot expect them to follow the same process as those without ADHD. I highly recommend observing your child’s habits for a few days, write down any obvious executive functioning pain points, and discuss them with him/her at an appropriate age level. And as you have taught me, asking the child some non-judgmental questions about what is working or not working for them will help them gain their own awareness. And explain the definition of “order”, so they understand most things follow a particular order or sequence to help prioritize everything we do in life. Then begin to go down the following list:

clutterr and ADHD

  1. Make sure you are setting them up for success by having a place for everything. I highly recommend being consistent with the “vehicles” you use for containing your child’s things. Bins, folders, baskets, whatever…they should all look and, yes, feel the same. This will create a more calming and less confusing space. Most importantly, try to have all of your child’s things in their bedroom. Spreading things out across your home will only make it harder for him/her to keep track of it all. And believe it or not, if your child’s bed is parallel to a wall, you should consider making it perpendicular to divide the room into three areas dedicated for different purposes. One side for schoolwork, the other for play and the actual bed of course for sleeping. 
  2. Implement a color-coding system. Think Garanimals. There is a reason that the clothing concept is still around. It works! But take it beyond clothes and apply it to books, toys, projects, calendaring. Each academic subject can be its own color for folders, binders, etc. throughout their school years.
  3. Speaking of calendars, they are the most essential tool you can ever give your child, but you must USE IT RELIGIOUSLY! No excuses. It will gradually teach your child ownership and responsibility for their own time. And it really does help both you and your child visualize each day and provide prompts for conversations about what lies ahead and how to best prepare for any changes in plans. [Cindy adds…It’s important for them to be able to see the full week, and not just the daily assignment so that they can learn to manage their time as assignments take on multiday tasks. Also, be sure to include any appointments or commitments so that they are not surprised.]
  4. Set up folders…for EVERYTHING…both hard copies and digital files. If your child happens to enjoy drawing, let them color whatever they want on the folders as a visual trigger for what belongs in each one. And while I encourage going paperless as much as possible, I am not necessarily a fan of teaching children too young to be so dependent on devices for keeping track of everything until they have mastered doing it the old fashion way. Studies repeatedly confirm that we simply do not remember nearly as much when we put fingers to keyboards as we do with a pen to paper when it comes to executive functioning skills.
  5. And last but not least, teach your child the art of a handwritten TO-DO list and, once again, at an appropriate age level. I am a huge believer in having a notebook with me (at all times) to write down things immediately as they pop into my head throughout the day. I know smartphones can do the job rather well but I think it is too easy to ignore a notification or inadvertently setting the alert for the wrong date/time. Trust me; it happens even to professional organizers. When I am in a hurry or distracted by whatever is going on around me, I don’t always see a digital mistake I’ve made. Going through the motion of writing something down should be mistake-proof and reinforces the need to take action faster. I always say, “You can’t see what you can’t see,” but a piece of paper staring at you? Hard to ignore. I mean, you can, but harder than a phone alert for sure. Besides, standing in the middle of Target only to have your phone battery die and no ability to see the digital list can happen so in my opinion, this is non-negotiable. 

clutter and ADHDCindy: Any parting advice?

Beth: This is a marathon, not a race, so if Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither will an organizing system that works for your child. It will continuously change as they move through their childhood. The key to transitioning to life as an adult with ADHD (with its own unique set of challenges) is to remain consistent with your message and support your child’s daily efforts. Be patient, go for the little successes, and build on them.

If you are interested in a free 30-minute virtual consultation with Beth to discuss your child’s organizing pain points, please contact her via email at [email protected]. And be sure to check out her Facebook page, where she shares more tips, resources, and her clients’ stories along with the transformations they experience even after only a few hours. 

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