Teaching organizational skills

Diane Adreon, M.A., & Heather Willis, Psy.D.


Most youngsters with high-functioning autism (HFA) and Asperger Syndrome (AS) have poor organizational skills.

Frequently parents and teachers report the following problems: (a) coming to class without needed supplies, (b) losing papers, (c) can’t find needed items in backpack or desk, (d) forgets lunch money, (e) doesn’t know what the homework is, and (f) has completed homework, but doesn’t turn it in. Organizational skills become increasingly important as children progress through the grade levels. Thus, every year in school, the tasks become more complex, the organizational demands increase, and children are given greater responsibility for monitoring their behavior.

In this article, organizing papers and homework will be used as an example of how parents and teachers can teach organizational skills at any age. We can start teaching organizational skills at a young age … even in preschool.

Rule #1: Teach that papers need to be cared for properly.
Start by having a folder in the backpack that is for notices that need to go (a) from home to the teacher, and (b) from the teacher to the parent. The purpose of the folder is to teach the child that there is a “standard” for how papers should be kept. That is, papers should remain relatively straight and not crumbled into a ball.

Rule #2: Teach a routine for getting papers to and from home and school.
Teach the child a routine for getting the folder out of the backpack, looking for any papers that need to be delivered, and giving them to the parent or teacher. Include in this routine, a visual prompt (such as a pictograph or photograph of the folder) so that you don’t have to provide a daily verbal reminder to get out the backpack. You will also need to teach the child to follow the visual prompt.

The purposes for establishing visual prompts are twofold: (a) it is difficult to fade verbal prompts, and (b) we want to have a system to assist the child by moving toward the child performing the task independently. The plan is that the visual prompt will ultimately be sufficient for him to remember to perform the routine. It is important for both parents and teachers to develop a routine in order to teach this skill.

Rule #3: Teach how to expand organizational skills to include homework.
This might include (a) helping the student identify what materials are needed to complete each of the assignments, (b) creating a checklist of the needed materials, and (c) having the student place these items in the backpack. Once the child understands how to keep track of his or her homework, organizational skills to complete homework can be taught. Such skills and suggestions include (a) choosing an environment to work in that is free of distractions, (b) plan the order of homework (e.g., hardest assignments first), and (c) breaking down homework into smaller assignments (e.g., folding the math page in half until finished, followed by doing the second half.)

Rule #4: Teach how to practice the skill in the environment in which it needs to take place.
Often, parents and teachers try to help the student set up an organizational system for different classes. For example, they might create folders for each subject area. Sometimes, a specific period of the day is set aside to help the student go through the various papers in his/her backpack and put them into the appropriate folder.

Although it may be necessary to set aside specific time to establish the organizational system, implementation of the system ideally takes place throughout the day. That is, assistance must be provided to help the student place “science papers” in the “science folder” in science class. Otherwise, in all likelihood, we will need to continue to assist the student until he/she finishes high school.

Key Considerations
1. Organizational tasks are overwhelming for many students with HFA/AS. These skills need to be taught in small increments. We must provide strong support and reinforcement for mastery of small steps towards independence.

2. Teaching organizational skills is one of the skills that should be addressed in the child’s individualized education program (IEP).

Diane is Associate Director University of Miami/Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism & Related Disabilities

Courtesy of AAPC


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