How to Help Your Teen Get Organized

Finding the balance between chaos and control.
Step-by-step solutions can empower teens to be better organized and clear the clutter.

When I walk in the house, I see an immaculate kitchen that celebrates organization. One wall is decorated with a color-coded family calendar, the other with a large bulletin board that has evenly spaced documents such as tickets to "Waitress" the musical.  A whiteboard perfectly frames the fridge with a marker conveniently attached.

As I walk with the 10th-grader to her bedroom to see her workspace, she timidly grabs hold of her bedroom doorknob and with blushing cheeks she says, “It’s a little messy in here.” After providing in-home services to youth with organizational and attentional difficulties for the past 10 years I confidently say, “There’s nothing that I haven’t seen before, bring it!”

The door opens ever so slightly and it is suddenly met with resistance. A quick heave gets us through a large pile of dirty clothes. I weave through the obstacle course of towels, bedding and books to further inspect what looks to be her desk. It is covered with art supplies, an abundance of glitter, makeup…and more clothes! There are no chairs. I ask, “Where do you do your homework?” and she proudly answers, “On the bed!”

Parent Perspective

The parents are concerned by their teen’s lack of organization. Their daughter is bright, completes her homework each night, and then does not hand it in. She consistently loses her school materials and her parents are boggled by this habit.

  •  Why does she have to dump out all her materials onto the floor? 
  •  How can she concentrate while doing homework on her bed?
  •  If she is motivated to do the hard part (homework), why can’t she take the easy step of handing it in?

Both parents rely on lists and filing systems to stay organized (recall the immaculate kitchen). It is frustrating for them to watch their teen resist any of their suggestions. They believe if she would only follow a system like they do, it would eliminate this organizational issue and therefore raise her grades to all A’s.

Teen Perspective

The teen is stifled by her parent’s rigid organizational habits. She follows rules all day at school and wants to do it her own way at home. She consistently gets good grades and is boggled by her parents' dissatisfaction.

  • Why can’t I treat my room like I want to by throwing all my school materials onto the floor?
  • Why should I have to sit at my desk if I can get the work done on my bed?
  • Why can't they let me use my own system?

How can we find a middle ground where the teen is willing to create habits that show respect for the household, can benefit her as the academic demands increase, support her desired independence, and also work with her learning style that may be different than her parents?

Teen Goals

There is a way to find balance between the chaos and control that is beneficial and gives the teen and parents a sense of accomplishment, and keep the piles of dirty laundry off the floor.

Before doing her homework, she will pick a favorite song while doing one of the following clean-up options:

  • Put towels and dirty clothes in the laundry basket.
  • Pick up five items from the floor.
  • Clean off five items from her desk.

During homework, she will:

  • Choose one challenging assignment to complete at her desk.
  • Cross off each item in her planner before moving on to the next assignment.
  • Put each worksheet in the correct homework folder before moving on to the next assignment.

After homework, she will play one of her favorite songs while doing one of the following organizing options:

  • Throw away old papers found in her backpack.
  • Thow away old papers found in binders and folders.
  • File away any important papers (test, papers, quizzes).

Helpful Hint: To ease into change, enlist a friend or mentor with whom your child can share updates can provide encouragement during difficult moments. When you have a healthy outlet to vent and be vulnerable, you are less likely to be triggered by family members.

Teen Goals Explained

  • Adding her interest in music creates a more casual and light-hearted experience.
  • Providing her with a choice increases independence and self-empowerment while also holding her accountable each day.
  • De-cluttering the space in short increments of time will feel less overwhelming.
  • Taking away this teen’s comfort of doing homework on her bed is a low priority at this point. By choosing one challenging subject to complete at her desk each night, she is introduced to a healthy habit that will increase her concentration when necessary.
  • Crossing off each item in her planner and putting away assignments as they are complete allows her to slow down and focus on each task. I highly recommend a weekly planner that has ample space to write:
  • Organizing her school work a little bit each day can make it easier for her to locate her homework. Purchasing a storage crate and multicolored hanging files with labels that look like the one below can be helpful.
  • By having one homework folder, she can easily store and find the location of each assignment. A multipocket folder can be purchased at most office supplies stores.

Parent Goals

  • Parents will send one text reminder at 3:30 p.m. each day that says, “Please check your goals today.”
  • Parents will have a weekly “room visit” on Sunday nights at 9 p.m.

Parent Goals Explained 

  • To minimize tense conversations, the parents will provide one non-verbal reminder at the agreed-upon time each day and decrease room checks to only one time per week. This allows parents to offer consistent support and uphold boundaries while also honoring the teen's desire for space and independence. 
  • Scheduling a weekly "room visit" gives the teen the entire week to de-clutter her space. 

Final Steps

Teen and parent goals are posted on the fridge and in the teen’s workspace. They take a picture of their respective goals and save them on their phones for future reference. We place a post-it on the outside of the teen's homework folder and on the front door that says Hand in Homework! Finally, everyone sets a daily alarm on their phone with the label “Check your goals.”