Tips for Managing ADHD in the Classroom: Helping Students Stay Organized

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

When I’m planning a classroom visit parents will often tell me that I’ll have no problem figuring out which desk belongs to their child – it’s the one overflowing with papers, books, pencils, and countless random items. Problems with organization can seem like they aren’t as impairing as other ADHD-related difficulties, like impulsivity or difficulty staying focused, but in fact, studies show that the kids with ADHD who struggle the most academically are those who have the greatest difficulty with organization. When children are disorganized, it’s harder for them to find their materials and get started right away, they have a harder time blocking out the visual clutter so they can stay on task, and their self-esteem can suffer if they are frequently criticized for their messy work area by parents and teachers and are teased by peers who label them as the messy student in the classroom.  


While it may appear that a disorganized child with ADHD is careless or sloppy, often these students care very much about their materials and wish they could have a neat desk like their classmates. The problem is that the executive functioning skills required for organization are underdeveloped, making it almost impossible for them to maintain an organized desk and work area on their own. For kids with ADHD, getting organized and staying organized requires structure and support from their teacher and repeated practice of organizational skills and strategies.


Here is a simple 5 step process that will help the student get the support that they need:


  1. Do an initial desk clean out with the child. At a time when there are no other students in the classroom, do a complete desk clean out with the student. Everything should come out of the desk, and only the absolute minimum number of items should go back in. Fewer materials in the desk means there will be less to keep track of an organize on a day-to-day basis.
  2. Create an itemized checklist and tape it to the top of the desk. Make a checklist that includes every item the student needs to keep in the desk. The rule should be that if an item is not on the checklist, then it does not belong in the desk. If the student wants to put something in the desk that is not on the list, then he or she needs to ask permission and either update the list (if it’s a permanent addition) or take the item back home with at the end of the day so it doesn’t create clutter.
  3. Schedule a daily desk check-in. At the end of each day, review the desk checklist with the student. Make sure only checklist items are in the desk and clear out any clutter that may have accumulated throughout the day. Over time you can have the student go through the checklist alone and call you over when he or she is ready for you to review his or her progress. Alternatively, if there is a kind, organized student in the classroom, you can have that student be a peer helper who is responsible for helping the student go through the checklist and clear out the clutter.
  4. Provide praise and rewards. Remember that keeping a desk organized is an extremely challenging task for many students with ADHD. Provide a lot of praise when you complete the daily check-ins, and when the desk is looking particularly neat, snap a picture to share with the student’s parents so the student can receive praise at home as well. Some kids may need to receive rewards as well to stay motivated. You can provide rewards either by adding a daily “desk organization” goal to his or her daily report card, or by providing small stickers or incentives at the end of each day.
  5. Review and update the desk checklist with the student monthly. As the curriculum changes throughout the year the student may need to add or remove items from the desk checklist. Review the checklist with the student and ask if there are items on the list that he or she is no longer using, or if there are things he or she needs regularly that aren’t in the desk or on the list. Actively engaging the student in this process will help him or her feel a sense of ownership over his or her organization and will help him or her develop valuable skills that he or she will be able to use independently in the future.

While it’s unlikely that a child with ADHD will go from being highly disorganized to the neatest student in the classroom overnight, with a few supportive strategies and daily practice the student can keep his or her materials reasonably organized and will no longer stand out as having a desk that’s the messiest one in the room.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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