You’ve spent weeks organizing the house only to have your family thwart your efforts in an hour. How many times have you told your son to put his T-shirts in the top drawer, then minutes later, find them jumbled in with socks and underwear in the bottom drawer? Or maybe you spent an afternoon organizing your daughter’s homework papers only to find them in a big pile on the floor the next morning? It could be that you’ve organized your family in a way that made sense to you, but not to them.
According to Hellen Buttigieg, a certified professional organizer and host of the television show Neat, each of us has our own organizing learning style. The idea of learning styles isn’t new. As far back as ancient Greece, philosophers found that people had distinct ways of processing information.
But Buttigieg believes that because those learning styles have a profound impact on the way we communicate, they are inevitably affecting our attempts to organize. So, failing to consider your family members’ organizational styles while trying to make changes in your household may be like beating your head against a wall.
Buttigieg, with educator Sari Brandes, has written Organizing outside the Box: Conquer Clutter using your Natural Learning Style. The authors stress that there is no such thing as an organizational gene, but using a learning style-based approach is the closest thing to it. “It supports the idea that if you do what comes naturally, it’s easy,” says Buttigieg. “If you try to adapt to someone else’s system it takes effort and it takes discipline and it’s hard to be disciplined all the time.”
What’s your learning style? What’s theirs?
Harvard professor Howard Gardner identified eight learning styles in his theory of “Multiple Intelligences,” but when it comes to organizing, there are three basic styles:
- Visual (those who learn by seeing)
- Auditory (those who learn by hearing)
- Kinesthetic (those who learn by doing)
To identify your style, take Buttigieg’s quiz or look for clues. Is your fridge covered in sticky notes? These are symbols of your visual tendencies. Do you find it hard to follow a checklist? Hello auditory. Always multi-tasking but never finishing one thing? You’re kinesthetic. Once you’ve determined your dominant learning style, look for complimentary organizing solutions. For example, open shelving and transparent bins for visual learners, colour-coded notebooks and voice recorders for auditory learners and whiteboards and hands-on activities for kinesthetic learners.
All together now
Becoming comfortable with your own style is a good place to start. The next step is recognizing the individual styles of your family members. So test your spouse and children and watch their behaviour for hints.
Once you know your child’s dominant learning style, you’ll be better able to communicate with them. For instance, you won’t hand the auditory child a checklist of chores or ask the kinesthetic child to sit still and sort items for too long. And while the communication benefits can carry over to everything from schoolwork to play dates, it will also help you develop organizational solutions that will stick because they are tailor made for the user.
Often parents know their own style and then force their kids to adapt to that. “The key is to really listen to the kids when they say ‘I don’t want it there. It makes more sense for me to have it here,’” says Buttigieg.
The puberty factor
The wrench in this seemingly simple plan? Puberty. Rapidly changing brains in children can result in a change in their learning style. Teen brains are particularly challenging.
“The teen brain changes every eight to 12 months,” says Buttigieg, “so teenagers can go from visual to auditory to in between,” she says. “During the first two years of puberty nothing will work 100 percent. Those are the drama and moody years so you just have to really listen and keep your eye on the puck so that, as they’re changing, you’re tweaking systems.”
Another challenge is a house where everyone has different styles. While no two styles are completely incompatible, charging two different types of learners with tasks that require them to depend on each other can be a recipe for disaster. If you have one child responsible for clearing the table and the other responsible for setting the table – where one has to rely on the other – that’s where the problems start. “They have to have very clear responsibilities,” says Buttigieg.
The big purge
Start with a family meeting where everyone has a chance to voice their opinion about what room to tackle, and what would make the room work best for them. Next, plan a time to take action. On the agreed date let the kids make a list of the things they use in the space and the things that may not fit in the new space to help guide re-organization. The key to all of this is to keep it fun and allow children to work in the ways that come most naturally to them.
Capitalize on strengths
Let the kinesthetic child draw a room map while the others explain where they think things should go; let the visual child make a checklist and put the auditory child in charge of the day’s musical selection. Other fun strategies:
- Have contests for who can fill the biggest bag with things to give away.
- Try a beat-the-clock game for sorting aparticular area.
- Let kids take turns picking a song the family can sing or listen to while they work.
Kids can have as strong an attachment to their possessions as adults, so respect their wishes. Encourage them to put special things in a special place and you will be able to skip the trauma that unfolds when a child comes home to find that the stuffed animal they’ve loved since they were a baby is about to be donated to charity. At the end of it all there should be a family reward for a job well done: a play date or family game night in the new space will help build their appreciation for it. The success that results from knowing and supporting learning styles is its own incentive and reward, but an organized house is a nice bonus. “I think it helps people realize they’re not missing the organizing gene,” says Buttigieg. “It’s just that the things they were trying were not a good fit for them.”
Published in ParentsCanada, May 2010