Starting the Year Organized

How do your students’ backpacks look right now? Pretty organized I would bet. They haven’t been given too many papers in their classes or taken that many notes, so things should look more or less clean. But how long will it take for papers to pile up and spill over? Two weeks? Two months? What can you do now to keep your students from carrying around those dreaded “exploding backpacks”?

Organization of materials is an area of executive function that is often in high demand here at SMARTS. The mystifying tragedy of students who do their homework and then can’t find it is enough to drive any teacher crazy, and propels many of us, including myself, to turn to executive function strategies for an answer.

Teaching kids to clean out their backpacks is easier said than done (though our 4 C’s organization strategy in Unit 4: Part A is one of our most popular). Here are some tips to help your students stay organized now and for the rest of the year.

Give students choice

Too often we tell our students exactly what they need to buy in terms of organization. We specify whether we want them to use binders or folders, how they should save their notes and homework, and even what kind of planner to use. When we do this, we are undermining students abilities to organize themselves. At best, they may use the organization system we dictate somewhat mindlessly, filing their papers correctly but not understanding how to create systems to stay organized—and when they are older, they may be unable to create these systems on their own. At worst, we have assaulted their sense of autonomy, making refusal to stay organized a way for students to assert their independence.

Show them what organization looks like

Allowing students to choose their own organization system does not mean letting them loose at Staples and hoping for the best. We can show students a variety of ways to stay organized to help them envision what might work best. Displaying how to properly organize using a variety of tools (e.g., binders, folders, backpacks) will help students construct an organization system that is effective. And remember the importance of modeling! Show students how you stay organized so that they understand that organization is a part of everyone’s life. It’s important for students to see that being organized doesn’t mean that everything looks perfect all the time; organization is a day-to-day struggle we all engage in, and showing students our own systems and struggles will reinforce that fact.

Prove that it’s important

Show students why being organized matters. Too often, students think that the only reason to be organized is to get parents and teachers off their backs. We need to demonstrate that being organized will make students’ lives easier and will make the time they spend doing homework and studying more efficient and effective. There are a variety of ways to show the value of being organized. Here at SMARTS we like the backpack relay race, one of our most popular lessons, or strategy reflections that ask students to think about how their organization system is or is not helping them.

Keep it up!

No organization system can maintain itself forever. To help our students stay organized, we need to help them find time to clean. Every so often, students should go through all their belongings and create piles: one pile for papers they need in school, one pile for papers they may need later and should store at home, and one pile that goes straight to the recycle bin. Ask your students to estimate how often they should clean out their belongings and then make time for them to do so. You can make organization count by giving them a grade (or extra credit) for doing the clean out, or schedule a backpack relay race and give them time to prepare.

Teaching students to stay organized can be a challenge, but it is an essential skill that they will need as they advance through the grades and prepare for college and their adult lives. By following these steps, you can help prevent exploding backpacks and engage students in the process of being organized.

  • Michael Greschler, M.Ed., SMARTS Director