Get Organized! How to Cope with Clutter

By Janet S. Fox, author of Get Organized Without Losing It

Jaent S Fox FSP AuthorWe’re halfway through the school year. Could you use some ideas to help students get or stay organized?

Last year I wrote a post on some general tips for managing stuff, time, and information. Let’s look more closely at the category that seems to give everyone the most trouble: stuff management.

There are two overarching rules for dealing with all the things that clutter up our lives, whether we’re talking about paperwork or gym clothes. The first rule is a place for everything and everything in its place, and the second is use it or lose it. These two rules are closely intertwined.

The term that organization experts use for rule number one is “zoning.” Think of zoning the way kindergarten teachers do. Different areas of the classroom are assigned different roles: the reading corner, the hands-on table, the story circle. Zoning can be applied to notebooks, backpacks, desks, and lockers, and is especially useful at home if you can persuade your child to zone his or her bedroom.

organized binder common license GNU public domainTo manage papers, students can use a sturdy three-ring binder stocked with helpful tools such as transparent pencil pouch, clear plastic sleeves, a homework folder, and colorful labeled dividers. “Locking-ring” binders are worth the investment, and I recommend that the binder be at least 2 inches thick to hold a semester’s worth of papers.

Some students may not intuitively understand a filing system, so help your young learners divide and conquer their paperwork, ideally at the end of each daily homework session. Make sure they understand how to order information chronologically and how to flag information by topic. Older students might want to cull their paperwork at the end of each semester or section and file older work until exams are finished.

I suggest that every night kids empty their backpacks by dumping things out on the floor. It sounds messy, but in fact it helps them put things back where they belong and get rid of things that don’t (like that apple core, pencil stub, wadded-up gum wrapper . . .). Backpacks can be zoned, too, making it easier to find the algebra book when it’s needed.

Classroom desks and lockers are black holes for stuff. Provide younger students with clear plastic boxes for desk items like pencils and rulers. I recommend that elementary students clean out their desks at the end of every week. Have them bring all items home, and help them sort and store or toss. This is a great way to avoid the “I forgot the permission slip!” moment.

Lockers are easy to organize with folding shelves, magnetic boxes, magnetic hooks, and/or plastic boxes. Again, a weekly or bi-monthly cleanout will unearth dirty gym socks or forgotten library books.

As for rule number two—use it or lose it—we are all guilty of hanging on to too much stuff.

recycle-bin-paperTeach your student how to get rid of things that are no longer useful or important. Most things can be recycled or donated. If you’re dealing with a large amount of stuff, use a triage system: Create four piles that you designate Keep, Maybe Keep, Donate, and Toss. Wait a week with the Maybe Keep items and you’ll find that almost everything there can be donated as well.

Research shows that clutter not only creates a crowded space, it also foments a crowded mind. Clearing physical clutter is the first step toward better focus and learning.

Using these two rules will help your kids—and you—manage all that stuff that we accumulate every day. Here’s to a less cluttered new year!

Get Organized Without Losing ItMore hints, plus reproducible worksheets, can be found at

Janet S. Fox is a writer, teacher, scientist, wife, mother, and avid gardener. She has published poetry, short fiction, and science articles, taught an elementary reading program, and now teaches middle school and high school English. Author of Get Organized Without Losing It, Janet and her family live in Texas. Check out Janet’s blog, which features “interviews, musings, and more about books for kids.”

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