Strategizing with STYLE


Don’t be fooled by appearances. Keeping a desk looking neat is only part of the battle.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

As I write this, the students (and staff) in my school district been hard at work for a month. Their pencils, erasers and other school tools have been getting a workout, too; while some students (and staff) still boast neatly organized desks, I suspect others are beginning to show some wear and tear.

Does this sound like your classroom?

If you’re ready to intervene, why not try doing it with STYLE?

Start with successes.

Chat with your organizationally challenged kiddos about what they’re doing well. Does everything make it into the desk, albeit a bit haphazardly? Are necessary papers making it from school to home and back again? Is there some semblance of a system, even if it makes sense only to the owner of the desk? All of these small successes are starting points — the foundation of an ongoing organizational system.

While you’re at it, don’t be fooled by appearances. Keeping a desk looking neat is only part of the battle. Students with an I know I put it somewhere style may not have things falling out of their desks, but may still be unable to find what they need when they need it. Organizing systems work only if students can find what they need within a reasonable amount of time.

Take small steps.

Desk dumping is a thing of the past. Not only is it demoralizing, but it also makes a big job seem even more enormous and it crushes motivation. Think little people, little steps, and tap into their motivation to make things better. What’s not working from their perspective? What suggestions do they have for fixing it? Make suggestions and brainstorm solutions, but don’t run the show, especially with older students. Giving students ownership of the small steps sets them up to manage the bigger ones. Something as simple as finding a logical, consistent place for a pencil can lead to less lost time and frustration for student and teacher.

Yes, it has a home.

Or does it? If things seem haphazard, ask the student where he thinks his things should go.  Chances are, the organizationally challenged child doesn’t have a system, so talking him through the process of deciding what goes where can be the first step in helping him create a system. Once you’ve finished the discussion, have him draw a map of the inside of his desk to use as a reminder and a reference. If the organizational system extends beyond the desk (to book bins, for example), have him draw those “auxiliary systems” in, too.

Let it go!

This advice is for both of you. For the teacher, letting go of control and allowing the student to lead the show can be a challenge. As adults, we have more experience and we want to share our wisdom. In addition, we know things get done faster when we just tell our students how things should go. Unfortunately, the only way to learn organization is by doing it. In addition, when it comes to organization, one size does not fit all. A system that makes sense to you might not make sense to every one of your students. If their systems make sense to them, they’re more likely to use them.

For the student, let it go pertains to keeping the contents of the desk lean and mean. This process begins with the question, “what’s in here that doesn’t belong in here?” Even the most organized child ends up with extraneous stuff; from time to time, we need to take inventory and see what needs to be rearranged, relocated or discarded. If possible, try to avoid making recess the time to do this. Many children who struggle with organization already feel as though there’s something wrong with them; having to stay in from recess to clean out their desks only reinforces this notion.

Easy upkeep.

This is the end goal. How can you help your students devise a plan that’s easy to manage? How can you help them to see that this organization thing that seems so hard and like so much work is within their grasp?

Simply by doing what comes naturally for you as a teacher. If one of your students was struggling with math concepts or reading comprehension, you’d help them make their way toward a strategy that led them to success. If you consider organization a skill to be mastered and approach it the same way you approach academic instruction, leading your students from confusion to comprehension and from dependence to independence, all of the experimenting and child-centered strategizing becomes less frustrating. Arriving at a workable strategy might still be time-consuming but, once your students are there, you’ll know you’ve taught them a skill they can use for a lifetime.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary school counselor.

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