Building Enthusiasm for Organizing in the Classroom

7 ways to keep your students on track with organizing

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

My very first foray into Organizing by STYLE with kids was with a small group of eight-year-olds. I was very enthusiastic, but also nervous to see if it would work for them. These concepts had injected a much-needed positivity into my own organizational system and I wanted the styles to do the same thing for my students.

I needn’t have worried. A roomful of eight-year-olds is often a recipe for fun, and this group loved the idea of trying out new ideas and describing cluttered desks with funny-sounding style names.

If you’ve been trying out the personal and organizational styles yourself or with your students, perhaps you’re in need of a little of that enthusiasm. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you continue on this journey.

Make it fun. Let’s face it. Getting organized isn’t fun if it’s hard. And, if kids perceive the styles as derogatory, it’s just one more failure that cements their perception of themselves as disorganized. Instead of reinforcing a negative self-image that sends kids deeper into disorganization, take advantage of the unconventional terms to inject a sense of humor into the development of this necessary life skill. Trying the styles yourself? Use the silliness of the terms to remember that even if organization is important, it doesn’t have to be serious.

Let them try new tools. When I taught classroom lessons on organization, I did monthly giveaways (one winner per classroom) as a part of this process. To keep the giveaways going but also keep things low-budget, I hit the dollar store and raided clearance bins. Not only did I have a blast uncovering cool new tools, but I also got great ideas. Back at school, the giveaways got the kids excited and gave them a chance to try different tools without spending money or feeling pressured. The giveaway tool didn’t work for every kiddo every time, but it gave my students a chance to experiment and to think about what worked for them and what did not.

Make substitutions for the tools that cause the biggest headaches. Puzzled by pocket folders? Try colored file folders, which require only that the paper be dropped in. Baffled by binders? Replace three-hole binders with binders that have clamp closures (no holes needed) or accordion folders. Other alternatives include separate report folders (clamp, slide or velcro closure) or see-through envelopes for each subject (some of these even come binder-ready). Sure, it’s a little unconventional, but the goal is to create a system whereby students (or teachers) can find what they need when they need it. Simplicity, visibility and style-specificity make this possible.

Minimize the number of steps. No matter the style, the simpler the system, the more likely it is to be used. Aim for one step organizers. Two steps doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but when you multiply that extra step by the number of times the organizer is used each day, you increase the chance that the paper will be abandoned before it makes it to its destination.

Never underestimate the power of pretty. Attractive containers invite us to use them. (If you doubt that, just take a moment to imagine how much less space stores would need for school supplies if everything were black and white — no colors, prints or superheroes). For some of the styles (I love stuff and I need to see it, in particular), colors, prints and patterns are an integral part of an organizational system. If the point of an organizational system is to keep things looking nice, shouldn’t we begin with tools that do just that?

Aim for kid-centricity. The sooner a child takes ownership of his or her own system, the more likely it is that he or she will create a personalized system that works. Putting the child in charge (with the adult as benevolent advisor) allows students to analyze why a particular tool doesn’t work and to consider what might work better. When teachers scaffold the process by stepping into an advisory capacity, they allow students to become more active — and therefore invested — in the process. Instead of just doing the thing you asked them to do, they’re doing the thing they chose.

Remember that it’s a process. For those of us who have to work at it, organizing is a one step forward, two steps back proposition. It takes time to find the right tools, it takes time to turn tools into systems and, let’s face it, it’s easier to put something down than it is to put it away. And, even when we think we have everything under control, all it takes is a busy week to seemingly undo everything we’ve accomplished. Be patient with yourself and with your students, turning your focus to what’s working instead of dwelling on what isn’t, and using the strengths as building blocks.

More on that next month. For now, revel in silliness, try new things and, above all, keep it simple.

Life is complicated enough.

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