The Tried-and-True Tool That Sometimes Isn’t Either

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Is the ring binder really the best tool for the job?

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

Ah, the binder. Touted by teachers and professional organizers alike, its three rings offer the promise of keeping papers together, yet separate. The combination of items that can live between its covers is virtually endless, from photos and schedules to class notes and packets. Available in many colors, patterns, textures, sizes, and price points, it’s a versatile organizing tool.

Except when it isn’t.

While I like the concept of binders, and love the many opportunities binders provide to subdivide and color code, they just don’t work for me. Despite my meticulous set-up and determination to three-hole-punch every paper in my possession, the papers in question fail to leap effortlessly from my hands into their assigned place behind a divider bearing the name of their category. And when I try to use multiple binders, storing them on a shelf is problematic. They stack neatly within a well-defined footprint only if I alternate them so the labeled edge is facing out for every other binder.

Which kind of defeats the purpose of labeling them in the first place.

Yet the ubiquitous binder seems to find its way onto every back-to-school supply checklist. Every summer, students whose binders failed them the previous year start over, perhaps varying the color, the size, and/or the variety in an effort to start fresh but, in the end, the binder remains an organizational method that’s just not a good fit for them. Even worse, the whole process often backfires. Rather than internalizing an organizational habit, students may internalize the notion that they’re disorganized and unable to accomplish a life skill that seems to come so easily to everyone else.

In reality, the kids aren’t the problem. The binder is. But the kids are the ones who end up feeling broken.

Organizational tools are supposed to work in the service of the person using them, not the other way around. A binder (or a folder or a pencil case or, in the adult world, a file cabinet) is supposed to facilitate organization. But for kids, multi-step processes can serve as impediments to organization. In fact, in kid world, anything that requires more than one step to get a paper where it belongs might as well come with a guarantee that the paper will get stuffed somewhere instead of put away. Tools that don’t make organizing easy don’t make it likely either, and should be set aside in favor of those that do.

This year, instead of starting with a one-size-fits-all tool that doesn’t always live up to that promise, try starting with the organizational concepts you’re trying to use the binder to teach. For example:

  • Binders enable us to keep things neat and tidy, keeping wrinkles and tears to a minimum.
  • Using a binder reinforces the skills of putting like items together, putting things where they belong and, depending on the age of the child, keeping class notes and handouts in chronological order.
  • Using dividers to create separate sections in a binder strengthens the skill of categorization and contributes to organization; when each paper is in its appropriate section, the user can find what he or she is looking for quickly amid other related items.

All of these are valuable organizational skills. And they can be taught with tools besides binders.

This year, if you’re teaching children above the primary level, try ditching the one-size-fits-all approach by starting with the concept instead of the tool. Explain to your students what their organizer must accomplish — start with the concepts above and add in any others that matter to you — and tell your students why these skills matter. Then, designate September as “Set-Up Month” wherein your students set themselves up to be organized for the remainder of the school year. Give them the month of September to try out systems that work for them, whether traditional or non-traditional (see sidebar) with the understanding that if their system is working by the end of the month, they may continue to use it. If not, they’ll need to conference with you about what to do instead.

Your goal here is threefold: to teach organizational skills (instead of simply providing binder tutorials), to enable kids to explore their own natural tendencies when it comes to organizing their stuff (along with tools that fit those tendencies), and to help your students develop confidence in their ability to pull it all together.

Don’t be surprised if you need to do a little explaining to parents, too. Accustomed to traditional tools themselves, parents may be confused when their kids come home saying they can use whatever they want to keep their stuff organized. It might also be a challenge for parents to step back and let their kids explore because creative exploration doesn’t always look neat and tidy.

And it isn’t always cheap. But giving kids freedom to choose their own tools doesn’t give them license to break the family budget. Great alternatives and upgrades to traditional tools can be found in dollar bins and dollar stores and in the aisles of any store where parents typically buy school supplies. If you wish, you can even keep a lending library of non-traditional tools on hand for students to try out.

As for me, I haven’t given up on binders, but I’ve found that they work best as archival storage, holding things I want to reference, not things I need to access regularly. Through lots of exploration of my own, I’ve discovered that if I must use a binder, there are ways to upgrade it to make it more user friendly. While I must admit that binders have some worthwhile attributes, they won’t be the first paper storage tool I turn to.

 Tools to use instead of a binder:

  • Colored file folders, one per subject per semester. Pocket folders are also an option but kids who don’t get papers into the sections of a binder often don’t get them into the pockets of the folders either.
  • Colored clamp binders, one per subject. Bypass the rings and the endless flipping past one divider after another (bypass the dividers, while we’re at it). Clamp binders are more fun from a kid perspective and the papers don’t need to be hole-punched to be filed away.
  • An accordion folder.  Kids who struggle to get things into binder rings often do better simply dropping them into a labeled section of an expandable folder. These can often be found in dollar bins at back-to-school time and, depending on the age of the child, more than one may be necessary for adequate storage.

Tools to use to upgrade a binder:

  • A portable three-hole punch. This is the fastest way to solve the I-can’t-put-it-away-because-it-doesn’t-have-holes dilemma.
  • A stash of reinforcements to help ensure that once the papers get into the binder, they stay there. 
  • A side-loading acetate folder that comes pre-punched to fit into a binder. Particularly good for storing thick packets, these folders allow students to slide papers in instead of slipping them over rings. This often results in fewer torn papers as well, although corners may get bent in the sliding process. 
  • Binder clips at the front and the back of the binder. These can be holding zones for papers that need to be hole-punched or need to be put into the right section. Alternatively, they can hold whatever needs to be accessed frequently and/or quickly, with archived material filed in the binder itself. 
  • Dividers with pockets. While putting papers into the appropriate section of the binder is preferable, the folders at least ensure that things get put in the right vicinity. Like the acetate folders above, these come pre-punched to fit inside a binder. Can’t find these at your local school supply store? Try folding a pocket folder so the pockets are on the outside instead of the inside. Hole punch (if it’s not hole-punched already) and put it inside the binder.

Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.

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