Using Personal Styles to Help Kids Get an Organized Start

How do you help the variety of students with different organizational styles to succeed? This guide will help you identify their styles so you can best help them.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

It happens every year. You set up a beautiful, organized classroom with engaging decorations and homes for every school supply your students will need. You create name tags and set up folders to help them keep track of everything from glue sticks to geography homework. And, for most of your students, these systems work.

But every year, there are some students for whom they don’t. No matter how seemingly simple the concept (pencils go inside the pencil box), some kids struggle. And, if we look at this group of kids, there’s rarely a common denominator. Some are bright and creative, some are collectors, others simply don’t worry about where things go.

Until they can’t find them.

Most teachers are naturally organized—what I call Type A organizers. They establish traditional systems and adhere to them with relative ease. Binders, file folders, and filing cabinets are their friends.

But what if they weren’t?

For some students (and a fair number of adults), these traditional systems aren’t tools. They’re obstacles. They require too many steps, they hide things from view. They aren’t intuitive. The basic concept of putting papers that stay home in one side of a pocket folder and papers that have to be returned to school in the other pocket, for example, is not so basic because it flies in the face of what these kids do naturally. For these kids (adults), simply getting the papers stuffed into the folder is a major accomplishment.

Over time, the lack of adherence to traditional systems becomes just one problem these kids face. They begin to feel inferior. Inept. Stupid. They start to feel as though they are the problem when, in fact, the problem is that they’re using the wrong tools. When the organizing tool doesn’t match the user, it’s like trying to employ a flat-head screwdriver when only a Phillips head will do.

So, how do we make sure these kids get the right tools? We look at what comes naturally.

This month, I’ll introduce the personal styles (what those of us who aren’t Type A organizers do automatically) and next month, the organizational styles (how we organize when we’re not thinking about organizing).

They have silly names because I first used them with kids, but these silly names also serve to keep the approach light-hearted with the goal of protecting the self-esteem of the struggling.

The personal styles are just what they sound like — things we do naturally that influence the way we organize. I’ve identified three:

  1. I love stuff
  2. I love to be busy
  3. I need to see it

Kids with the I love stuff style are collectors.

Often creative, they see treasure where others see trash. The stone from the playground that reflects the light just so. The plastic lid from a snack container that is perfect for drawing on with ballpoint pen. The little doodles and sketches they’ve made on scraps of paper every single day since the beginning of the school year. These kids develop an attachment to their things and often struggle to part with them. Their biggest organizational issue is too much stuff and not enough space.

Kids with an I love to be busy style are deeply involved in activities.

Sometimes, they choose this and sometimes, it’s thrust upon them. Regardless, they often have many talents (or perhaps one all-consuming hobby) and much to offer. Rarely bored and often good at time management, they nevertheless struggle with “stuff” management. Their biggest organizational issue is too much to do and not enough time. This may bleed over into incomplete assignments and missing papers as they struggle to keep up with a packed schedule.

Kids with an I need to see it style are very visual.

They often fail to put things away because once they’re away, they’re forgotten. This plan sometimes works….and sometimes creates clutter. Like their I love stuff and I love to be busy peers, they’re often creative and involved, so keeping things out or storing them so they can easily grab them is their way of keeping track of multiple projects.

How can you help?

Respect the child.

Don’t judge these books by their covers. No matter how disorganized these kids may seem, they’re still smart, creative and talented. Keeping their gifts in mind can help you steer them toward a system that works for them and leaves them proud, not crushed.

Respect the style.

It might not make any sense to you, but it probably makes sense to them. Ask them about what’s working and what isn’t, then help them find the tools that make organization possible for them. Chances are, those tools aren’t pocket folders and binders, or you wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place.

Create a plan.

Once you know what makes these kiddos tick, so to speak, the trick is working with them to find the right tools. Moving from a cluttered surface to an organized interior, from opaque storage to see-through storage and from traditional tools to non-traditional tools can make a huge difference not only in how their desks look but how your students feel about school — and themselves.

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