What’s Your Organizing Style?

In organizing, as in life, one size does not fit all. Here’s a guide to choosing storage systems for school supplies that fit your students’ styles.

By Lisa Lawmaster Hess

Years ago, I was given the gift of a fresh start in the guise of moving to a smaller office. I was grumpy at first, but, after a little reading, a lot of thinking and many boxes, bins and crates, my change in location led to a change in attitude. I saw moving as an opportunity to do things differently and Organizing by STYLE was born. Armed with silly, kid-friendly names for the styles, I brought my particular take on organization into the classroom. With a playful, non-judgmental approach from me and much trust from my students, a typically boring topic turned into one kids could get excited about.

While the personal styles I wrote about last month focus on what we do automatically, the organizational styles focus on how we organize automatically — that is, when we’re not thinking about organizing. As you can imagine, these two kinds of styles interact. I have an I need to see it personal style and a drop and run organizational style. Using one of these styles to solve an organizational problem is helpful. Using both will lead me to an organizational system I can sustain.

Many teachers tend to be Type A organizers—naturally “together” and at home with standard tools (pocket folders and three-ring binders, for example). The challenge for Type A organizers who don’t, by definition, struggle to get and stay organized, is to look at these unorthodox styles from a different perspective. Viewing styles with names like cram and jam, drop and run and I know I put it somewhere as default mindsets instead of organizational liabilities makes it easier to be supportive of the kids who own them.

This simple shift in perception frees Type A organizers to brainstorm solutions that work for their students rather than frustrating everyone by trying to coerce kids into using tools that don’t work for them.

Students in the intermediate grades have had repeated exposure to standard organizers. If it didn’t work for the teacher before you and the one before her, why would you put yourself (and your students) through the same old-same old frustration?

So, with this month’s goal being the same as last month’s—to protect the self-esteem of the struggling and whip some things into shape at the same time—let’s take a look at the organizational styles that accompany last month’s personal styles.

Kids with the I know I put it somewhere organizational style often look well-organized; nevertheless, they struggle to find what they need when they need it. They like clear spaces, but lack a system, so things get put in a “safe place”—one that they may or may not remember later. Because things don’t consistently end up where they belong, these kiddos often end up frantically tearing apart desks and backpacks in search of the homework they know they put…somewhere. Teaching kids with the I know I put it somewhere organizational style to use consistent, logical locations of their own choosing (if it doesn’t make sense to them, they won’t use it) and providing them with tools like clear folders instead of their paper counterparts (so they can see what’s inside) can help these students take steps toward putting things in the “somewhere” where they belong.

Kids with the cram and jam organizational style, on the other hand, typically have an idea of where their things are because everything’s stuffed into the same place. The issue for cram and jammers is one of capacity; these kiddos don’t stop using storage just because it’s full. Consequently, papers get crumpled or torn, projects get smashed and writing implements end up broken. Helping them choose roomy tools that minimize the potential for wrinkling (file folders may be safer for their papers than pocket folders, for example) and separating paper crushers from the papers themselves (perhaps offering auxiliary storage for items such as textbooks) can help these kids protect both the quality of their work and the paper it’s written on.

Kids with the drop and run organizational style do just what the name suggests. They drop the supplies for one subject or activity before running on to the next, ending up with a pile-up instead of a neatly organized desk. These students rarely succeed with three-ring binders (too many steps) or pocket folders (they might get the paper in the folder, but not the pocket) and do better with open containers they can drop things into. Simply giving them a style-friendly tool (a bin or an empty magazine holder, for example) and a set time each day to put things where they belong can make a big difference.

Tempting though it may be to convert all of your students to one style, in organizing, as in life, one size does not fit all. Besides, doesn’t a new school year deserve a fresh start?

Ready to help your students choose containers that work for their styles? Download and print this free chart that breaks it all down.

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