Organization is always one of the biggest executive functioning challenges that kids and teens face in the classroom. This includes the ability to be prepared, keeping materials tidy, having what you need at a moment’s notice, and the ability to stick to a schedule. Organization ultimately lays the groundwork for so many other important skills.
Let’s face it. When organization is a challenge, it can be a big challenge. Picture the student coming to class without the right materials. This sets them back from the start. Next, imagine the child who constantly loses their papers. That student perhaps really did finish the graded homework, but just cannot find it. This is stressful and challenging for everyone, quite often especially the student themselves.
The good news is that there are strategies to help. Organization is an executive functioning skill that can be taught, practiced, and strengthened over time. Not every technique is going to work perfectly for every learner, so it’s important to find the techniques that work best for your learners.
Here are some strategies to try:
Integrate organization to your content area. Find simple ways to integrate organization activities in to what you are already teaching. These small opportunities are actually big chances to build on organization over time. Here are a few to try:
- Before writing an essay, discuss ways students can organize and prepare.
- Before sending kids home to study for a math test, discuss materials students may need to bring home to be prepared.
- When giving multiple assignments, practice listing them out and prioritizing what might be done first.
- While assigning a long-term project, practice chunking the assignment together into smaller more manageable pieces.
- When learning about a topic, practice sorting into categories (ex: sort animals that live in sea vs on land).
Teach organization skills explicitly. In order to organize, kids and teens need to know how to organize in the first place. It’s important to stress that teaching about organization is for everyone. This means showing students how to organize binders, desks, and materials. I have always felt that many kids could use an “organization boot camp” time to learn these skills, especially at the beginning of the year (but really any time of the year would do). Consider scheduling an organization boot camp time to teach the skills your students need most.
Use mnemonics. Mnemonics are an evidence-based strategy, and they can work for organization routines too! Use the mnemonic “WHAT” to help students know what to do when they enter the room:
- Write in assignment log.
- Homework out.
- Attentive and ready to learn.
- Tidy work space.
Schedule daily and weekly organization time into your schedule. Proactively use the last 5 minutes of each class as an organization time. Kids and teens need time to put these skills to use.
Develop routines for staying organized. Organization is an on-going process. Create daily routines that support organization in your classroom. For example, what happens when students get a paper returned to them? Where does it go? Unless this is a specifically taught and practiced routine in your classroom, some of your students may not know! Also, when do students write homework down? Is it written in the same exact spot each day? How do learners know when to write the work down? Consider adding some of these routines into your day.
Take before and after pictures. So often, students need to visually see the difference between organized and disorganized. Take a photo of a student’s desk. Then, organize it together and take a photo after. Discuss the differences and how it may help that child now and in the future. As a bonus, you can use the after photo as a visual support later on.
Post a materials list on your door. Remind students in writing and with visuals what you need them to have when they walk in.
Help students set up homework binders. Using just one binder specifically for homework can help learners keep track of their most current nightly assignments. Use this free homework binder activity to help students get started.
Organize binders together. Organization takes practice. Spend time organizing binders and homework folders together. It helps to give some choice in the process. For example, allow students to choose homework folders or color the outside of their binders to help them “buy in” and feel connected to the process.
Provide deep-clean organization time. Consider adding a weekly or monthly time to give lockers and backpacks a deep clean too.
Limit the number of materials at a time. Providing fewer materials to students at once is actually an evidence-based strategy (Rosenshine 2012). Instead of handing out lots of materials at once, provide only what students are working on at the moment.
Keep a classroom office stocked. For sure it’s better if kids remember materials on their own. While they are learning these skills though, keep materials they might need in one easy-to-access spot.
Encourage organization check-ins. Teach students themselves how to “check in” on their organization strategies. You might plan one day of the week for this activity. Student might ask themselves: How is my binder organized? What’s working well for me? What could I improve? How organized is my desk from 0-10? What ways could I make it more tidy? These techniques are metacognition and self-reflection in action.
Talk about organization regularly. Many times, kids learn the best strategies from other kids! Use executive functioning questions to discuss: What does an organized binder look like? What strategies do you use to remember your homework each day? What advice would you give to a friend who can’t find their assignments? Just one question a day can strengthen these skills over time.
Encourage a growth mindset. For students who struggle with organization, improving may feel impossible at first. You can try teaching about brain plasticity and how our brains grow with new strategies and techniques. Remind learners that they can and will strengthen these skills with practice!
Store extra papers in a specific bin. It’s helps to have a dedicated space to find any work students may be missing.
Hole-punch papers ahead of time. If you want students to store papers in their binders, make sure the pages are three hole punched ahead of time!
Keep a model notebook. If you have an organized notebook in your class, keep a model for others to view. This serves as a support when students don’t know where pages should go in their notebook.
Teach how to use agendas and calendars. So often, we tell students to write their homework down, but sometimes kids don’t know what that should actually look like. Teach students how to use their homework logs, agendas, and calendars. Review good examples and not-so-good examples of what a homework log should look like.
Keep a classroom calendar. Help students plan by keeping activities and long-term projects in view with a classroom calendar.
Start fresh each unit. I know sometimes we want kids to keep all their papers in binders or folders, but it’s really helpful to start fresh with a new unit. This gives students the chance to toss out papers and begin a clean notebook from scratch.
Post a daily schedule. A big part of organization is knowing what is coming next. Keep a daily schedule on your board as a reminder.
Talk about responsibility. Teaching strategies is important for sure, but it’s also important to explain that staying organized is a responsibility for learners. These are skills they need now and later on in life.
Discuss the benefits of organization. Simply put, organization is a real life skill kids will use now and in the future. Talk about how being organized can help students meet their goals, whether that goal is making the basketball team or improving their math grade.
Teach different strategies. It’s important to stress that there is not just one right way to organize. For example, some students may use one binder for all their coursework. Others may need separate binders. One way isn’t right or wrong, just different! Encourage students to discuss strategies and consider what works for them.
Create organization to-do lists. Sometimes, organization can be overwhelming. Practice coming up with step-by-step checklists to help students feel calm and in control of their organization tasks. For example, create a to-do list for organizing binders, desks, or even tidying up a room.
Designate a place for everything. Developing a system for materials ahead of time helps tremendously. This takes the guesswork away when students need to use colored pencils, scissors, or books from the classroom. It also models good organizational behavior. Try this free “organize the room” activity to talk about how everything should have a place.
Relate organization to real life. Discuss scenarios about how organization matters. Examples might include getting to class on time, making plans with friends, or packing for a trip. Have students share strategies for how they might use organization skills in each situation and what techniques would work best for them.
Try color-coding materials. For some students, color-coding may work well. Have students add a piece of blue tape to science materials, red tape for English, and so on.
Teach coping skills. Feeling disorganized can also bring on a lot of stress. Teach kids and teens how to manage their tough emotions with coping strategies.
Conference 1:1 with learners. Consider meeting one on one with students who need the biggest interventions. If your schedule doesn’t allow for this, consider talking with the school counselor to see if supports can be put in place. At this time, give feedback on their organization systems to help them make improvements.
Consider organization accommodations. For students in need, provide extra supports for organization. Here are a few accommodations to consider:
- Extra set of materials at home.
- Work in progress folder.
- Preview schedule changes.
- Leave class 2 minutes early.
Reteach organization. Learning how to organize takes practice. Revisit organization strategies often to help students stay on track.
More Organization Support
I hope these supports are helpful and can spark some meaningful change in your classroom. If you need MORE ideas for organization and other executive functioning skill instruction, check out my Executive Functioning Activities and give one a try.