EF Skills: Organizing for A New Term

By Jenna Prada, M.Ed


Many students with executive function issues and other learning differences struggle with physical organization, but the right tools and thoughtful systems can alleviate some of the stress that surrounds those challenges • Below are tips to help your child personalize an organization system that works for them

Now that the school year is underway, and expectations for the coming months have been established, it’s time to help your child think how they can best stay organized as the term unfolds. Giving them ownership over how they organize themselves creates buy-in, making it more likely they’ll stick with their system past the first week of class.

Pick the Approach

There are a number of systems that work, but it’s likely one of these will speak to your child. If their preference differs from yours, remember that it doesn’t matter how they stay organized as long as they do it.

  • One large binder with color-coded dividers for each class: If this is your child’s preferred system, they should either make sure that the inside cover has a pocket for loose papers, or they’ll need to carry a hole-puncher or a “to-be-filed” folder for when teachers hand them something on the way out or give materials that aren’t punched.
  • One large accordion folder: If they like the idea of not dealing with multiple folders and notebooks, but can’t commit to punching holes in everything, this is the solution. With the accordion folder, each class has its own section. Pair it with class-specific spiral notebooks or use looseleaf paper for note-taking. This works well for kids who struggle with the loose paper flow that is a part of most school days.
  • One small binder or accordion folder for each class: This method allows for creating sections such as “notes,” “to do,” “to turn in,” and “returned work.” Be sure to get a different colored binder or folder for each class to minimize grabbing the wrong one.
  • One large spiral notebook with dividers and a built-in folder for each class: Using a notebook as the primary location for taking notes eliminates the need to file looseleaf papers. As above, get a variety of colors & consider putting colored tabs on the dividers in the notebook so it’s easy to find each class.
  • A spiral notebook and folder for each class: It’s simply personal preference to have one large notebook or several smaller ones. If they choose the latter, color match notebooks and folders to avoid mix-ups.
  • Notebook(s) and folders with different purposes: Most students prefer to organize by class, but there are some that think differently. Possible organization schemes include nightly homework, long-term projects, materials to study, work to turn in, and hold on to this for finals. Students can also create any of these folders in conjunction with one of the above systems.

Shopping with your child for school materials offers another chance to let them personalize their system so that they feel more invested. To really foster independence and planning consider giving your child a budget to do the shopping on their own.

Pro Tip: Reinforced loose leaf is a must for systems that make use of binders.

Decide on a Maintenance Plan

Once your child has settled on their preferred organizing scheme, it’s time to think through what that looks like day-to-day and week-to-week. Help them get started setting up a realistic plan by asking the following questions:

  • When will you clean out your “to be filed” folder?
  • When will you go through notebooks, backpack, and books for loose papers that need to be filed?
  • When will you remove papers that are no longer helpful to hold on to?

Pro Tip: Have your child schedule the above commitments into their weekly plans, either putting it on a calendar or setting an electronic reminder. Until it becomes second nature it’s not a bad idea for you to also set a notification in order to hold your child accountable.

Assess and Adjust

Establish the expectation that new systems will likely need to be adjusted as your child sees what does and doesn’t work. To that end, check in with your child at the end of the first week using the new system. Does it work? Did they stick to their times for sorting their loose papers? What adjustments do they need to make? Check-in again at one month. Have they settled into a rhythm? Does it feel sustainable long-term?

In each instance, praise the process, your child’s growing awareness of how they organize, and their willingness to keep trying. There are few opportunities better than a new school year to initiate organizational habits that will serve them well for years to come.

More Best Practices

Managing the paper flow is an important aspect of getting organized, but it is not the only factor to consider. Following are other suggestions worth incorporating that can help your child get on track early and stay on track for the year:

  • Create a place on your child’s desk or workspace at home where parents or housekeepers know to put any loose work they find around the house. Help your child get in the routine of cleaning this spot up once a week.
  • Identify a consistent place for their backpack and other school supplies to live.
  • If your teachers have a particular way that they ask students to organize themselves for their class, consider encouraging self-advocacy. Teachers will often give students leeway to use a different system that works best for them. You can help your child draft an email or think through the conversation.

Jenna Prada, a certified teacher and administrator, is the founder of the Learning Link and the Director of Executive Functioning & Special Education at Private Prep.

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