By Gillian Knoll, Thinking Organized Tutor
Now is the time of year when things start to accumulate: sweaters on the closet floor, pollen on the windshield, and for our students, papers in the backpack. They don’t call it “spring” cleaning for nothing. I had to laugh when I caught a glimpse of my middle school student’s homework folder peeking out of his bag. Torn down the spine, fraying at the top, splitting at the bottoms of the pockets—and of course, bursting full of equally torn, fraying worksheets, handouts, and notes—the poor folder looked exhausted! What happened to the shining beacon of hope that was his binder? He carries it on his back all the time, but I can tell it rarely sees the light of day.
There are all sorts of reasons why the binder falls into disuse, and they aren’t all that different from the reasons why our sweaters pile up in the back of the closet. Students are busier now than ever; there’s always something else that feels more pressing. But there is a tipping point when a handful of loose papers becomes a mound of crumpled ones: this is when important notes start to disappear and assignments are forgotten. Unfortunately this is also when the project of binder maintenance is most daunting for our students.
The trick? Prevention: avoid the mass of papers in the first place. Most students have the same reasons for not maintaining their binders regularly, and many of these obstacles are easy to troubleshoot! Here are the top 3 reasons our students struggle with binder upkeep, along with some simple fixes to keep those papers in check:
Reason #1: “There aren’t any holes punched in my handouts!”
I hear this one more often than any other, and I feel my students’ pain! The teacher hands out a packet of materials without any holes punched into the sides, so the obvious solution is to cram it into the backpack or a homework folder until “later.” In the beginning of the school year, a few of these floating papers looked innocuous, but by springtime, things are in bad shape.
The Fix: A portable 3-hole punch.
These are about the size and thickness of a plastic ruler (they even fit in the binder!) and they cost less than $5 at your local supply store: http://www.amazon.com/Swingline-Portable-Capacity-Translucent-A7074042R/dp/B001GXM15W. They aren’t as fancy or high-powered as the desktop hole-punches you have at home, but they’re perfect fixes for this problem. It takes mere seconds to slip a couple pages into a lightweight hole-punch, and the binder is already out and ready to welcome the new addition!
Reason #2: “There wasn’t any time at the end of class to file my papers.”
Sometimes papers come in as the bell rings, and the flurry of activity in the classroom can be staggering. With limited time to organize their materials, our students’ executive functioning and attention issues make it especially hard for them to focus on filing away the new paperwork. Wedging papers between folders or textbook pages can feel like the easiest option, along with that optimistic plan to “take care of it later”—whenever “later” is…
The Fix: Write it down in the assignment notebook.
When do our students take out their assignment notebooks during the school day? Is it at the final bell, during lunchtime or study hall, or perhaps those 5 minutes their math teacher always gives at the end of the class period? This is when they should file the loose papers from the day, and they can remember by recording the phrase “file papers” in the assignment notebook. Writing it down beforehand is a commitment, and pairing a quick file of the day’s papers with a student’s other organizational tasks will make it easier to remember, and easier to form a habit. Even if this is a weekly task, rather than a daily one, it’s still worth writing down (and crossing off!) once every week.
Reason #3: “There are too many papers to go through—I just can’t find the time.”
That small pile has become an epic heap, and it’s spreading. Papers are everywhere: crunched in the bottom of the backpack, wedged awkwardly between textbook pages, crammed into mislabeled folders…and probably all over the bedroom floor and desktop. Sometimes it just feels like too much. When we don’t know where or how to start, our instincts are, of course, to avoid starting.
The Fix: Baby steps.
There are so many things a student can do without devoting hours to an overhaul of materials. Psychologically and logistically, it is easier to start on smaller tasks. And sometimes, once a student is in a rhythm, he’ll want to do more! Here are a few easy ways to trim down that epic heap:
- The 2-Stack Method: Trash vs. Keep
Take just a few minutes to sort pages into a trash pile and a “keep” pile for the time being. This way there’s less mess to deal with next time. Plus, it feels good to throw things away!
- Choose only one pile.
If there’s a mess of pages spread between the bedroom floor, the desk, the locker, the backpack, the homework folder (…the sock drawer?), then just start with one location and file those papers. This will still feel like an accomplishment, something to cross off the list!
- Sort papers by subject, but keep everything in a single pile for now.
If dividers and folders feel like too much to deal with, then just sort papers into small piles according to each subject in school. Once the papers are sorted, keep them in a single stack for the next “spring-cleaning” session, which should be a breeze!
Sometimes we look at a big mess and that’s all we see. It’s hard to know where to start when things get out of hand. Of course, our goal is always to prevent such occurrences, and small changes like buying a cheap 3-hole punch or writing a quick phrase in the assignment notebook can often accomplish this! And, when the going gets tough, small tasks are always more manageable than big ones. The encouraging thing about managing the binder is that it offers our students a tangible accomplishment. And with small tweaks like these, a healthy backpack is mere moments