School Organization 101: Clutter-Free Backpacks and Bedrooms

Teachers and parents can work with children with ADHD — not against them — to develop a school organization system that keeps homework papers and school supplies in their proper place.

School supplies used for organization, inlcuding binder clips and a planner
Cluttered desk filled with binder clips, scissors, pencil, stapler, ruler, eraser and cell phone

Given the five-balls-in-the-air complexity of our own hectic lives, we sometimes forget that our children are also juggling. As early as second grade, children are expected to hand in homework, show up for band practice, and keep track of their belongings. School organization is hard for any child, but especially for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Fortunately, organizational skills can be taught. By working with your child to build systems and routines, you can help him move from clutter to control — and clear the decks for learning.

Solutions In the Classroom

  • Color-code academic materials. Use green, for example, for all science notebooks, binders, folders, and textbook covers. Keep related classroom books and materials in bins of the same hue.
  • Post steps for routines. Hang colorful signs to show where homework, lunchboxes, and parent-teacher correspondence should be placed. (For pre-readers, use drawings or photos.) A reminder about dismissal might read: Did you clear off your desk? Did you pack your book bag? Do you have your jacket, lunchbox, and homework assignment? Post procedures for special periods, such as library time or computer lab, and hand out copies for students to keep in their binders.
  • Simplify the flow of papers. Homework, permission slips, and PTA letters are easily lost or crumpled. Provide each student with three clear, pocket-type folders — labeled “Mail,” “Homework to Do,” and “Completed Homework.”
  • Schedule a class clean-up. Provide time for students to de-clutter their binders, backpacks, and desks. Hold periodic desk and notebook inspections, and award prizes — a homework pass or tokens redeemable at the school store — for tidiness.
  • Post a master calendar. It should show all upcoming activities, projects, and deadlines. Allow time for students to transfer the information to their personal planners.
  • To help students with time management, use an analog clock. That makes it easier for students to track the passage of time. Make a game out of predicting how long various activities take. How long does it take to walk from the classroom to the school office? To write a book report?
  • Provide structure for long-term projects, and give students with ADHD a head start. Break projects into manageable steps — choosing a topic, submitting an outline, and so on. Post deadlines for each stage and refer to them frequently. Let parents know about these due dates, as well. And encourage students to use ADDitude‘s step-by-step guide to writing term papers.

Solutions At Home

  • Buy school gear that encourages organization, such as a backpack with multiple compartments. Help your child categorize his school materials — notebooks/binders, workbooks/texts, pens/pencils — and assign each category its own compartment. A three-ring binder, with colored tabs for separate subjects and inserts with pockets for notes, works well for many students. Buy paper with reinforced holes to reduce the risk of losing pages.
  • Bring order to your child’s room. Separate ongoing projects, finished work, and school and art supplies into labeled bins, folders, file cabinets, or an under-bed box.
  • Provide a shelf for books and a bulletin board for reminders. Give your child a stapler, a three-hole punch, and big binder clips. (For ADHD-friendly products, log on to, and click on “Get Organized!”)
  • Keep extra supplies on hand. Kids with attention problems tend to lose things, so fill a supply cabinet with pencils, rulers, tape, binders, and other essentials. Post a checklist in the cabinet that your child can mark when she takes an item.
  • Keep an extra set of textbooks at home. That way, your child won’t have to remember every book every day. Make the extra books part of the IEP, or request them from the teacher at the beginning of the term.
  • Prepare for the next day. As your child packs his book bag each evening, make sure that homework is in its folder and that everything he’ll need — violin, sneakers, lunch money — is ready to go in the morning. On weekends, help him go through his backpack to remove old work and see if he needs any new supplies. Reserve a shelf or cabinet by the front door for items that your child takes to school every day. Label it with colored stickers, so that glasses, wallet, and bus pass can be easily found. Hang a hook underneath for a backpack or sports bag.
  • Give your child a pad of sticky notes, and encourage him to post special reminders on mirrors, doors, and elsewhere.
  • Give your child a daily planner to keep track of deadlines, appointments, events, and so on. Encourage her to keep a daily to-do list, and teach her to prioritize by dividing tasks into two groups: Important (do it now!) and Less Important (do it anytime). Go over the next day’s schedule together every night.

Strategies in Action

“My 11-year-old son has a hard time with organization, but we’ve found that an accordion folder really helps. We assign each school subject its own pocket, and reserve a pocket for blank paper and one for notices to bring home — all labeled.”
Jeanie Scott, Houston

“To make sure my kids get to school on time, we get everything ready the night before. Lunch is made, and book bags are packed and put in the car. As a final check, there’s a big sign on the inside of the front door: “Do you have lunch/homework/glasses/ library book/coat?” I can hear them say it as they walk out the door each morning.”
Ester Wetherill, Rogers, Arkansas

School Organization: A Tidy Locker

Keeping an orderly school locker is a big step toward achieving school organization. Ideally, your child’s locker will be shipshape at all times. More likely, it’s usually a heap of stuff. And if he has to dig through clutter to find his math book or trumpet, odds are he’ll be late to class or rehearsal.

Help your child figure out the bare minimum that he needs to keep in his locker. Extraneous items make it hard to keep things neat. Together, decide how to group his belongings. Should texts and notebooks be kept in separate piles, for instance, or organized by subject? Let him design a system that seems logical to him. That way, he’ll be more inclined to keep it going.

Look for ways to create a well-ordered space. Is there room for a bin to stash sports equipment? Can you install a hook for sneakers? How about a hanging organizer? Inside the locker door, you might post a small message board for your child’s daily schedule and special reminders.

Finally, set up a schedule for when your child cleans his locker — perhaps weekly or just before each school break.