Home > executive functioning, surviving school > On organization: Do not multiply entities needlessly

On organization: Do not multiply entities needlessly

This is my usual starting organizational system for most kids who go to conventional schools.  (I do a lot of adapting to individual situations and styles, of course, and I will make a separate post about an alternative system that I find useful in other situations.)  I’m with William of Ockham here:  do not multiply entities needlessly.  Principles and priorities, then, are simplicity, portability, ease of use, and resilience to not-being-used-quite-correctly.

Start with a simple backpack or tote.  You probably don’t need wheels because you’re not going to carry all that much most of the time.  All you need is one big main pocket (for the binder and any books that have to come with you) and one small pocket (for pencils and such).  Anything else is overcomplexificationisticalesque.

Unless a teacher specifically requires that a textbook come to class, textbooks should live at home all the time.  I don’t believe in using lockers for anything (other than maybe your coat), because (1) most schools don’t provide enough time to go to them (2) they add a layer of complication, a location where things can get left by accident.

You need one (1 (just one (not seven, but one))) 3-ring zip-binder, the kind where you have maybe a 1.5″ ring binder in a cloth cover that zips all the way around (here’s an example).  The magic word is “in the Rings of the Binder.”  Not just In the Binder, but In the Rings.  3 Rings to rule them all…  The zip cover does two things.  First, it protects the binder and the papers in it from getting destroyed when something else is shoved into the backpack.  Second, it corrals any pieces of paper which have not yet made it into the Rings.

Dividers, one for each class, in order through the school day if that’s possible.  Use clear plastic durable slash-folder dividers, like these.  Some classes may require more than one section (English class is famous for this, with “language arts” and “literature” often being separate areas) — for the secondary divisions, ordinary dividers are fine.

Plus, you need one ordinary divider for each kind of extra paper (lined, graph, plain) that will be required — put maybe 10-30 pages of blank paper in each.  There should be no blank paper anywhere in the binder except for those sections.  If you are not forced to do otherwise, you should routinely use pale-lined graph paper filler (something like this) for everything in math and science classes.  My personal preference is for engineering paper, but that’s a topic for another post.

Note that you now already have a “hot folder” system in place.  Nothing separate is needed.  For each subject, one side of the divider holds papers the teacher has handed out which haven’t gotten Into the Rings yet, and the other side holds homework (and permission slips, etc) which is completed and not yet handed in.  Use a Sharpie to mark which is which!  Younger kids, who usually only have one teacher for most subjects which assign homework, can have a single hot-folder in the front of the binder.  If they really prefer, they can have a separate hot-folder, but it must not be one of those cheap paper 2-pocket folders — those are not durable enough.  Get something made of polypropylene, like this.

Also, have available at home a small box of page protectors, preferably matte-finish ones.  These are used for things like course syllabi or assignment sheets, reference sheets for generic assignments (e.g., “requirements for writing up a Problem of the Week”), or other important long-term reference material (a periodic table for chemistry, etc). Those go at the start of the section for the relevant class and stay there as long as they are needed.

The zip-binder usually has a zip pocket that can hold pencils and pens and anything else needed.   If you use it, make sure that it’s not in a location that makes it hard to lay paper flat and write on it.  But it’s probably just as well to put that stuff in the pocket designed for it in the backpack.  Separate pencil cases are just more superfluositicalextracalifragilisticity.

I strongly dislike traditional wood pencils.  They require that you (1) keep a sharpener in the Pencil Pocket (2) notice when the point has gotten too dull for neat handwriting (which most kids with executive functioning problems have a surprisingly hard time with!) (3) stop what you’re doing, sharpen the pencil successfully (which includes not dropping piles of shavings all over the floor when you have to keep opening the thing up to pry yet another broken point out of the razor), remember what it was you were doing, and then get back going again.  Ugh.  No.  I don’t have enough working memory for that.  Mechanical pencils are now widely available in .9mm width, which is thick enough even for most kids who press too hard.  I recommend the thinnest lead you won’t keep breaking, the cheapest bulk version of that pencil you can find (.7mm.5mm).

I actually don’t think that anyone needs pens for school.  Some teachers disagree with me and insist on work being done in pen.  Harrumph.  If they insist, I advise plain old medium-point black stick pens, nothing fancy.

I also don’t think that highlighters have much use during the school day.  Highlighting is almost completely useless as an active reading strategy for most people — it makes you feel like you’re doing something, but what you’re typically doing is a very surface-level syntactic analysis to find the key phrases without actually processing the information.  If you like to use highlighters during tests, to highlight key phrases so that you make sure you answer the whole question, then sure, go ahead.  Try to find highlighters that aren’t fluorescent (= superstimulating).

What I do like to see kids have around is some way of writing in color, whether that be colored pencils or colored pens.  These are a must for physics or any other course involving diagrams, and really useful for a lot of note-taking enterprises.  Colored and sort-of-erasable mechanical pencils do exist, although the leads are generally quite fragile — if you are gentle, use those, otherwise, a few colors of ball-point are fine.  And you can use them for the active test-taking, too, and they don’t glow.

Unless you’re required to include a calculator, I don’t think there’s much need for anything else in the Pencil Pocket. It likes to collect lots of interesting little things (binder clips, staplers, etc), but we’re back to William of Ockham there – if you don’t need it, get rid of it.

You’ll need a planner / assignment book / PDA of some kind, but that’s a long topic, again, best saved for another post.

At home, you need a good-sized D-ring binder, like this, with ordinary paper dividers to mirror the dividers in the traveling binder.  If you overflow during the course of the school year, you can always split into two big binders.

At home, you also need an ordinary stapler and a heavy-duty 3-hole punch (cheaper than you might think, and a worthwhile investment).

When papers get into your hands, ideally, they should go into the Rings of the Binder.  But if they don’t, no worries, put them into the folder for the subject.  That’s a rough sort that will get you through the week.

Put a weekly appointment on the calendar.  You’ll take ten minutes, tops, to go through the binder and the backpack and find all of the papers in those folders plus any stray calves.  Ideally, no paper should ever be loose, but I live on Planet Earth, so I do understand.  No recriminations, just find the stragglers and round ’em up, get ’em in the Rings.   Don’t worry about order within the Rings unless you like to do it — I’d rather see you be consistent about doing a pretty good job than be perfect but never quite get around to it.  Some people like to put new things in the back, others like to put them in the front of each section — either is fine, but pick one and stick to it. At the same time, if you’re running out of filler paper, refill.

Either once a month, or at the end of every multi-week unit, take out everything that is not from the current month/unit or the immediately previous month/unit, and put it in the big D-ring binder at home.  No paper gets thrown out, even if the teacher says you don’t need to keep it or it’s stupid or whatever.  All pieces of paper get saved until the end of the year (actually, for a few years, if you think you might have any interaction with the special education system).

Both of these reviews are almost impossible for most folks who struggle with organization to reliably do by themselves at first. When I’m working with someone, we do them together at the start of every session, and we rely on a cue card or checklist that lives in the binder, too. Then we fade back to having them do it while I watch and cue them when they miss something. Then, if necessary, we teach a parent how to watch and cue them, and they do it before our session, so my weekly check is just to see that it’s been done correctly. Then we fade back to having the parent remind them to do it and check afterwards that it’s done correctly. Eventually, kids can do it on their own, but we wait at each step to see that it’s happening reliably before we fade the support.

I have some alternatives, which I’ll cover in another post.

  1. Judy
    August 11, 2010 at 9:49 pm


    Thanks for this guide. I especially like the idea of double pocket dividers for each subject so papers can get turned in to the subject teachers.

    Also, I second your suggestion for 9mm mechanical pencils. They are great!


  2. August 11, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    Your advice here sounds pretty good, though I’ve never cared for zippers on binders (papers get jammed in the zippers) and I gave up on mechanical pencils sometime in grad school, finding it more reliable and cheaper to carry a half dozen wooden pencils.

    My son refuses to use mechanical pencils—I think it’s because he doesn’t like the feel of them in his hand. Multiple pencils keeps the sharpening problem down.

    One teacher who actually taught organizational skills (instead of just imposing some arbitrary, uncomfortable “system”) had a “binder quiz” every few months. The quiz differed from a binder check in that it did not check for conformity with any particular system. Instead, the quiz asked students to retrieve particular handouts and answer questions based on what was on the handout–not content questions, but trivia like what the last word on the third page was. These were separate from content tests, and sometimes done in informal ways (like giving a piece of candy to the first student able to answer the trivia question correctly). The quizzes were announced ahead of time, generally with a weekend in which to clean up and organize the binder. On the first binder quiz, almost everyone failed, and the teacher used that as an opportunity to suggest some organizational strategies to the kids so that they would have less trouble the next time. By the end of the year, just about all the kids were able to find their handouts quickly and reliably.

    • August 12, 2010 at 8:58 am

      I’d rather have the occasional munged paper (remember that if they’re in a place to get munged it’s because the system failed twice) than the major mungeage that happens with an open binder when you shove a book into the backpack semi-in-the-middle-of-the-binder (grin).

      I would never forbid wooden pencils. I just see them being used so much of the time way under-sharpened — particularly interfering with readability in math! — and causing so much distraction and mess when it’s time to sharpen them. Wooden pencils to be used really well should also have an electric pencil sharpener easily to hand, so that resharpening isn’t a project… but that then implies having a desk of one’s own and an office of one’s own (so others aren’t annoyed by the noise), or tolerating having a kid get up frequently (and having a kid who doesn’t distract himself by the need to get up frequently). Can you tell I geek like crazy about this stuff?

      If the feel is uncomfortable, there are lots of options there, both for the specific type of pencil and for add-on grips of various sorts. Most of the grips designed for wooden pencils will fit the sort of cheapo mechanical pencil I usually recommend. You can find a ridiculously large variety of grips and other OT-ish things at Therapro. Those in the general Boston area, Therapro’s brick-and-mortar store is in Framingham. The two OTs who run the place are really nice and supportive folks (support small family businesses!).

      I love the idea of a binder quiz as you describe. It creates a system for authentic feedback as to whether whatever binder system you’ve decided on is working. And then you follow up with concrete suggestions on how to improve the system, not just continuing to punish until the kids magically figure out what to do about what’s wrong.

  3. August 12, 2010 at 1:33 am

    Back to planners … Ocelot would never use a paper planner — she hates the rigid calendar-based systems. And for many assignments, they don’t work well. If you have an exam on the 13th, you know you have to study before then, but have flexibility on exactly when.

    Though her Resource teacher kept a whiteboard with assignments, this was not enough. So, Ocelot and I sat down and figured out what she needed, then I went online and found it. She now uses a web-based service called Remember the Milk.

    I wrote a full post about this on my blog, “The Aspie Parent”. Aimee, I don’t know how to add a link inside my comment, so if you click on my name next to this comment, you will be taken directly to that post.

    Remember the Milk won’t be perfect for every kid, but it’s another tool for the toolbox.

    • August 12, 2010 at 1:34 am

      Oops … WordPress didn’t do what I wanted. Clicking my name does *not* take you to the post on RTM. Instead, try: http://aspergersparent.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/school-assignment-tracking/

    • August 12, 2010 at 9:01 am

      I didn’t even want to start on the topic of planners and how to design and use them in this post. Topic for a whole separate post. I agree that calendar-based systems are only one method for keeping track of assignments, and they are important for certain kinds of things, but they’re not the best method for a lot of kids for a lot of kinds of tasks.

  4. mnmom23
    August 12, 2010 at 1:47 am

    If only we were able to take advantage of your suggestions! Are there actually schools in this country in which students are allowed to use the school supplies that make the most organizational sense? In our area, schools are extremely specific about which notebooks and binders and paper the kids are required to use, and mechanical pencils are not just discouraged, but banned from the classroom! Around here, I think the only way to be allowed to stray from their requirements would be to have an IEP in place allowing for accommodations due to an executive function disability! What a shame! I think that your suggestions would be a huge help to my middle-school-age son in particular.

  5. August 12, 2010 at 9:21 am

    Sadly, no, your experience around “the school dictates something ridiculously specific that represents some combination of what teachers honestly think will be useful to kids and what teachers think will be most convenient to them, and then has little to no flexibility on the topic” is much more typical, hence my previous post. Typically, though, the older the students get, the less the schools try to micromanage things, and the more likely that the rules set out by individual teachers are actually relevant to what they’re trying to teach and how. Middle schools usually are the worst, high schools are more hit-and-miss, and most college professors don’t give a fig.

    No clue why someone would ban mechanical pencils. My first thought was that they might be seen as weapons, but the cheapo plastic ones (not with metal lead supports) are no more dangerous than ordinary wooden ones (from which I have a piece of lead embedded in my hand since 1976). Sounds like organizational OCD to me.

    I do often manage to get exceptions to these rules through the IEP or 504 process. Sometimes some friendly advocacy on a teacher-by-teacher basis can get more flexibility, but usually that’s after the family has had to shell out the money for the official system. But think about asking nicely. Feel free to blame me, as in, “I was reading this blog by someone who is expert in helping kids with organization, and she recommended that we try…” They could always hire me (grin) to develop a system for them to impose on everyone that might have more of a prayer of working.

  6. HelenS
    August 12, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    I am an editor, and still occasionally get an editing or proofreading job to be done on hard copy. So far my favorite tool for erasable color is an erasable gel pen such as the Pilot FriXion. Unfortunately they’re (a) slightly pricey and (b) apt to run out quickly and without warning. But they can’t be beat if you’ve written a comment or query on something and then find that it sounds stupid or insulting.

    I think, but am not sure, that I’ve heard at least one of my kids’ teachers say that when the kids have mechanical pencils they click them All The Time and it gets terrifically annoying. I suspect a lot of bans go back to an incident like that (but if you tried to control *everything* that had ever been used to annoy a teacher, the kids would have to be in straitjackets, so there you are).

    • August 15, 2010 at 2:00 am

      Do they smell bad and smudge the way old erasable ballpoints did? Or has that problem been solved?

      • Helen
        August 15, 2010 at 6:37 am

        Okay, you just made me look ridiculous, solemnly holding a red pen under my nose and sniffing 😉

        No, they have only a very slight inky smell (which I’d never previously noticed), much like that of an ordinary ballpoint. They don’t smudge, they erase easily, and at most leave a very faint ghost behind. (They are AWESOME for su doku.) Just be sure you don’t write any checks with one!

  7. Helen
    August 12, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    Wait, I think I accidentally posted under two different versions of my name. Helen and HelenS are the same person.

  8. Tamara Lichtenstein
    August 13, 2010 at 6:16 am

    At the public high school my dd attended last year, students were not allowed to bring ANY texts home, except in her geometry class they were given one to live at home, and the excuse I heard for this was that there weren’t enough books to have a dual set at home and in the classroom. This means that students were expected to sit and read their textbooks during class rather than use the texts for homework. For example, in English class, instead of doing all the reading on their own and discussing it in class, they sat and read in class–which seemed really inappropriate for students of this age, who should be able to at least do that kind of work independently. The new public charter school she will start in this Monday will be different in many ways, but I don’t know yet about the textbook situation, and the amount and weight of materials we’ve already purchased, in accordance with the supply list, makes me wish for a bag with wheels.

    As for writing implements, as a lefty I always had a big callous on my middle finger from gripping a pencil or pen when I was young, and having to do a lot of writing was painful. Now I rely on Bic’s Soft Feel medium ball points (I used to be able to get them at Office Depot, but not anymore, and have found them at Target). Anything with a soft grip is much better for me than a regular stick pen.

  9. August 15, 2010 at 2:03 am

    Tamara, that sounds like one of those “organizational” strategies that is not actually even remotely about organization, but is about saving money for the school. I agree that reading aloud in high school is a colossal waste of instructional minutes.

    Do you hold too tightly? Try a D’Nealian grip method — hold the tip in a dynamic tripod grip as normal, but let the shaft of the pencil fall between your index and middle finger, where it can be supported. That lets your fingertips grip less tightly without fear that the pencil will get away.

    • Anne
      August 16, 2010 at 1:32 am

      Aimee, as long as you’re touching on pen/pencil grip…Should I force a correct grip on a teen who’s done it wrong since they *made* her use the fat pencils in first grade and has adamantly refused correction since? I found a wishbone-shaped pencil like this that I think would force the correct grip, if I make her use it. Her grip now looks painful, and she shies away from writing by hand.

      • August 16, 2010 at 7:13 am

        Anne, it depends a lot on the specific nature of the grip she’s using and how it’s affecting her writing. What we want to see is a dynamic grip, one in which the pencil moves under the control of tiny movements of the fingertips, and therefore can move rapidly and automatically to form letters. When the grip is too tight, the hand fatigues easily, and control over the pencil is happening at the wrist and elbow, which makes it hard to write quickly and automatically and neatly. If she’s able to write like that, and the writing is legible, I tend not to mess with it — I see lots of adults with weirdo pencil grips who are doing just fine. If she is avoiding writing by hand, then I would not “force a correct grip” on a teen who is “adamantly refusing correction.” That’s like the proverbial teaching a pig to sing. If she were in my office, though, I might think about how to engage her in the process of re-engineering how she uses writing sticks. This would be a fine topic for me to write an actual post about — give it a few days and I’ll see what I can cook up.

  10. Yves
    August 24, 2010 at 11:56 am

    DS11 is starting 6th grade and this is the first year the kids bring some of their own supplies–in preparation for the local Jr High’s system next year. They came pretty close to your recommendations! One 2″ 3-ring binder, 10 dividers to be labeled in class, a 3-hole pencil pouch, 3-hole binder paper, 3-hole graph paper, colored pencils, and a backpack that fits the binder. I got the slash-folder dividers and mechanical pencils, which he prefers to the manual kind the school provides. Thanks for the recommendations. We’ll try to stick with the maintenance process also.

    The local jr high, despite budget cutbacks, somehow manages to have enough sets of textbooks that the classroom has a set and the kids all get to take a set home and keep them home. They’ve removed all but small PE lockers, so that they avoid issues with having to search kids’ lockers.

    DS liked “3 Rings to rule them all…”

  11. August 28, 2010 at 4:15 am

    I hope you will get a chance to write that post about planners and assignment organization soon 🙂 My ADHD and dysgraphic son just started HS. School provided all freshmen with a planner; I don’t think anything has been written in it so far. So far the work load is light and he can rely on his memory, but I’d like him to form a good habit around recording and organizing assignments!

    Shockingly, none of the teachers demanded separate binders (even though the same teachers had done so when my older son had them) so we were able to implement a version of your system. The binder will pretty much only be for handouts, with most of his own written work/notes in his laptop. He’s supposed to get a separate set of books for home (haven’t seen them yet, but school only started this week) but I’m not sure how that will work with getting his school copy out of the locker and making sure he has the right books at class each day. Maybe he can leave his school copy in the relevant classroom (they keep other not-in-use textbooks out in the classrooms, so I don’t think there’s a theft issue with that).

    • August 28, 2010 at 7:49 pm

      Don’t worry, I’ll get to it. Couple other things I need to do first.

  12. Denise Gold
    September 7, 2010 at 7:00 am

    Aimee, I love this! The organizational system, process, and materials you described is *almost exactly* what we arrived at with the help of a professional organizer friend when my son was in 5th grade. He had the opportunity to attend a school specifically for gifted children, so by 5th grade he was taking classes such as algebra and anatomy where he actually had to take notes for the first time, and he was getting serious amounts of photocopied exerpts from literature. Something drastic had to change in order to manage everything.

    So this system worked beautifully for him and addressed all the problem areas. He always had the materials he needed, whereas before he was one of those kids who couldn’t find a pencil to save his life even though a moment before it was on the desk in front of him.

    Just wanted to add my testimonial and encourage others to try it!

    Denise in Cincinnati

  13. Grinity
    September 14, 2010 at 4:30 am

    Nice Post.
    I really like’d Deb Goldberg’s The organized Student, so ABC (already been chewed – a reference to that silly joke that his grandmother pulled on him when he was young enough to fall for it – for the more literal minded, it’s our home code for papers that won’t be needed again until midterms or finals) paper made their way into hanging file folders, one for each section, in rough chronological order, but it really wasn’t nescessary to go crazy.

    There was a zipper binder that DS used for 2 years. It was so wonderful. One the inside was a 2 inch 3 ring part for all of the classnotes, and on the outside was an accordian file with 2 sections “Homework to Do” and “Homework to hand in”

    There was even a pocket on the inside for DS’s favorite note taking system: Pads with notebook paper lines, prepunched 3 holes, and a really strong cardboard back. DS could write as needed on the pad, then at the end of class, tear it off neatly and add it to the 3 ring binder part.

    Tests and quizes that got handed back never made it into the school binder, they just got slipped in the pad pocket and went directly into the ABC file at home.

    I’ve never seen another binder quite like it, but after 2 years DS won’t look at it. DS14 is now away at school and says he’s old enough to have his own system. I’ll be checking the electronic gradebook to see if this is fact or fantacy. So far, so good!


    • September 14, 2010 at 10:58 am

      I love “already been chewed” to describe pieces of paper that don’t need to be in the current-work binder. I generally suggest keeping the current unit all in the current-work binder, even ABC work, because many teachers like to check binders for completeness, but it’s a legitimate strategy to also shift everything as quickly as possible to the reference binder.

  1. August 15, 2010 at 3:28 am
  2. August 15, 2010 at 8:35 pm
  3. September 12, 2010 at 9:34 am

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