Messy desks and lost papers? Get your students organized by putting a system in place to help stop these problems in their tracks.
What is a student organization system?
Within the classroom a student organization system is how students manage their own supplies and the classroom supplies. This could include their lunch boxes, backpacks, water bottles, curriculum materials, desks, and center supplies.
Really anything the students might touch on a daily or weekly basis should have a system for how it gets used.
I like to think through this process before I start a school year but if things aren’t working then any time of the year is perfect for a reset.
Creating a solid plan for student organization is a great way to set your students up for future success. Knowing how to manage their supplies and keep things organized is a lifelong skill and a necessary one for when they move onto middle and high school.
Start with the Basics
When starting to create a system for your students, you’ll want to think about what they use the most often. Generally this will be the items in their desks and their pencil boxes. The less items you can have students keep in their desks, the cleaner (usually) the desk will be kept each week. Of course there are always students that are the exception to this rule!
Inside Student Desks
Last year I had a student that liked to keep part of the school breakfast in her desk. Usually on Friday desk cleaning days I’d find open containers and things growing. So gross! I’m sure you have a student like this either now or in the past that you can relate to.
Truth is there will probably always be at least that one student who has papers shoved in the back of their desk and are usually searching for a pencil or assignment. Building good habits and having a solid system can help these students learn how to start being organized.
First, decide what is necessary to keep in their desks.
Don’t be afraid to send things home if they are not needed.
At the beginning of the year you might have students bring a new, shiny box of 96 Crayola crayons with the built-in sharpener or a wide variety of glitter pens. I will usually tell the student that these are perfect for keeping at home and send a note to the parent that they are not part of our supply list and may cause issues in the classroom.
When I taught first grade I had my students keep their reading basals and math books inside their desks. We used community supply caddies and I kept their writing folders on a shelf.
My second graders, on the other hand, kept individual pencil boxes, writing folders, and math and reading books inside their desks. As the year progressed I began keeping the reading books in bins under my whiteboard as the program we had switched out the books frequently.
I also noticed that the plastic 3-prong writing folders did not hold up to most of the abuse of a school year and most needed to be replaced for the next year. Part of my new student organization then was to keep folders in an easily accessible spot for each subject.
When I’ve decided what I’ll be keeping in student desks, it’s time to plan a few lessons to demonstrate caring for our supplies. This might seem silly but it’s a necessary step to getting the results you want from your students.
My lessons might use a student pencil box and discover I don’t have my pencil in it. Then I’m looking everywhere in a desk to find my supply and I’ve missed my math lesson. Students often find this hilarious because it’s true! Other lessons might include pulling out my scrunched up papers, pencil shavings on the floor, and uncapped whiteboard markers.
Of course, I also follow up these funny lessons with modeling the right way I should store my supplies. This includes an anchor chart of the “perfect” student desk. I’m quite explicit about how I stack my books and what side of the desk I place my things. This way, when I say to get out their whiteboards all students can find them because we’ve all put them in the same spot (on the left under their pencil box). You’re messier students will need these explicit directions to help stay organized.
If possible, consider having a bookshelf or two dedicated for storing student supplies. I like to use a bookshelf that houses a plastic book bin for each student. Then I have another long bookshelf that sits under my whiteboard that holds bins of the student books for reading.
Inside the book bins are all the things that would normally go inside the student desks. Here we are keeping individual manipulatives, science books, writing folders and notebooks, word study folders, and headphones.
An alternative to having individual book bins is to stack books and folders by tables. I also used to give each table a number and then keep a laminated bookmark with the table number to keep groups separate. This is also helpful when students come to pick up their supplies.
Student Paper Systems
After student supplies and their individual areas, it’s time to address an organization system for their papers. All those photocopies of assignments need to end up somewhere so let’s find a good place for them.
Passing Out and Turning In Assignments
You can’t have a complete student organization system without considering how you’ll pass out and collect assignments.
There are many techniques to pass out assignments. I personally like to have a student helper pass out papers. I teach them to count out enough papers for the table or row. This way they are only passing papers to a few students versus handing out one to every student individually. It seems like a small thing but it can save a ton of time in your classroom each day.
Some teachers will have a separate basket for each subject for students to place their completed assignments in. I never seem to have enough room to have space for this so I use a 3-drawer system. My drawers are labeled file, copy, and grade.
Students simply place their work in the grade drawer. I could also remove and take the drawer with me if I choose but I simply remove the papers, clip them and slip them into my school bag. Because the papers are turned in during that subject generally they are already separated for me. I then have blank rosters I use for my gradebook and highlight the student names that have missing work.
Another alternative is one I used for my 4th grade students. Because they are older students, I felt comfortable giving them more responsibility for turning in their work. In this case, I had a file box with individual files for each student. They checked off the specific assignment they were turning in and then placed it into their file. This way I could quickly see which assignments they were missing by viewing the spreadsheet.
After a while I decided it was harder to have individual files when it came to grade so I switched to one file for turning in assignments but required students to place their paper in student number order. This worked better and was easier for me to return graded assignments which were done by placing them in a second set of individual files.
If you’ve been following me for awhile, you know I am in favor of simple methods. Personally, I have a hard time keeping up with absent students and their missing work. This is the way that works best for me to provide them with the assignments.
When a student is absent, the paper passer (or table group) will leave the passed out papers on their desk. When the absent student returns, the work is sitting on top of their desk for them. That’s it. If it’s a graded assignment, I let them know not to take it home. If you want to get fancy, you could assign a student to put a special absent folder on this child’s desk.
If you are collecting grades or receipt of turned in work on a roster or checklist, it becomes easy to see when assignments are missing. I like to set a deadline for incomplete work. If not, students will be turning in work from August in February! Having a set deadline also helps students complete their work.
Consider your school district’s policy on late work when developing your missing work procedure. Make sure you have one that is easy to understand and share it with your families. This can also be written out and placed in an absent work folder or stapled to a packet of missing work.
Student Notebooks and Folders
Since we are talking about paper procedures, it’s important to also discuss organization of notebooks and folders. For elementary students, consider color-coding according to the subject.
I have done this for years and find it works really well to just say, “put your work in your blue writing folder.” I also take it a step further and have picture supported labels with student numbers on their notebooks and folders.
ADDitude magazine also recommends color-coding to help students with ADD stay more organized. As they explain in their article, The Messy Students Guide to Order: ADHD Organizing Tips, students that have ADD or ADHD do not have a fully functioning executive function part of their brains. This is what leads to disorganization. Color-coding and set systems can help combat these issues.
Another tip is to use dividers and sleeve protectors for organizing sections. Students can store papers in the sleeve protectors or use the back and front of the folders to keep papers organized.
For example, I like to have my students put finished writing in the back and things they are working on in the front. You can also have students place finished work inside of the sleeves. Of course this must be modeled for younger students as they have trouble getting the papers in the sleeves without crumpling them.
I like to use editable notebook tabs for my students. These tabs also allow students to quickly flip to the correct section of their notebook, saving time in the classroom. For my older students, it also shows them how they might organize their notes in the future. We also create a table of contents that we reference all year.
If you are interested in learning more about these tabs, click the picture below to shop them in my TpT store.