Back-to-school season is the second most profitable time of year for retailers. (Behind Christmas, of course.) Advertisements, “special deals,” and in-store displays are designed to lure you off course, tempt you to spend more money, and specifically prey on your desire to “finally get organized!”

But, “back-to-school” organization is much more about systems than it is about stuff, so it does not matter *where* you go to buy school supplies. What matters is that you do not get tempted by the “loaded” new binder or “pretty” new notebooks. There is usually a very high correlation among school and paper-management supplies: the more features something has, the more expensive AND ineffective it tends to be. Below, you will find a list of supplies, broken down into three categories of systems: Time Management, Supply Management, and Paper Management.

All of the items below are inexpensive and available from most retail and on-line locations.

**Time Management**

Time Management is an issue for students AND for their families; it is very difficult for a student to manage his time well in a family that does not. Ten minutes a week can resolve this issue. Grab the family calendar and have an informal “Sunday Summit.” Coordinate schedules for the week: upcoming sports practices, after-school activities, scheduled appointments, test and project due-dates. Have your children make notes in their planners.

The key to an effective Sunday Summit is to make it a conversation, not an interrogation. This means you must share your schedule, too. Do you have a big deadline at work? Are you planning to finally get to the gym to do a workout? Share you deadlines and your goals with your kids. You may be surprised how receptive they will be! At the very least, you will all start your week on the “same page.”

Supplies Needed

  • Family calendar (basic monthly calendar)
  • One academic planner for each child (The best planners are slender -not bulky- spiral books with a monthly calendar and space for daily assignment entries. Planners are often supplied by schools.)

**Supply Management**

Most households have a “silverware sorter.” This is a tray with slots that are designated for spoons, forks, knives, and server ware. In just about any home, you can quickly determine where to put the spoons based on the organization of the silverware tray.

This common house-hold item inspired what I have called the “Silverware Sorter Theory.” This theory states that items will remain organized if there is a designated location to place them and they are easily accessible.

How Does the Silverware Sorter Theory Apply to School Supplies?

Supplies should have a specific storage location in the bookbag and a designated place at home.

In the bookbag, students can use a front pocket of the bag or a supply case to store pens and pencils. If students cannot carry a bookbag during the school day, they can snap a 3-ring pencil case into their binder (see Paper Management).

At home, a designated bucket or basket for common household school supplies (pens, pencils, scissors, stapler, tape, markers, etc) not only keeps items neat and organized; it also helps students manage time better. With an established storage location, students will no longer have to romp all around the house to find needed supplies.

It is best to have a container with a handle so it can easily be moved one-handed. This allows students to do homework in different locations around the home, as needed. Establish a specific location on a shelf, desk, or in a cabinet to store the supplies at the end of the day. These designated locations help everyone keep things in order because everyone will know where things belong.

Supplies Needed:

  • Front pocket of a bookbag OR a pencil case
  • Bucket or basket for household school supplies (Chances are very good you already have the perfect container somewhere in your house.)
  • Standard supplies. (Back-to-school season is a great time to take advantage of deep discounts and stock up on the standard supplies, but don’t overbuy…then you create another organizational nightmare for yourself!)

**Paper Management**

Paper management is one of the most frustrating elements of school organization! Students are often required to have separate folders and notebooks for each of their classes. The average student has 12-16 different folders and notebooks they are expected to manage. That would be like us trying to keep track of 12-16 different email inboxes each day!

The traditional practice of maintaining several different folders and notebooks also violates the Silverware Sorter Theory because items become inaccessible. Since folders and notebooks look alike when sandwiched in the locker or bookbag, students commonly bring the wrong materials to class, or home for homework. With so many supplies, it is easy for them to leave a folder or notebook at home…along with a completed assignment.

The sheer volume of “stuff” sends students into a downward spiral of missing supplies and assignments, which then leads to poor grades.

To resolve this problem, students should keep only ONE binder for ALL classes. Believe it or not, they can trim a stack of 8 folders and 8 notebooks down into one 1-inch binder. Simply replace two-pocket folders with plastic folders inserted into the binder. Swap out spiral notebooks with loose-leaf notebook paper, using folders as subject dividers.

To keep the binder manageable, establish a Paper Station at home. The Paper Station is a specific location to file graded papers, old notes, and other materials that will be helpful resources for unit tests and final exams, but do not need to be hauled around on a daily basis. The Paper Station can be updated during your weekly meeting on Sunday.

Note: Students who see only one teacher throughout the day (typically K-4 students) only need one folder to go back-and-forth from school to home every day.

Finally, another very important paper-management system is a routine called “Take Two.” Students take the first two minutes of their homework time each evening to clean trash out of the bookbag and organize papers in the binder.

Supplies Needed

  • 1-inch binder
  • Plastic binder folders, one for each class
  • Looseleaf notebook paper
  • Box or crate to leave at home for the Paper Station


Use these tips to establish a few systems for yourself this back-to-school season. Then, when you are in the store and you see a beautiful display of new-fangled school supplies, you can trust that it is your systems, not your stuff, that keep you and your children organized!

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