8 Realistic Ways to Avoid a Messy Backpack

Organize papers at home to avoid a messy backpack

Every September, I have dreams of being an organized family. By the middle of winter, all my dreams and ideals about how my kids will come in, greet me warmly, and gently place their bags on hooks by the door are gone. Sometimes there are math papers between the couch cushions. Both children want to keep every precious scrap they bring home from school. It’s time for some new ideas to organize messy backpacks and reclaim our front entry!

What Doesn’t Work

I speak from experience when I say the following systems do not work for everyone, and if it’s not your jam, you’re flirting with disaster by trying to live with a system that doesn’t fit your family.

  • Pinterest-perfect baskets – Some people need to see what they have. Tucking it away in a basket means it gets forgotten.
  • Deal with it later – Putting everything in one place and promising that you will get to it is a recipe for missed deadlines and forgotten forms.
  • Keeping everything – In my opinion, this is as bad as keeping nothing. Original artwork buried between half-finished math worksheets doesn’t help anyone.

How to Organize a Messy Backpack at Home

Daily Steps

1. Notice Where Papers Naturally Collect

Just like leaves in a parking lot, papers tend to collect in certain spots in your home. For us, it’s the dining room table. That’s where the kids do homework, and crafts, and snacks, and games. So it fills up quickly. Identify these spots and place your organization system there to combat a messy backpack.

2. Pick the Best Tools for Your Family

For one kid, a single basket or accordion file might work. For larger families, consider a desktop inbox tray or paper sorter. Avoid systems that require too much effort to use, as they can backfire and lead to a messy backpack because no one takes the time to clean them out.

3. Be There

Stand between the after-school stampede and the snack cabinet, guiding them through the process. If kids get past you, it’s ten times harder to get them back to organize their stuff. While it can be a frustrating part of my day, standing there and repeating the directions for each step, for each child, it really does pay off. A checklist is great for promoting independence, but my kids would never look at it if I wasn’t there to point at it.

4. Write Down the Plan

Create a simple checklist of unpacking steps. Keep it under five steps and use pictures if needed. It’s a great idea to take a photo of the storage area as it should look (bags on hooks, papers in basket, shoes put away, etc) for each step. This helps kids understand the routine and avoid a messy backpack.

A list for elementary kids might look something like:

-Hang up coat

-Hang up backpack

-School papers in the basket

-Put shoes away

-Put lunch/snack/water containers by the sink

5. Sort the Papers Every Day

Sort papers into three groups daily:

  • Keep at home (finished work, art projects)
  • Child needs to complete and return (homework)
  • Parent needs to complete and return (forms)

6. Assign a Folder

Provide a home-school folder labeled “Keep at Home” and “Return to School.” This helps sort papers and keeps your backpack from becoming messy. A folder keeps loose papers from getting shoved into the bottom of the backpack. As your child gets good at the routine of putting things in the folder, unpacking will get easier.

Weekly Routines for Organizing School Papers

7. Go Through School Papers Once a Week

Set aside time weekly to sort through the pile of papers. Decide whether to keep, photograph, or recycle items. This routine helps prevent a messy backpack by making sure papers have a home that is not just the backpack. If anything is left in the bag on your sorting day, clean it out

8. Designate a (Limited) Space for Keepsakes

Use a file box or under-bed storage to keep special items. Limit the space so that kids learn to prioritize what’s important and avoid a messy backpack. Some families designate a box for each year of school. That wouldn’t work with our limited storage space.

I graduated high school with a single underbed storage box that held the only evidence of my K-12 education. It held a couple bigger projects, like art and a toothpick bridge, and some final projects like my autobiography and a paper I wrote about Irish immigration in the mid-19th century. I’d like to help my kids save a bit more than that.

You will have to decide with your family whether how much to save and where. I recommend plastic storage boxes over cardboard or fabric, to protect your treasures against moisture, insects, and crushing.

A Few Words of Caution

This system is something you do with your children, not to them. If you handle all the papers, they will learn to rely on you instead of organizing themselves. Commit to letting them make decisions and guide them to improve over time. At my house that means I pre-sort the kindergarten papers and then ask my daughter which finished pieces to keep. As kids get older, the flood of paper slows to a trickle, as they do more work digitally and in workbooks, and spend less time on crafts at school.

Decluttering Backpacks and Homework

Even if you have a place for homework, kids’ backpacks tend to get cluttered. Here’s a routine for organizing backpacks and homework areas to avoid a messy backpack. For my free 7-part email course, “Academic Planners for School Success,” and periodic tips for helping your child learn, sign up here.

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