8 Realistic Ways to Conquer Backpack Clutter

How to organize kids school papers at home

It’s 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 for organizing school papers.

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 kids school papers at home
Table covered in paper and other clutter

How to Organize School Papers at Home

1. Notice where papers naturally collect

You know how, in a giant open parking lot, the fall leaves or drifting trash all tend to end up pooled in the same corner against a building or tree? We have those places in our homes, too. It’s often the first flat surface inside the door. For us it’s the dining room table, but other houses have counters or shelves or chairs that are magnets for everything that doesn’t belong on them. 

This is where your system belongs! Sorry, you’re not getting your whole dining room table back today, but we ARE going to make it less scary. You want everyone in the house to use this system, and if you tuck it away in the closet where “it belongs,” they’ll never think of it again!

2. Pick the best tools for your family

If you have one kid bringing home papers, you may be able to use a single basket or accordion file. For a larger family, consider a desktop inbox tray or a paper sorter. A file box seems tempting but it takes more effort for each person to find their name and put their papers in a folder, so this can backfire.

3. Be there

Prepare to stand between the after-school stampede and the snack cabinet and talk them through the process. Some children may be fine with a written list but others need the loving, annoying presence of a real, live parent.

I found that if my son gets past me to the kitchen, or even the bathroom, it’s ten times harder to get him to organize his school papers than if I catch him at the door. 

4. Write down the plan

Write a checklist of unpacking steps. Try to keep it down to 5 or fewer. Use pictures, even if your kids are readers. I count them off on my fingers when we walk through the door: 

  1. Unpack folder and lunch bag
  2. Wash hands
  3. Snack
  4. Homework
  5. Freedom!
If you’re thinking, “Yeah, but we need more than a checklist. What if the papers don’t even make it home?” then you might need our free email course, “Academic Planners for Success.” This 7-email series will help you get your children and teens organized for school.


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But What Do we DO with All This Paper? 

Organizing the papers by child is a good start, but what do you do with it all? There are things that need to be signed, read, and returned. Some are for your child and others are for you. And there’s homework to complete and return. 

5. Sort the papers every day

When papers come home from school, they need to be sorted into three groups:

  1. Keep at home (finished work and art projects, notices, etc.)
  2. Child needs to complete and return (homework)
  3. Parent needs to complete and return (forms, etc.)

6. Assign a folder

If your child didn’t get one at school, provide them with a home-school folder and label the sides “Keep at Home” and “Return to School.” 

  • The “Keep at Home” pocket contents go in the kid’s bin or box.
  • Sort the “Return to School” pocket into 2 piles:
    • Homework goes back in the folder and moved to the homework area
    • Parent paperwork goes in the parent bin for you to go through.

Weekly Routines for Organizing School Papers

If you follow this system, you’ll end the week with a pile of papers for each child and maybe some odds and ends for parents to do over the weekend. This is your opportunity to teach them how to organize school papers at home. 

7. Go through it once a week

Set aside time with each child to help them go through the pile once a week and decide if they want to:

  • Keep forever (like special art projects)
  • Take a picture and let it go (drawings, some writing, great grades, etc.)
  • Recycle it now (worksheets and odds and ends)

8. Designate a (limited) space for the keep forever stuff

I have a file box for each child. They can add whatever they want but when it’s full, it’s full. My parents gave me one under-bed storage box and it has everything I wanted to save from about third grade through high school. Other parents designate a bin per year. This will depend on your available space and your personal philosophy about paper keepsakes. 

A Few Words of Caution

This system is something you will do with your children, not to your children. If you’re the one with your hands on all the papers, they will learn that their job is to bring you their backpack so you can unpack it. It is so much harder sometimes to stick around and give them reminders and ideas for organizing school papers. But when you start this system, you are committing to letting them make decisions and trusting that, with your guidance, their decisions will get better with time!

Decluttering backpacks and homework
Even if you have a place for homework, kids’ backpacks tend to get cluttered over time. Here’s a routine for organizing backpacks and homework areas.

For my free 7-part email course, “Academic Planners for School Success,” and periodic tips and updates for helping your child learn, sign up here.


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