How and Why to Use a Color-Coded Binder System

In elementary school, staying organized was pretty easy. Homework was the same, week to week, and teachers gave lots of support and reminders, and parents did the same at home. Some kids internalized those routines, and others got by with help. And yes, sometimes work got forgotten in a student’s desk or lost in the bus, but the stakes were low.

Fast forward to middle school

Different teachers all day long, and lockers to manage. Suddenly, kids are responsible for holding on to work for days at a time and finishing it at home, then returning it for a grade. They are taking notes and getting materials they need to study for a test weeks from now.

Some teachers explicitly teach systems for keeping it all organized. Some teams of teachers plan for all the kids they teach, so everyone’s materials match. And in some schools, with some teachers, you are on your own.

If your student hasn’t been given a specific supply list to follow, start here with a color coding system. And don’t forget to grab your color-coded binder checklist PDF down below!

Why color-code?

A color-coded system is ideal for kids who:

Color coding folders is a great way to help kids get organized
  • Are distractible. A consistent color system gives kids with ADD/ADHD an extra layer of prompts.
  • Are poor readers. Being able to remember that all red items go with science, for example, means they can more quickly find and file items without taking the time to read each handout or page of notes.
  • Have poor short term memory or slow processing speed. These kids might need more time to make decisions about where to put things, and again, the colors add another layer of cueing.
  • Are anxious. The time pressure of making it from one class to the next can make adults crazy, let alone an anxious kid. A color-coded system is ready to put things in and quick to straighten up later if something gets hastily misfiled.

How to set up color coded binders

  1. Decide on a type of binder. One big, zipped, binder (like this one from Case-It) works well for fifth and sixth grade, or for classes with workbooks (and not a lot of handouts or note paper). A series of 3-ring binders (I like these sturdy ones from Avery) works for students who can get to their lockers a few times a day, and is better if teachers tend to give many handouts.
  2. Shop. Back to school time is a great time to stock up, of course. Invest in sturdy binders (marked durable or heavy-duty) so they can withstand lockers, backpacks, and teenage indifference.
  3. Organize. Label each folder, binder and notebook with the name of the class (and for the notebook, with the date you started it). Put the colored pencils or pens in a pencil case or zippered pocket. Put the key to the color code in 4 places: a plastic sleeve in the front of the binder, a plastic sleeve hanging in the locker, taped into the cover of the child’s planner/agenda book, and hanging over the homework area.
  4. Use it! Start class with the correct binder, folder, and notebook at
    Use colored pencils to mark each paper you get in class with the date.

    your desk. Take out the matching colored pencil. Put a quick mark in the top right corner of each page the teacher hands out. Better yet, put the date and a quick direction on each page. Write “study,” “read,” “have Mom sign” to remind yourself what to do with the paper.

  5. Maintain it. At the end of the
    Every evening, put new papers in the binders when you start your homework.

    school day, or when you get home, do a quick visual check. Are all the items in the folders marked with the right color? Are there any papers that belong somewhere else? Use the three-hole punch to put any papers you are keeping in the notebook rings.

  6. Clean it out. At the end of the week, month or term, look at every page in a binder. Remove any old work (stuff that’s been graded and notes/handouts when the test/project/unit is completed), clip it together and put a sticky note with the date on it. Then file it in long term storage (or put the whole thing in the recycling, if you’re sure you don’t need it again).

This system is a great start for kids who don’t have one. As you put it into place, you will start to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. There is nothing magical or sacred about this system. The magic comes from putting something in place and working with it. Subscribe below to get a free PDF checklist for setting up your color-coded binder system and a shopping list for picking up the materials you need.



Need help getting your child organized? Contact me for a free 30-minute consultation to help you decide if tutoring is a good fit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.