Explain it to me like I’m a four year old.
If you’re a parent, you know that even in these days of technology, going paperless is not a thing in the school systems especially not in the elementary years. Once that school bell rings, the paper streams in like mud on shoes.
Maybe you’ve started off with plans and promises to create and maintain a killer system that will be the envy of the PTA. “This is THE YEAR. My kid will never have a late library book. I WILL NOT run to the store at 6pm on a Sunday for the poster board. This is THE YEAR!”
As a professional organizer, I’ve spent time with parents at their kitchen desks, their home offices and family rooms sifting through school papers. Remorse and parent guilt have reared their heads as permission slips and un-replied to party invitations are unearthed from the dreaded paper pile.
I’ve also seen color coded files and folders, war-room like white boards and monogramed wall systems. I’ve seen them all, the extremely complicated and the beautifully basic. Over my 12 years of parenting school-aged children, I’ve personally tried a lot of things. I cast no judgement on any system, not the $1000 system from the eye candy catalogs nor the rudimentary hang important papers on the fridge system. If it works for you and your family than…Hallelujah!
I will, however, tell you that the systems with the fewest steps are typically the easiest to sustain. The most successful systems are those that would take less than 5 minutes to explain to a perfect stranger. To quote Denzel Washington in Philadelphia, “Explain it to me like I’m a four year old.” And then go ahead and explain it to your four year old or your forty year old spouse.
Right now, you may be thinking, ‘I’m the only one organizing the papers anyway so why explain it to anyone?’
#1: Most schools do not teach organizational skills to kids #2: You will have a lot more success and less frustration if you are not the only one who can find the reading log or soccer phone tree #3: You don’t really want to be a control freak…at least not over paper.
In addition to being simple, successful organizing systems are natural and intuitive to the user. If the papers always pile up in the kitchen then the system HQ should probably be centered near there. If you have to dig through backpacks in the entryway, then consider carving out a space for the paper management system in that area. Pay attention. Where do things naturally get placed (tossed)?
Here are a few simple systems that have worked well for my clients and my family:
The Kid Binder aka The Coffee Table Book
For each school aged child, purchase a 2” three-ring binder, 50 plastic sheet protectors and a pack of dividers
Label the dividers with subjects such as “Sports”, “School Logs”, “Art” and “Awards”, “To Do”, and any other categories that produce papers.
When papers come in the door, they either get delivered into an inbox near the binder or put directly into the binder.
The cool thing about this system is that it’s the current reference book and important paper keeper with the added bonus that at the end of the school year, you have a scrap book of what life looked like for that kid during that year. With young kids, I call it your Coffee Table Book. They can look back at it and see a snap shot of life in the 2nd grade. It may also be a way to explain that not every little piece of art can and should be kept. A coffee table book only features a sampling of an artist’s work during that period of their career otherwise none of it can really be appreciated.
Having employed the Kid Binder for many years in my own family, I found it to be incredibly helpful when my son was applying to a magnet high school and needed to create a resume and prove his ongoing success and interest in math and engineering. In his case, it was really a portfolio from which we were able to pull awards, accomplishments and activities that he participated in that were applicable to his application process.
Another great system is The File Box.
For each school aged child, purchase a 5 ½ x 10 ½ “ file box that’s open at the top, 10-12 dividers and 10-15 file folders.
Label the section by school subject or categories like the binder categories listed above. In the front, you may want a folder that’s for time sensitive items such as permission slips or party invitations. Tip: whenever possible, deal with things like permission slips and rsvp’s as soon as you see them. It’s worth taking the few minutes to do it right away.
For a slightly more complicated but still pretty straightforward system there’s The Action Files
This system is a little more closed in that it’s really best run by one person but can work with multiple people if everyone is clear about who is doing/reading, etc. This system may also be employed along with one of the above systems.
Keep a Parent In-box near where back packs are kept and have kids unload any incoming paper into the inbox
Parent checks inbox each evening and files the papers into one of the four files
- To Do
- Things to sign, pay, make a call about
- To Read/Decide
- Not quite ready to jump on, need to read and make a decision, usually not immediately time sensitive
- To File/Scan
- To keep for long term- taxes, reference
- Could be school work or art- mark your calendar for each month to decide which piece from that month will be kept and move that piece to long term archive
Keep an out box for each kid near the backpack loading zone and put the permission slips or whatever else needs to go back to school with the child that day. If you aren’t ready to take the leap by having the kids manage their own out boxes, you can, of course, just go right into their backpack. But I do encourage having the kids involved in the system in some way.
The action file system works well for all papers not just school papers so it might work nicely as an overall paper management system.
However you choose to organize, just remember to keep it as simple and intuitive as possible. As you create your system, ask yourself “Could I explain this to a four year old?”
Happy Organizing and Happy Back to School!