Yesterday I met with a new student who wants help with organization. I asked her to tell me how she tries to organize and she showed me her 3 ring binder. Any of you who know me know I’m not a fan of the binder for most of the kids I work with. It’s a simple matter of ROI (Return on Investment). For kids who aren’t naturally organized, it’s a lot of paper pushing investment for what’s often little, if any, return. And they know it.
Same Old Story
This case is the same story I’ve seen so many times before – total binder overkill. Here’s how it goes:
It’s the beginning of the year. Very well-intentioned and naturally organized teachers across the country set their expectations:
-Get a 3-ring binder.
-Get dividers and label them, “homework, notes, tests, quizzes, worksheets,” etc..
-Use the binder to manage papers: On your small desk, carefully open this large binder to the right place, unclick the rings, put the new paper on the holes, click the rings closed, close the binder properly so it doesn’t mash up everything, somehow move the giant binder out of the way so you can use the desktop.
-Repeat when needed.
-There will be “binder checks” and you will literally be graded on how well you comply with organizational expectations, regardless of how it’s related to learning the actual content.
These kids don’t need to be spending their time managing minutia, there’s just no reason for it. Every minute in school is a valuable minute of life, and what we choose matters. Students just need one simple, plain folder or pocket per class. Sure there are some specific ways I set up the folder system to support their learning style, but basically it just needs to be simple and clear.
This issue frustrates me so much because of how defeating it is for kids. Binders seem like such a small thing but the consequences add up and it’s hard to connect the dots to see how the binder has anything to do with it. Kids struggle to try and do what they are asked, but it’s really hard for them to habituate the 3 ring binder details, so they end up giving up on it, feeling shamed, and cramming their stuff in their locker or backpack. Then they lose track of things, ask for multiple copies, forget to turn things in, are punished with zeros or partial credit, and they start the familiar, futile & overwhelming cycle of swimming upstream every semester. Sadly, the pattern grooves.
I think that naturally organized people innocently believe that, “if disorganized kids would just do what organized people do, they would become organized people.” But it’s not about that. Yes, the brain is plastic and yes, the brain will literally become better at organizing when the right modifications are made. The real problem is in how the modifications are made.
Of course some kids respond well to uber-organized binder systems. But the point is to help each kid develop a style that works for them, one that they can articulate and manage independently. If they can’t explain their system or can’t manage their stuff, they need common sense help, not cookie cutter demands.
So I helped this middle schooler get rid of about 50 useless papers, organized the remaining ones sanely, got her set up with simple color coded and clearly labeled folders, one “catchall/homework/important stuff” folder, and we went over simple guidelines for how she might use them. You could see her demeanor change as we broke everything down into bite sized pieces. It clicked better in her brain. She became more relaxed and confident. No more overkill, just sane simplicity.