Today I’m going to teach you exactly how and why I teach students to do a regular “backpack overhaul” and why it’s a critical tool for student success. Trust me, this is one of the best game-changers.
How long the overhaul takes:
1 hour the first time you do an overhaul. 15 minutes once a week after that.
I teach ALL of my students to do this, elementary through grad school.
About my students:
The students I work with are notoriously outside-the-box thinkers who struggle with organization, overwhelm, remembering details, homework, studying, time management, planning, prioritizing, focusing on one thing at a time, and thinking things through. They need outside-the-box solutions, not cookie cutter fluff. The overhaul is key since they aren’t natural “maintainers.”
I always say that my students are “overhaulers”, not “maintainers”. They tend to do occasional overhauls, but aren’t the type who naturally maintain systems on a regular basis. In other words, they tend to be pretty disorganized. They’re the classic start-a-million-projects-but-finish-none type of people. Once in a while they overhaul something (their bedroom, hobby area, papers, etc.), rearrange it, go through everything carefully, and make it awesome. A couple days later it may be mayhem again for another year.
As far as backpacks are concerned, these students tend to have a knack for losing very important papers deep in the abyss of the backpack. The backpacks fill with papers, electronics, trash, books, clutter, etc.. Papers get compressed into bizarre shapes as the ink fades from weeks of friction in the backpack. Sometimes the backpack appears organized, sometimes it looks like a volcanic explosion. Either way, when it comes to having an effective system for managing the minutiae, their system isn’t cutting it.
How to do the backpack overhaul:
- I start by telling them we are going to do a backpack overhaul, that we will go through every single thing, even gum wrappers, and get the backpack fully reorganized. I ask if this sounds like a good idea because they have to take ownership and have buy-in or it’s not going to do much good. Once I have buy-in, we move on. Do not underestimate the importance of honoring this discussion and getting the buy-in, even if it takes a half hour to talk! It usually takes me a couple of minutes.
- I always ask if there is anything personal that they don’t want me to see, and I let them get rid of it before we start. You must honor their privacy, so make sure to create that sense of safety and respect.
- We find a big area, a huge table or an open floor space.
- We grab a recycle can, a trash can, a box labeled “archive”.
- Now we pull every single thing out of every pocket on the backpack. Consequently, I like the simple 2 pocket backpacks, not the 100 pocket backpacks that things get lost in the most. Either way, empty it out, shake the remaining debris outside if necessary.
- Next, we literally go through every single thing in the backpack and start making piles. Trash goes in the trash can, paper in the recycling, we start a math pile, an LA pile, a science pile, a pile of supplies, etc.. They often need a lot of help with figuring out how to categorize their piles.
- I ask a lot of questions that are designed to make them think about their organizational choices. This is how I help them develop “metacognition”, or how I help them become more mindful, aware and conscious of their choices. I ask things like, “why are you keeping that? Do you really need it? Why? Why are you getting rid of that? Are you sure it can’t be turned in? Where is the best place for that? Why? Do you have a “home for that? Where? Should we write your name on this? Would it help if this had a label?”
- Sometimes I go through the piles once again to see if there is a special order they want the papers in, to see if everything has a name or to see if there is anything that is must be turned in. All papers that must be turned in are flagged with a post-it or are put in the queue (see post).
- Finally, we put everything back in the backpack very intentionally. Usually the load is considerably lighter, literally and figuratively.
Why weekly overhauls?
Now that the initial massive overhaul is complete, I do a quick overhaul with clients every week for several weeks. As they get better at managing things, we can back off to every 2 or 3 weeks. I keep this up on a fairly regular basis for the rest of the school year because even when these kids say that everything is in place, inevitably, we end up finding things that were misplaced. They say things like, “oh yeah, I forgot about that. I was wondering where that was.” It never fails. These kids aren’t usually being dishonest or lazy, they just tend to have an unrealistic perception about things. Don’t worry, as the brain matures, and as they go through a reflective process like this over and over, it slowly gets more realistic. Keep at it, the brain will respond and you will see changes!
Note: Help your students do the overhaul, don’t do it for them or they won’t gain the skill.
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