Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

Cluttered Desks and Creative Minds: Part 2

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Aug 22, 2014 9:08 PM

"Trust your truth. Never undervalue your unique self, skills, and point of view." (Julie Morgenstern)

About 5 years before I retired, I began teaching lessons on organization to my elementary school students. Many of them didn’t need these lessons. Through a combination of their own instincts and consistent adult role models, they’d embraced traditional systems of organization. Binders. Pencil boxes. Pocket folders.

But there were also those who’d been exposed to the same systems, but who were not using them. Or, they were trying to use them, but not demonstrating success. Papers were crammed inside pocket folders or binders (but not actually in the pockets or the rings). Pencil boxes were filled to overflowing. Homeless items sat atop, inside or beside desks. When these students needed to find something, they were unable to easily do so. Despite having all the “right” tools, they were not organized.

Sound familiar? Any chance you know someone like this? Me too.

But, to quote the old saw, appearances can be deceiving. Some of these kids (and their adult counterparts) were much more organized than they appeared to be. But, that didn’t keep them from feeling self-conscious about being the owner of a desk that didn’t look like it was “supposed” to.

What is organized anyway? For the purposes of these lessons, I defined it as being able to find what you need when you need it. Pretty systems are nice, but when it comes to organization, function trumps fashion every time.

So, armed with goofy style names ("I need to see it," "I love stuff" and "Cram & jam" for starters) and unconventional school supplies, I began teaching small groups and lessons, based on the notion that it’s possible to get organized if you do what comes naturally. And, not only can you get organized, but you’re also more likely to sustain a system that fits your preferences than one you’ve simply adopted from someone else.

And do you know what? The kids got excited about getting organized. They visibly relaxed and they enthusiastically embraced labels like “I love stuff” and “I need to see it” and set out to find tools that were a match for their styles. There was a lot of laughter, a lot of relief and a lot less clutter. Kids who’d felt as though they were missing a piece that was standard issue for everyone else began to see their differences as uniqueness instead of deficiency.

Why do some kids leave clothes on the floor and papers strewn across desks? Because they need to see them. Give them a tool that keeps things visible, and the need to have everything they own in plain sight at all times diminishes.

Why do other kids keep every birthday gift they’ve ever gotten, long after they’ve outgrown the toys which are, in fact, gathering dust in a corner of the closet? Because they’ve made a connection between the gift and something else that matters to them: the person who gave them the present, the way they felt when they played with it, a happier time when summers were longer and homework assignments were shorter. 

Kids who don’t use the systems we’ve modeled are trying to tell us something: those systems don’t work for them. To a visual organizer, there’s little difference between a file folder and a trash can -- both put things out of sight and, we fear, out of mind as well. And so, left to her own devices, a visual organizer leaves everything where she can see it.

But give the same kid a see-through plastic folder or shelves instead of drawers and suddenly “away” and “visible” aren’t opposing concepts. And “away” is not so scary.

When we tap into the why behind the clutter, we can often find the foundation of a workable system of organization. Better yet, we can help our kids to feel respected and develop habits that will last long after we’ve stopped harping on them to pick up their clothes and put things away.

The best part is that honoring a child’s personal and organizational styles and helping them to develop methods that work for them doesn’t just teach them organizational skills. It shows them that we value what they think, and that they are unique, not broken. It builds self-confidence. 

When I started these lessons, I was moving from one office to another, possessing both a bad attitude about my situation and the desire to make a fresh, organized start in my new space. I had no idea I’d end up on a mission.

I started those first small groups (with third graders) eight years ago. Since then, I’ve taught lessons to fourth and fifth graders, run small groups for fifth graders and taught classes for adults who fear they’re missing the organization gene. And being a catalyst for a new way of looking at organization has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I’m not the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein (though my desk is often just as messy as theirs were reported to be), but I’ve learned a thing or two about organizing, and a great deal about the difference between appearances and reality.

So the next time you’re tempted to show your child the “right” way to organize, take a moment and ask him about his system instead. There may be more logic there than meets the eye.

Lisa's article on this topic appears in the Back to School issue of Teachers of Vision.                                                                            

For more information about organizing by STYLE, feel free to contact Lisa at

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