Prep for school-at-home: Organize Physical and Digital Space

  • by

How to Organize NOW so You’re Ready for the (Covid-Crazy) School Year 

Summertime, and the living is…weird. Welcome to the second episode in our series about preparing for the fall school year. Whether you are wanting to send your child back to school or remain in distance learning, “school” will start at some point over the next few weeks. Taking a little time now to get some organization systems set up will serve you well and save lots of time once the school year is upon us.

Whether or not your child will return to a physical classroom, they will need a system to maintain their school-related belongings and space at home. Most families were unable to establish the physical space they would have liked for their children to do school-from-home, for many reasons. The transition was too quick, the kids had to share technology, or the kids even had to share table space. Without the demands of school right now, you have a great opportunity to think about, test out, and create a space and systems to maintain it.

 And, I know anything related to school during the summer is repulsive to kids—but here’s your hook for getting them to buy in: ask them to recount the frustration of losing things over and over again last year. Ask them to reflect on the stress of having to redo work they couldn’t find or waste hours looking for the same things every day. Now, let them know you have a magic solution to make that stress go away. And shoot, they can even pick a few images or photos to print and put in their created space, to make it more their own.

Our first step is to get real about the demands and availability of space in your house. If your table is used for eating, and homework, and paying bills, and sometimes art projects because it’s your only table in the house, that’s ok. If you have space, you could consider getting a second table or desk (apps like Offer Up and Let Go have free desks all the time). I even know a family that used a piece of plywood laid across two short filing cabinets as a desk for years. (Filing cabinets are also often free online. You can even set up an alert for the apps to tell you when new desks, tables, or cabinets are listed for free or cheap.) If you get something ugly or scraped up (which, by the way, is always what teachers get when they have a new classroom. Why have we been ok with this for so long? Ugh. I digress…) you can use contact paper—like the sticky sheets that people use to line drawers—to stick right on the furniture and upgrade it instantly. I did it to several pieces of furniture in my classroom, and it changed the whole room. I’ll put some photos up on the blog at

Think of the table or desk as your starting space for organization. If space in your living situation is really cramped, we can strategize that struggle too, my friend. One of the benefits of organization is the subconscious impact of our “space” on our actions. What I mean is, sitting at a table set up for eating will make our brains have a harder time initiating and focusing on working. So, we can hack that influence on our brains by creating a change of space. When it’s time to eat, clear the work materials and use a tablecloth to change the feel of the table space. You can put the salt and pepper back on the table too. When it’s time to work, the food and tablecloth go away. You can create a more “worky” feel by using painter’s tape (the kind that peels off easily) to box off workstations for each kid. You can use a caddy (even a DIY tray with some paper-covered old cans) to hold the usual tools for schoolwork: pencils, pens, crayons, chargers. The work materials caddy goes on the table at work time and off the table (to make space for the tablecloth) at eating time. You’ll be amazed at how the physical changes help create mental and motivational changes too! (PS school has this advantage; some of the physical set up of classrooms subconsciously primes your child’s brain for learning. Now that you know that, you can make home an easier space to learn by using some of the same tricks).

So, you’ve got a table, desk, or plywood across filing cabinets—you’ve got a work space for each kid. How do you keep it functional all year? Set up and practice now! Have your child think of the materials he or she needed for school-from-home last year, and write them down. Also take note of the things he or she lost quite often (I’m picturing earbuds, chargers, glasses, pencils). These items will likely need space in their workspace, so plan for it now. If your child really needs the support, you can tape down a piece of paper with the outline of required items, and create a routine of checking that the items are in their specific places before your kid is done with school for the day. I had a student who constantly lost his pencil…who am I kidding? Most of my kids do this at least a few times a year. But, this kid was, like, eating the pencils or something, and he was getting in trouble with his science teacher in particular. So, we made it part of his check-out routine that when he left science, he placed his pencil (with his name on it and a piece of Velcro attached to it) to the awaiting piece of Velcro on the teacher’s desk. Crazy as it sounded, it worked for him because it relieved him from having to keep track of his pencil and spend 20 minutes of class trying to act busy while he begged peers for a loaner. Even crazier than that? His grade went up because he was less stressed about losing his things, less worried about making the teacher mad, and had more time to take notes and get his work done. That’s a win that cost me about 20 cents in Velcro.

School Tools Caddy ideas: 

Another thing to consider right now is potential distractors in the workspace. If tv is within ear or eye shot, consider making “hours of use” for it and posting them as part of your work/study space set up. Remember, our brains are kind of tricked by the official language of rules. So, if we state it as fact, “The t.v. hours Monday through Friday are 6-8 pm,” then our brains are much more likely to go along with it. If we try to just verbally argue about it, asking our kids to turn it off or having it be a grey area to which we sometimes say an exhausted “Yes,” our kids are much more likely to sneak tv time and argue with us about it. Phones are another consideration for organizing workspace. You can develop a phone check-in/check-out system or give your child forced choice on where his phone will go during study time. Remember, forced choice means giving your child two or three choices that you approve of. This helps your child have control over his own fate but within your limits. It helps you both feel like you win. An example would be: “When it’s study time, where do you want to leave your phone? In your backpack, on my desk, or charging in the kitchen?”

Once you have the tools in place and some fail-proof spots for important, of-lost items, it’s time to consider the content your child will be interacting with. If the school provides papers or offers things to be printed, you’ll need a space where your child can put the papers. Folders are a great start—and an opportunity for your child to have some ownership in choosing colors of folders for each subject. Sounds dumb, but I’ve seen organization systems make or break on how much involvement a child has in setting them up—down to the choosing of folder colors. If math is blue in his head, then giving a red folder may ensure he won’t use it. Our brains are so weird, huh?

If your child will have only digital work, then setting up a folder system on their device is a great idea now! Again, they can pick the color-coding system, and ask them to stick with it throughout their apps and folders. So, if they have a Google Drive, the colors for their classes are the same as the folders they make within apps like iMovie or Explain Everything. While you set up these systems, be sure to talk about how your brain thinks about organizing. How did you know what you might need? How do you use systems in the household? How do you handle it when your system needs to adapt? Sharing your own thought structures around organization is powerful and can help your child grow their executive function!

A final thing to consider when pre-organizing for school-from-home is how often to schedule organizing parties. Yup, remember, call it a party, and it changes the feel of the task. I still have “cleaning parties” with my 8th graders, who are ok being tricked into cleaning our classroom together if it means we play music and they possibly get a candy on the way out. Organization systems will need to be revamped every so often, and the frequency will depend on your child’s style. If he or she really likes the organized space, then they might automatically organize as a closing activity when they’re done for the day. Others will need to organize weekly, maybe Fridays, to be sure things are stocked up (you can use a check list of things like pencils, books, etc) and ready to go.

Still, others may need support to host a cleaning party, where they can not only get the space situated again, but also go through the stacks of paper and sort them into the classic three piles: keep, maybe, and garbage (which goes straight into the garbage—or recycling). Your job helping them host this style of cleaning party is not to dictate, but instead to ask them to consider which of the three piles to place each paper in, for the initial sort. So, instead of saying, “That’s clearly garbage,” ask, “Can you see yourself using or needing that again?” The idea is you prompt them on how to think about it but not what to think.

Schedule the cleaning parties (maybe every Friday on their own and a monthly overhaul with you) and put them on the calendar! They’ll be good reminders when things get busy after school starts.

Today you learned…

…some strategies to set up organization systems now, before the start of the 2020 school year. You learned that the way a space is structured influences our behaviors and that your child having voice and choice is important in setting up a system that will last. You also learned that you will need to schedule cleaning parties to keep the system up and running. All of this hard work now will result in a lot less stress when school begins again, however it will look.

If you’re thinking, “this is great, but my child and I could use more help with executive function,” then why not join me for personalized coaching? My fall student list is almost full, so don’t miss out! When we work together, I help your child with personalized Executive Function strategies and help you learn how to coach and support your child. This experience has transformed families’ lives, and I’d love to do the same for you! Reach out so we can develop a plan that fits your family, your child, and your hopes!

Bonus: I’m making check lists in hopes it makes this a little less overwhelming! Here’s the first one for ya, tribe!

 Time for this week’s pep talk.

Hey Kid,

So, have you cleaned out your backpack from last year’s junk yet? It’s so crazy how all that pencil dust combines with little scraps of paper and wrappers to make that weird, grey powder at the bottom of your backpack, huh? Even if you had a great organization system last year, your backpack probably had a little crazy going on inside it…truth be told, I can imagine your grown ups’ purse or lunchbox has the same deal going on. Life gets busy, we toss things into other things, we probably think, “Oh, I’ll deal with that later,” right?

Today your grown up learned how to set up some organization systems to help you have less stress and more time for fun when school begins. Chances are next year you will need a space to do schoolwork at home, even if you get to go back to school at some point. Your grown up learned how to make a space for you, how you can help make the space your own, and how to hold cleaning parties to keep things working great for you. Having a system means you won’t have to panic about losing things and you won’t have to waste time looking for the same things every day. You won’t get the system perfectly right the first time. That’s ok. Keep making little changes until you find a way that works for you. It may look whacky to someone else from the outside, but if you have “flow” and can find things easily within your workspace, then call it a win.

Feel free to send me some pictures of what you come up with! I’d love to see your systems and maybe share them with others!

Sending you all my love, Kid!


Photo credits: Roman Bozhko, Frank Romero, Tim Mossholder, Dmitri Ratushy, Buzz Feed,