Organizing for Kids: School Papers

Whether your kids just got out of school for summer are about to get out, you’ve probably got stacks of school papers to deal with: art work, worksheets, stories, journals, and more more more. What are you supposed to do with it?

I’ve had clients function anywhere on the spectrum from keeping everything to throwing it all away—often without the input of the kids who actually produced the work.

Ironically, these are often the same people who have received boxes from their own parents (usually mothers) who kept every report card, tooth, and scribble. My clients don’t know what to do with their own childhood papers. They don’t care about them. They often don’t even want to look through them. But they feel guilty getting rid of the stuff their mothers so painstakingly saved. You know what they want to do? Pass the childhood papers to their kids because the kids might like getting to see what their parents were like as children.

Please don’t do this.

Here’s the thing, papers are a great place for kids to start learning how to discern what is special and what is not, what to keep and what to get rid of. Don’t make those decisions for them. Teach them organizing strategies they’ll be able to apply their entire lives.

School PapersSince it’s summer, you may be going through a huge amount of papers this time—especially if you haven’t had a system for dealing with schoolwork before now. In some ways that will make organizing easier. The sheer volume of papers will help kids see that there will still be plenty when they choose to get rid of much of the work. If you’ve got big paper piles or grocery sacks worth of papers,you may need multiple sessions this first time. Don’t expect this to happen in one quick sitting.


Have the kids separate the work into subject piles: math, writing, art, science, reading,etc. If they start getting silly or their attention seems to be waning, take a snack break or let them go run around or play a game for a while. You might even need to come back to the piles the next day. You won’t need to do this every time, but give kids a lot of space and time as they’re learning to go through their own things so they don’t associate organizing and decluttering as something unpleasant. It’s a way of picking out what they love and saving it so it’s not lost in a pile.

Like with Like Within Categories

Next, have your kids go through each category pile and further separate into like with like paper types. Show them how math problems written out are different than worksheets where they filled in numbers. This helps them understand categories even more clearly. Seeing five math worksheets with the same grade on each helps them see that keeping every single one isn’t necessary (kind of like realizing you have five black t-shirts, so you’re willing to let go of the one with a hole).


It is not your job here to try to make kids get rid of stuff or use your categories or selection criteria. Help your kids figure out what their criteria is. You can ask them what they like about each one and what makes them want to keep one and get rid of another. What makes the paper special to them? You may hear some really detailed stories about what happened at school or the process of doing an assignment that your child would never have thought to tell you when you asked, “Did you do anything interesting at school today?Note: if there’s something in here that’s really special to you but not to your child–like the paper from the hundredth day of school where he put down 100 of his cute little fingerprints–you can keep it for yourself without convincing him that he should care about it. Respect your child’s selection process. Even if they want to keep four out of five of each type of paper this first round, respect their wishes. They’ll bring tons more paper home. As they get practice going through, categorizing and decluttering, they’ll be willing to part with more over time.

file box


Once they’ve gone through each category pile and picked out the special work, put all of the categories into one pile. Ask your child what s/he’d like to display. If there’s work s/he doesn’t want to put up, ask if s/he really wants to keep it. S/he may be willing to let more of the papers go. Again, you may want to take breaks (or even wait until the next day) for each step so they don’t just randomly pick or get overwhelmed or bored. 

Put away

Store the rest of the papers. For this I recommend getting a portable file box with a folder for each grade: preschool through 12th grade. The hanging file box limits how many papers kids can keep. I could make up a random number here of how many papers you should keep from each year, but it would be random. In early schooling, you may want to keep the first time they wrote their names or the first time they did a math problem. Senior year, students may have college essays and special projects. The papers can add up. Ultimately, you’re looking to keep thirteen or fourteen file folders in your child’s school papers hanging file box, so each individual file shouldn’t be more than about a half inch thick. By file box, I don’t mean one of those cardboard banker’s boxes. If you have more than one child, each kid should get their own box.

Take Another Pass at It

At the end of summer, you and your child can go back through all of the papers as a way of getting ready for going back to school. Kids may be willing to get rid of even more now that a little time has passed.

Create an Ongoing System

Once school starts back up, you’ll want a system for going through papers on a more regular basis. Maybe they get an in-box or bin and when it is full, you help through go through, categorize, purge, and display. Or every time they bring papers home, you can ask your children what they want to keep and what should go in recycling. You’ll be surprised how few papers kids end up wanting to keep.

If you find yourself resistant to getting rid of their papers or trying to talk them into keeping stuff, examine what’s happening here. And look around your house. Do you fight papers piles? Do you have boxes or file cabinets of things you haven’t been willing to let go? Your kids will watch what you’re doing and use you as a model. They’re not going to declutter if you’ve got stuff everywhere.

For those papers you or the kids want to keep, set up a rotating display system for special work and artwork coming in. I offer ideas for displaying kid’s artwork and how to create a transition gallery so you’ll have some ideas for what to do with all the work your kids want to see and/or that you want to showcase here.

If you would like decluttering, organizing, or design help from spaceWise, call 512-591-8129 to get started. 

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