How To Teach Grade-Schoolers Organizational Skills…Starting With the Disorganized Desk

Having a disorganized desk can make school hard to manage.  When the teacher asks his or her students to take out their science books and turn to page 57, the child who is lost in their desk trying to find the book often can not remember the page number once it is found. Many times this student will remain lost in the lesson because of their fraught start.  Tasks that should be simple become overwhelming and time- consuming often leading to stress and frustration.  Organization can be an elusive skill that many kids struggle to acquire.  The fact of the matter is there’s a lot that goes into being organized.  Organization is part of a set of skills called executive functions.  Keeping a desk organized requires more than just putting things away.  Managing school materials requires planning, prioritizing, decision making, sequencing, task initiation, and following through with those tasks to completion.  Some kids need extra help to set up and maintain an organized desk space at school.  This post will focus on how to provide grade-schoolers with the support they need to establish and sustain a functional workspace at school.

Use Visuals

Visuals paint a picture of exactly what is expected of the child. Often kids just don’t know what teachers mean when they say, “clean your desk”. Providing kids with a visual helps them to wrap their heads around what they are supposed to do when challenging requests are made.

How to Fix...The Disorganized Desk: Create a Desk Map

Create a desk map by organizing the contents of the desk and then taking a picture of your expectation. Designate time to work on organizing the desk. How often you do this will depend on the student’s needs. Some will need to do this every couple of days, other students may just need it once a week. Over time, you should expect the amount of time and support needed to decrease and the student develops the skills needed to stay organized.

Teach students how to decide whether to trash items or keep them. Old graded papers should go home for parents to see. Create a location (folder/envelope) for these papers to go. Important papers like class notes and worksheets need to be placed in a binder or glued into a notebook, whatever system is in place.

Throw away old crumbled papers, wrappers, leftover snacks, crayon paper shavings, eraser bits, and whatever else can be disposed of. This makes it easier to keep the desk neat and organized.

Place homework in a folder designated as such. Label the compartments, for example, “keep at home” and “bring to school” or “to do” and “completed”.

Create Divisions

Divisions assist the student with knowing where to place items. For example, place books on one side, notebooks/folders on the other, pencil box, pouch, and other compartments on top.

Use Checklists

Checklists help children with breaking down the steps of a task. In this case, checklists tell the child exactly what should go in each division of the desk.

How to Fix...The Disorganized Desk: Make a Checklist for Each Division
How to Fix...The Disorganized Desk: Make a Checklist for Each Division

Checklists are also interactive and hands-on. Children check the boxes as the task is being completed. This ensures the completion of each step, as the boxes are checked as one moves down the list. This is very helpful for students who need assistance with sequencing the steps to a task or get lost trying to figure out where to start. It also provides immediate positive reinforcement that progress is being made with a nice visual to display it. I love to scratch items off my to-do-list! It makes me feel very productive and accomplished. Whether it be my chore list, my grocery list, or my Christmas gift list, the feeling is always the same and it is always good. Children need to feel accomplished as well, and checklists are a great visual motivator.

How to Fix...The Disorganized Desk: Laminate For Durability and Dry Erase Marker Use

Lamination makes it possible to use the desk organization system as many times as needed without worrying about making copies. I also recommend using thick paper, like the index cards in the picture above. The end result is a durable tool that should last several months.

How to Fix...The Disorganized Desk: Add a Key Ring

I like to create a flippable booklet by placing a hole in the corner using a paper hole punch. Then use a key ring to secure the pages. I love those little adhesive plastic hooks that can be purchased almost anywhere. Attach the hook to the side of the desk and hang the booklet there.

If you are concerned that it will get lost, you can also tape the cards to the desktop.

How to Fix...The Disorganized Desk: Hang or Place Desk Booklet on Desk

Build Independence

Teach your student how to use the booklet. Gradually pull away and let the student follow the steps on their own. Perform desk checks weekly or as often as needed to reinforce how to use the organization system correctly. Eventually, the level of assistance will decrease and your student will become more independent with keeping the contents of their desk organized.

Happy Organizing! I hope you will find this post helpful. Please comment if this system has worked for you and your students or if you have a strategy of your own that you’d like to share.


The Fun Strokes blog is designed for educational and informational use only for teachers, therapists, and parents. It is not intended as medical advice or therapeutic treatment that would be provided in an individualized treatment plan. If you suspect a child has delays, please consult an occupational therapist.

Published by Linda Craig Dennis

Pediatric Occupational Therapist, Author and Creator of Fun Strokes Pre-writing Program

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