How to keep your middle schooler's backpack organized In 8 easy steps

academics study skills
By Becca


Have you ever opened a middle schooler’s backpack to find a mess of papers, crushed pencils, and uneaten snacks? The emoji-themed folder that your child was so excited to pick out in the beginning of the year torn to shreds? The "math" section mysteriously also becoming the catch-all for notices about PTA potlucks, field trip reminders, and returned quizzes from history class?

The transition from elementary school to middle school can be a big one that’s full of exciting new opportunities for kids: possibly transitioning from a single classroom to multiple classrooms, or moving to a different school, or meeting new classmates –– all of these can be fun and welcome adventures. However, this change is often accompanied by increased independence and the expectation that the students themselves will manage folders and backpacks, rather than keeping them within a system that parents primarily monitor. When you want to stay on top of information but still let your kid have independence, what's a parent to do? Follow the guidelines below to increase your child’s likelihood of staying on top of their assignments and clearing the clutter in their backpack.

1. Create a filing system

Establish a filing system, with a section labeled for each subject; for instance, a 6th grade math class would be called "Math 6," whereas homeroom or advisory would be marked "HR 6" or "Advisory 6." Set up the filing system so that it lives in a highly accessible spot near where your child does their homework, where you and your child (or their babysitter, tutor, etc.) go through the backpack together. Make sure your child understands that there's a file for each subject!

2. Schedule a backpack clean out 

Pick one time during the weekend to initiate a backpack clean out. Friday afternoons right after school, for example, can be ideal, because there is less opportunity for pushing it off because a normal weeknight gets busy. But any time between Friday afternoon and Sunday morning is preferred over any other day of the week, because the assignments and papers in the backpack will be relatively fresh in your child’s mind, and will set them up for success whenever they do decide to sit down to do their homework.

3. Incentivize the chore

Grab the timer on your phone and set it for 45 minutes for the first time, and then 15 minutes for every week after that. Decide on a reward together: “If we can finish this whole thing in 45 minutes or less," tell your kid, "I’ll let you have a treat: would you rather have X, Y, or Z?” Treats can come in any form: extra time at a beloved video game, or choosing that evening's dinner, or a walk to a favorite local hangout. Think of these as not so much bribes but motivations. Incentives can be hugely helpful in ensuring that you’re not creating this whole filing system with apathetic or zero participation from your middle schooler. You’ll need your child’s full attention, since they’re the expert on what they are working on in school, and ultimately, they've got to learn how to do their own filing.

4. Remove distractions

Eliminate distractions: no TV in the background no other people nearby. Clear a space, like the kitchen table, and roll up your sleeves. Have your middle schooler open their backpack and take everything out: every pencil, every folder, every smashed paper at the bottom. Lay all items out on the table. Make sure that the folders or binders they have are free of loose paper. Everything that can be removed from them should be placed on the table.

5. Sort out the paper

Start to organize everything into the following three piles:

  1. Keep: These are all documents related to the units that your child is currently working on in school. If they’re reading The Giver in ELA class, all documents relating to The Giver should be in this pile, for example.
  2. Toss: All newsletters, reminders, and unscored documents related to past units that are definitively over. Class worksheets, study guides, and reminders related to earlier units or marking periods will likely fall into this category.
  3. File: All quizzes, tests, and graded work from past units or marking periods. 

6. Organize!

File away the File pile, and recycle the Toss pile. Using either new folders or some of your middle schooler’s now-empty folders, start to fill them with the Keep pile in the following way, labeling the folders with the following words in permanent marker: 

  1. Hold: All classwork, study guides, and pending/returned homework.

  2. Return: All completed homework goes into this folder, including tests/quizzes that need to be signed and returned. This will help to avoid the moment when you find out that despite watching your middle schooler complete homework for hours every week, their homework average is mysteriously low and those assignments they spent hours on are among the crushed at the bottom of the bag.

7. Dust buster

Collect all writing utensils and place them in a pencil case or zip lock bag. Grab a dust buster and clean out the crumbs in the backpack.

8. Reset the backpack

Make sure everything your child will need for school on Monday morning gets placed back into the backpack itself.

The first time you do this, it’s best to give your child some space and not ask them to start on homework right away, as this might end up being a fairly overwhelming task to complete. However, once you get into a weekly 15-minute habit of going through these folders and notebooks, the amount of energy expended will decrease, and you’ll find that it can be a great way to either provide a recap for that week or jumpstart homework for the next.


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