Getting smart about back-to-school organization

By Jeanine Matlow
Special to The Detroit News

As kids head back to the classroom, home life becomes a whirlwind of after-school activities, forms to be signed, lunches to be made and more. For those seeking order and calm, there is hope.

“Preparing to return to the rigors of a school year schedule requires forethought and mindfulness on the part of parents to optimize the success of your student,” says Jen Heard, professional organizer and owner of Clean Sweep Consulting in Rochester.

A calendar in a central location keeps you on track. For older kids with mobile phones, Heard suggests a shared family calendar in Google or an app like FamCal or Cozi Family Organizer that everyone can update from their cellphones.

Configurations that can adapt to fit different family members and scenarios can work wonders for organizing little ones and evolve with them as they grow. For instance, a pegboard attached to the side of a table or desk keeps materials nearby.

For students to stay healthy and focused, food prep is key. To properly fuel your student, plan your grocery list in advance and include healthy snacks kids can grab from the pantry or see at eye level. Pack fresh fruits and vegetables in their lunches and leave some for them at home. 

If you’re really on top of your game, initiate toy cleanup after dinner and enjoy some family time by packing lunches together and discussing why some food choices are better than others. “Put on some fun music and get on a chef’s hat if you have little ones,” says Heard.

A place for everything

Now is the time to organize and simplify, says Abbey Stark, senior interior design leader for IKEA North America. “To start the school year off right, begin by going through clothing, toys, and miscellaneous items to decide what to keep and what to donate,” she says.

Turn a spare space into a playroom where kids’ toys and school supplies can be neatly arranged in baskets, bins and drawers. A surface for activities keeps the floor neat and clean.

Organize by category and buy storage boxes and baskets to help with the sorting process. Evaluate the storage solutions in your home and put like items together in one place to help control the chaos. “Creating dedicated areas for storage is the key to organization,” Stark says.

Hooks are an affordable option that makes it easy for kids to grab everyday items like backpacks and jackets, while pegboards help you prep your home for the school year. They can serve as a family message board and a place to keep important documents for field trips, invitations and grocery lists.

“The more organized the home, the faster the morning and evening routines,” says Stark. Having an organized coming and going solution for each family member can minimize the time it takes to get out the door. Hooks and cubbies at the right height get kids involved in the process. Dedicate a basket for each person to decrease clutter and create less work for parents.

Homes have become more fluid with integrated workspaces like dining room tables and kitchen islands. Provide storage solutions in these areas for school supplies, like a dedicated kitchen cabinet with stackable boxes or a cart that keeps the space organized when not in use.

Another great place to study for an exam would be a comfy armchair and ottoman with a laptop tray table. A small desk can be integrated into a bedroom or living space, while a kid-size table and chair provides a place to eat lunch and play games.

Twice as nice

As a working mother with 7-year-old twins, it’s important for Staci A. Meyers, owner of S|A|M Interiors in Bloomfield Township to have her act together. The interior designer repurposes pieces and places like a pair of dressers from her master bedroom that now corral her sons’ stuff in a guest room turned playroom. Positioned side-by-side and anchored to the wall, they hold craft and school supplies.

A vintage table from her childhood comes in handy for Legos and more. “They can do their summer reading and workbooks because they know where they are,” says Meyers. “Instead of having them scattered throughout the house, everything stays in the playroom. They have their own space.”

In the mudroom, a custom built-in desk station creates a workspace and a place for book bags and papers.

This time of year, the boys try on clothes they haven’t worn since last fall and make piles for hand-me-downs to pass on and for donations. Hanging fabric organizers in the closet sort their clothing for the school week. “Their outfits can be planned in advance,” she says. “That’s my goal for them to be more independent.”

Planning and structure are essential for the busy mom who makes a habit of stocking up on snacks at Costco, making lunch the night before and adhering to a strict bedtime. “Being consistent with their schedule is so helpful,” says Meyers who arrives five minutes early at the bus stop. “Even if we’re running late, we will still be on time.”

Meyers also takes advantage of special offers from her sons’ school like one that takes photos of your kids’ art and turns them into a book. At the end of the year, their PTA had a package deal for all the school supplies for the coming year. “They came in the mail for me,” she says. “My boys have everything they need and it benefits the school.”

Lastly, she relies on the kindness of other mothers for important information. “As a mom my best friend is other moms,” she says. “We connect and text each other to say, ‘Hey, did you know about this?’” 

Divide and conquer

Metro Detroit organizers from the Container Store have some fun suggestions. For starters, have a fashion show. Kids can try on their clothes and sort through toys and set aside donations and hand-me-downs. Have them create a wish list of what they need for the new school year. The more they give away, the more they get to make their case for their wish list.  

At the end of the school year, put all supplies that are in good shape in one plastic bin. Once the back-to-school list becomes available, kids can “shop” at home first as a more practical and affordable option.    

Sunday night is a good time to see what forms need to be filled out and checks need to be written. You can also synchronize calendars for parents, carpools and sitters. Set aside 10 to 15 minutes each night to organize and have kids pull together pre-made lunches before a nighttime treat or social media time.  

On the closet floor, labeled baskets and containers can be a great place for shoes to be tossed. Choose a kid-friendly hamper that encourages them to dunk, punt or cartwheel items inside. You might even offer a small reward for doing so like a sleepover or movie pick.

Jeanine Matlow writes the Smart Solutions column in Homestyle. You can reach her at