Beyond Marie Kondo: Next Steps for Student Organization

Ben Gott

There is no doubt about it: Marie Kondo has revolutionized personal organizing. Her calm, relatable, and judgment-free methods—as well as her assertion that our possessions should “spark joy”—have clearly resonated with tens of thousands of people. (The popularity of her how-to book and her Netflix show leave no doubt!) As organizing consultants, we applaud her success and are grateful her efforts to demystify what it means to live a truly “tidy” life—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. While most of Kondo’s fans are adults, children and teenagers can benefit from her methods. However, helping young people get organized presents unique challenges. If you’ve tried to “Kondo-fy” your child with little success, here are some practical suggestions that might help restart the process.

The Well-Organized Aren’t “Born That Way”

In the nearly twenty years I’ve been working with students, I have found that, for most of them, the decision to “Get organized!” is not their own. Most often, they are told to do so by the adults in their lives: their parents, their teachers, or their coaches. While well-organized adults are surely well intentioned, we often forget that we were not, to paraphrase Lady Gaga, “born that way.” We have all developed organizational methods that work for us over a lifetime of trying, failing, and trying again. And even though those methods might indeed be wildly successful for us, we cannot—and should not—simply try to force them onto others. Instead, we must help the young people in our lives to discover what works for them.

In their 2017 article “Social and Emotional Learning: Introducing the Issue,” Stephanie Jones and Emily Doolittle define social-emotional learning (or “SEL”) as learning that leads to “attention and the ability to solve problems; [positive] beliefs about the self, such as perceptions of competence and autonomy; and social awareness, including empathy for others and the ability to resolve conflicts.” While much of the research around SEL involves partnerships between students and teachers in the classroom, we can employ many of these SEL methods to help our kids get organized.

Keep on Movin’

I’ll give you an example: organizing your child’s workspace can be one of a parent’s most aggravating tasks—but not if you let your child put things at hand by him or herself. And remember that, although many of us were programmed to sit at desks and “study” until we learned what we needed to know, research teaches us that many children literally cannot learn while sitting still.

Recently, one of my seventh-grade students came to me for advice. He was having trouble memorizing his Spanish vocabulary words. He told me he thought he was doing everything “right” by sitting down at his desk and flipping through his flashcards. But, when it was time for the quiz, he couldn’t remember anything.

I reached into the drawer of my own desk and handed him a roll of blue painter’s tape. “Find the biggest empty wall in your house,” I suggested, “and tape the notecards to the wall. Then, when you’re studying, walk back and forth past the notecards, memorizing as you go. If you can’t remember some words, move those cards to a different part of the wall and spend a bit more time there. But talk to yourself. Move around. And don’t try to sit. Sitting still to study doesn’t work for you.” I knew that this student, a star soccer player, demonstrated exceptional grace, control, and focus on the field, so asking him to approach studying the same way he approached playing soccer might help. The next afternoon, he told me that he’d aced his Spanish quiz—and he’d gotten his studying done in half the time.

If you decide to undergo a workspace reorganization with your child, don’t just think about the desk in front of her. Look at the walls in her room. Could you use some Command Strips (a professional organizer’s best friend!) to attach a few bulletin boards to the far wall? How could you and your child work together to rethink her space? To set him up to achieve? And to get rid of the physical and mental clutter that gets in the way?

Making Marie Kondo’s Methods Work for You

How To Get Your Children OrganizedUnderstanding that young people must find their own methods of organization does not mean that there aren’t wonderful tips to take from Ms. Kondo. For example, her suggestion to organize by groups of items is great. If you have a teenage daughter and a garage full of athletic equipment, what better way to spend a Saturday morning than sorting her stuff into four piles: keep, donate, hand-me-down, and toss? Your middle-school-aged son might have loved those Minecraft shirts when he was in fourth grade, but now that he’s 13, his younger cousin might love them more. And how cool would it be if, as a coach or teacher, you challenged your team or your homeroom to a “cleaning spree” over the weekend, with donations going to a local charity?

But children and teenagers often have trouble telling the difference between something that brings them joy in the present (and that they can use!) and something that holds a fond memory. Yes, that baseball bat may be too small—but, Dad, remember when it hit the winning home run? Sure, I don’t use those old binders anymore—but, Mom, remember when Ms. Tatsch gave me an A on that project?

When confronted with these difficult (but honest) questions, it can be very easy to give in to avoid an argument. But, when we’re all drowning in stuff, “giving in” isn’t a viable option. Instead, I’d suggest using that item as the beginning of a conversation: “I know that bat is really special to you. But it takes up space in the basket, and someone else might love it. Can we come up with another way to remember that game?” Most of our children live their lives online these days—a photograph of that bat or that binder (posted to Instagram, of course!) would preserve the memory and provide the physical and mental space to grow. (I’m also a huge fan of repurposing items as pieces of art—and what a great project for a rainy day!)

Marie Kondo’s principles of organization are wonderful places to start, but that’s what they are: starting points. Each of us responds best to our own methods, and for young people—who are still learning what works for them—it can be important to test different methods. It’s terrific that Ms. Kondo has opened up this door and turned so many people on to organizing. Now we just have to ensure that, like a New Year’s resolution that only lasts three days, we can find our own pathways…and help the people we love find theirs, too.

Ben Gott is an Education Specialist and Organizing Consultant at In Order To Succeed