Expert Advice: How to Stay Organized and Sane, Back-to-School Edition

Shira Gill Entry Expert Advice

Tomorrow, my two kids return to school. I will probably tear up when my little one gives me a perfunctory kiss goodbye and when my older son runs off to meet his friends for their walk to school, his still-too-big backpack swaying back and forth behind him. But let me be clear lest you mistake me for a mom who can’t bear to be separated from her brood: I will mostly be rejoicing.

Of course, if you check in with me next week—once the crushing weight of permission slips to sign, schedules to keep track of, homework to enforce, and school lunches to make sets in—I will likely be longing for summer once more. That’s why I tapped Shira Gill, a home-organization coach and closet stylist I’ve been following on Instagram, to offer advice on wrangling the stress and mess of back-to-school life. She’s both a professional organizer and a mom of two school-age girls, the perfect person to offer advice to weary parents. “When I help families to clear clutter from their homes, it is always with the intention of creating a happier, more functional place to live. To me, organization is not about seeking perfection or making rigid rules but on creating a vision for how you want your living spaces to look, feel, and function.” Here are her excellent tips for transitioning to fall.

Photography by Vivian Johnson Photography for Shira Gill Home.

Shira Gill Expert Advice
Above: Shira lives in Berkeley, California. She believes in practical minimalism: “Personally, I love a clean, minimal home, but of far greater importance is that my girls are happy and feel comfortable in their space.” Her own house—a 100-year-old, 1,200-square-foot Craftsman—is streamlined, casual, and bright.

1. Deal with the paperwork on a daily basis.

“I suggest immediately recycling the majority of what comes home. Make sure to properly acknowledge your child’s work, but there is no need to keep most math worksheets, doodles, or handouts once they have been completed. Team up with your child to pull out anything that feels particularly special or sentimental so you can store those items in a designated keepsake box. Important forms and invitations can go directly into your personal action folder, or to-do basket, so it doesn’t get lost and stays top of mind. Items your child needs to reference or study can go in a folder or homework bin. The key is to deal with the incoming papers on a daily basis so they don’t turn into a monstrous pile. Five minutes a day goes a long way!”

2. Digitize your kids’ artwork.

Shira Gill Expert Advice Kids Art
Above: Create a dedicated spot to showcase your children’s best artwork. And make sure it’s easy to swap in more recent pieces.

“Register each child for an account on an art-storing app. We love Artkive, which allows you to photograph and document your child’s art by year, and also offers beautiful books you can order. Artkive backs up everything on the Cloud so the archived photos of kids’ creations are kept safe. Once the art is documented, my kids are generally more than happy to recycle the majority of it immediately. This method is especially great for documenting sculptures, collages, and projects that will eventually decompose or fall apart.”

In addition, Shira recommends having a designated place to display their art. “I let my girls pick which pieces they are most proud of, and we hang them on our magnet board in the kitchen. Oversize corkboards or a long piece of ribbon with clothespins also work well.” When new art comes in that you want to display, take down the older pieces and store them in a large portfolio book that has clear sleeves for preserving art (you can usually find this in an art store). “Between the Artkive storage, the display gallery, and the portfolio book, you should only be left with a very manageable amount of loose art.”

3. Set up a homework station.

Shira Gill Expert Advice Homework Station
Above: Essentials at the ready for homework time. Shira uses Ikea’s metal Socker Plant Pot to corral scissors, crayons, markers, and writing utensils; $1.99 each.
“I always recommend providing each child with a folder, bin, or wall-mounted pocket for storing current homework and any reference materials they need.” And place everything they’ll need where they actually do their homework (not where you wish they would do it). “We make sure to have paper, pens, and homework essentials stocked in the dining room, where our kids prefer to work. We discard all packaging and use Ikea plant pots for pens, pencils, scissors, and tape, and flat metal trays corral blank paper.”

4. Create a shared calendar.

“While there is so much pressure for kids to be registered for every activity under the sun, I apply a less-is-more philosophy and minimalist principles to my children’s calendars. Between school, social events, and birthday parties, we already feel pretty maxed out, so constraining the extracurriculars has been a game-changer for our family. We also use a shared Google calendar to keep track of weekly classes, games, events, and performances. This makes it exponentially easier to manage scheduling and logistics each day.”

5. Have your kids make their own lunches.

Shira Gill Expert Advice Pantry
Above: Shira keeps a bin of healthy, mom-approved snacks in her pantry for the girls to choose from when they pack their lunches.

“We have our girls make their own lunches each night while we tidy up and do the dishes from dinner. For the main course, they either pack up leftovers or make a simple sandwich. I’ve stocked a grab-and-go snack bin in our pantry so they can easily select a few pre-approved snacks paired with fruit and their main course. We use stainless steel tins for snacks and leftovers—Blisshaus stocks my favorites—and compostable parchment bags for sandwiches, which I buy from Whole Foods.”

6. Prep the night before.

“We walk to school at seven-thirty each morning, which requires a lot of pre-planning and organization. We pack lunches and select outfits the night before—this prevents early a.m. fashion meltdowns—and also pack up homework and backpacks before bed so we’re ready to go. Without prep the night before there would be no way to get them out the door on time. When the routine starts to slip, a simple a.m./p.m. checklist posted near the door can be a great help.”

7. Make cleanup easy for the little ones.

Shira Gill Entry Expert Advice
Above: A low coatrack encourages little ones to hang up their outerwear themselves when they walk in the door.

Shira recommends a three-pronged approach. First, limit visible quantity. “Keep no more than five broad categories out at a time—e.g., Legos, baby dolls, building blocks, a play kitchen, and toy cars. By limiting how many things are out at one time, your kids won’t get overstimulated or overwhelmed, and it will be much easier to stay organized and clutter-free.”

Second, establish consistent habits and organizational systems. “This standard starts when you walk in the front door. There should be a designated place for your children’s backpacks, jackets, homework, art, and shoes. Sturdy hooks work well for jackets and backpacks. Baskets, wall pockets, or open baskets are great for homework or art, and shoes can go in bins, baskets, or cubbies. If your kids have a lot of electronics, set up a basket for storing cords and accessories and a charging station nearby.”

And last, insist on a cleanup routine. “Make sure to set up a routine of having your kids clear away one project before transitioning to the next activity. In our home, before leaving the house, eating a meal, or moving from one activity to another, our kids need to first clean up whatever they have been playing with. If you are consistent with this habit, there will be less and less resistance from your little ones and less accumulated clutter.”

N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published August 2019.

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