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Let’s face it, going to school involves tasks that even adults may have a hard time with.

From managing multiple classes, meeting deadlines, keeping track of assignments, books, pens, pencils, lunch boxes, phones, laptops, and anything else that may find its way into a backpack, staying organized throughout the day can be an overwhelming process, especially for kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

That’s because those with ADHD are often easily distracted. They may find it hard to pay attention to instructions, follow through on tasks, organize materials, and keep belongings in order.

As a result, they also tend to lose things necessary for school, like supplies, books, eyeglasses, and homework, per the National Institute of Mental Health.

What’s more, research from a 2018 study found that children and teens with ADHD demonstrate significant deficits in working memory and broad-based organizational skills.

In other words, impaired working memory can make it difficult for kids with ADHD to anticipate, plan, enact, and maintain goal-directed actions such as staying organized and on-task.

But finding ways to help your child organize their life, especially their backpack, can make a huge difference in how they feel about school.

This article includes nine backpack organization tips, including suggestions for the best types of backpacks, supplies to buy, how to pack a bag, and why a color-coding system could be the best way to keep your child organized.

The first step in organization 101 is to find a backpack that works with the way your child’s brain works, not against it.

Hint: Stay away from bags with a ton of pockets, hidden compartments, and zippers. Unfortunately, the more pockets and compartments there are, the higher the chances are that something will be hard to find.

With that in mind, the best backpack for middle and high school kids with ADHD usually has one to two large pockets (one in the back and one in the front) and two small pockets.

Younger kids can get away with a backpack with only one large zippered compartment. And don’t forget the drink holder. This is generally on the side of the backpack.

Finally, pay attention to the straps. You’ll want straps that are padded and large enough to distribute the weight. Ideally, your child can try the backpack before purchasing it to ensure it fits correctly.

You can find some good options at the end of this article.

Once you have a backpack picked out, the next step is to stuff it with supplies.

Schools often have supply lists with required items, so make sure to check those before heading to the store. Otherwise, here are some supplies to consider purchasing.

  • Planner. A good planner includes a full month view and plenty of space for notes. This gives your child an opportunity to expand on an assignment or test so that, when they get home, they’ll understand what they’re supposed to do. When in doubt, always go with a paper planner, and here’s why: If your teen has a teacher that does not allow phones or only allows them at certain times in class, they won’t get the assignment or test info into the calendar right away. This means they’re at a greater risk of forgetting it later when they can access a phone. They can always add things electronically later, but the paper planner should be their main source.
  • Folders, binders, and notebooks. Folders tend to work better than binders if you have a choice. Binders are notorious for ripped holes, papers falling out, and lots of disorganization. With a folder, you can put notes on one side and handouts on the other. A folder also eliminates multiple steps, like hole punching, finding the right section, opening the rings, and putting the paper in.
  • Paper, pencils, pens, and more. Make sure to have plenty of pencils and a large eraser. You’ll also want pens, highlighters, colored pencils, markers, scissors, and a calculator, if needed. Consider buying multiple colors of erasable pens. That way, your child can color-code their notes, which may help keep them more stimulated and attentive during class. It’s also a good idea to purchase a large, clear pouch or box to keep these in so that your child can easily locate items at a glance.
  • Sticky notes. Have three to four small sticky note stacks in the small pocket. Sticky notes help things stand out, like what to study and extra notes on homework. They can also be used in planners or as tabs in a textbook.

Color coding folders, books, and notebooks is an excellent tool for kids with ADHD, since their brain does not have to actively engage in figuring out which book is their math book and which folder goes with it. Think of it as a “grab and go” system.

The key here is to pick one color for each subject. For middle and high school kids, this means choosing a color for the textbook cover that matches the notebook and folder that goes with that class.

For example, cover the math book in red, then use a red notebook and red folder or binder to go with it. The good thing with this system is it only takes a few weeks to learn that red equals math. All the subjects are easy to spot, especially in an oversized backpack.

Having a homework folder is helpful for kids of all ages. Any homework that needs to be done or turned in can go in this folder, regardless of the class. Make sure it looks different from the other folders, in both color and style.

You’ll also want to have your child keep it in the same spot in their backpack at all times. This makes it easy to check for assignments to turn in or double-check before they leave home to make sure everything is in there.

A designated homework folder is also a great tool for parents who check their child’s backpack or assignments each day when they get home from school. Instead of wading through several folders or crumpled papers at the bottom of the bag, you can take this one folder out and know what assignments your child has to do that night.

It can be helpful for both parents and teachers to sign off on the homework folder each day to ensure that homework is completed and turned in on schedule.

If you have a younger child, have them choose a brightly colored folder for homework. Inside, label one pocket “for home” and the other pocket “for school.” They can also use this for school-related paperwork, like permission slips, notes for parents, office forms, and more.

If you have a backpack with two compartments, the back larger compartment can be home to books, folders, and notebooks — basically, anything large that supports learning for the day.

The front compartment can hold the planner and a folder with homework in it. This is a separate folder from the color-coded folders that go with each class and book.

First, lay everything out on the floor. Then, working with your child, sort and group supplies and items, and assign them to a compartment or pocket. This allows your child to quickly remember where everything is when digging for a book or folder during class.

This step should be done with your child. Talking through the organizational system together will help them learn it, but patience is key. Repetition is important for recalling and using the system, so allow time for them to learn through practice.

Other ideas for older kids with multiple class periods:

  • Use the two larger zippered pockets for class items only. For example, one pocket holds materials for periods 1 through 3 and the other for periods 4 through 6. Think of it as an a.m. and p.m. system.
  • They can also separate the two compartments by items, which works great when using the color-coding system. Here’s how it works: Designate one pocket for textbooks and the other for folders, spiral notebooks, binder, composition notebooks, and a planner.
  • Middle and high school students with gym classes will need to find a spot for clothes. One of the larger pockets generally makes the most sense, but make sure to keep the clothes in a separate bag, like a sealable plastic bag, to keep the smell contained.

Depending on the backpack style, it may have one, two, or three smaller front pockets. The smaller pockets should always be reserved for pens, pencils, highlighters, a wallet, phone, and other loose items.

If possible, put everything small in some type of container. Nothing should be floating around in the backpack.

If your child tends to lose supplies a lot, have them keep extra pens and pencils in a small pouch and place it in one of the large pockets. That way, it’s not hard to find, and they won’t be digging around forever in the front compartment.

Plus, if they can’t find one quickly in the front compartment, they can go to the extra pouch in the back. Just make sure to replenish it when needed.

Finally, if the backpack has an internal hook or hidden lanyard, use this for house keys, car keys, school ID, and other things that need a secure place.

This is excellent if your child forgets to bring things home or bring them back to school.

Here’s how it works: Get a luggage tag off a suitcase or buy one. Just make sure it’s big enough to put a checklist inside the plastic case. One side of the tag should be labeled “to school,” and the other side “to home.”

You and your child can decide what needs to be on the tab, but in a nutshell, consider anything they might forget to bring home or bring back to school.

Each day your child can do a quick run through of the list and mentally check what they have. It’s important to periodically review the checklist with your child and adjust as needed.

Here are some ideas for what to include on the checklist:

To school

  • homework and textbooks
  • binder, folders, and planner
  • lunch and water bottle
  • gym clothes (if needed)
  • house key
  • phone (charged)
  • school laptop (charged)

To home

  • books and homework materials
  • binder, folders, and planner
  • water bottle and lunch bag
  • house key
  • dirty gym clothes, jacket, or other clothing items
  • phone
  • school laptop

Even with an organization system in place, the backpack can get a bit messy. Consider scheduling a cleanup day as needed. This could be every week, or once a month, depending on needs.

On cleanup day, take everything out of the backpack and deal with any torn or loose papers that have fallen to the bottom, broken pencils, or other items that need to be removed or addressed. Items that are no longer needed in the backpack can be removed, and the backpack can be washed.

This fresh start can help keep any messy moments from getting out of hand.

Younger kids may benefit from a map or picture of the backpack once the bag is organized. That way, when they dump everything out during cleanup day, they have a visual of where everything thing goes when they pack up.

Remember, simplicity is key when choosing a backpack. Too many pockets, hooks, buckles, and zippers can distract your child before they even get to the contents inside the bag.

JanSport Cool Student Backpack

Great for middle and high school kids, this bag has two large main compartments and three smaller front pockets. Plus, there’s an internal laptop sleeve that fits a device up to 15 inches and a side water bottle pocket.

Amazon Basics Classic School Backpack

This backpack is a good choice for elementary-aged kids who don’t need large pockets for multiple textbooks, folders, and notebooks. It features one large pocket, one small front zippered pocket, and two side water bottle pockets.

L.L. Bean Original Book Pack

This option works well for elementary-aged, middle school, and high school students who desire one large compartment instead of two. The front zippered pocket features a key clip, organizer panel, and a place for lunch money or other small items.

Finally, remember that every child is unique. Finding what works to help your child feel organized and empowered may take some trial and error. It’s OK to do what works best for your child’s needs.