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How to help students with ADHD keep their backpack C.L.E.A.N.

Read Time: 4 minutes


Is your child’s backpack functioning as a portable garbage can?


Maybe you’ve found pop-tarts, Halloween candy, and projects long overdue in that JanSport abyss?


In this article, I will show you how to help your child organize their backpack.


There are many good reasons to prioritize backpack organization. For starters, a lighter load means less strain on the body and quicker access to high priority materials.


Over the long run, kids who learn systems to keep organized have:


  • More organized homes

  • Better careers

  • And improved marriages


Most kids with ADHD fail to keep their backpacks organized because they have no system in place.


It's not really their fault -- organization of materials is usually a secondary priority after grades and content.


Let me show you how to change that AND improves academic outcomes.


Helping your student keep their backpack C.L.E.A.N.


There are many reasons why students don’t keep their backpacks organized:


  • Maybe a teacher embarrassed them by dumping their mess out in front of other students at one point

  • A parent made a comments like “You’re smart but forgetful,” instead of teaching the missing skills

  • No one has ever taught them the skill and practiced it with them consistently over a period of time


To overcome these barriers and maintain a clean and manageable backpack, I invite you to try the C.L.E.A.N approach.


This approach will lead to increased confidence, less stress, more productivity, and less rotten banana peels:


C: Create a consistent routine to audit the backpack


If you only do ONE thing after this article, please pick a consistent weekly time when you and your student can sit down together and “audit” their backpack.


In fact, the solution for most problems is to block out time and space to work on the issue, in which you can question and prompt your student to help them strengthen their executive decision making skills.


As Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I would use the first 55 minutes determining the proper questions to ask."



Once you’ve blocked out that weekly time and added it to your shared calendar, move on to the next step.


Did you do it?


L: Let go of 50%


Now that you are sitting down with your child, it's time to start letting go of all those unnecessary items, aka, "the crap".


As a first step, just put everything out on a table or on the ground if you are sitting together. Your goal is to be able to see everything that was hiding in the back pack.


Once you have everything in plain site, use these questions to prompt your child to make executive decisions around what to keep and not to keep:


“If you could only keep one thing from this pile, what would it be?”

Kids with ADHD often struggle with saliency, or knowing what to keep.


This forces them to do the cognitive work of prioritizing what they actually need for school, which is a key executive function skill.


Then, repeat this question until they are only keeping about 50% of what was in the back pack.


How is that for taking the weight off their shoulders?



E: Engage through questions


Instead of waiting for dinner time to ask, “How was school today?” only to get blank stares and crickets, try these questions during the back pack audit.


  • Where do you think that paper should go?

  • Does this completed assignment need to be uploaded to Google Classroom?

  • What can you use to keep these papers tidy in your bag?


By sitting with your child to review all the various papers that have been stuffed in the back pack, you can guide them through the cognitive task of categorization and prioritization.


The back pack audit is an opportunity to create meaning from the things they are carrying around and learn more about the projects and tasks they are working on.


A: Action-ize the process


As a young chap, I did a volunteer program called City Year in which one of the mantras was “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”


The unpacking process is an excellent example of a crisis that you can use to identity key action steps and create solutions.


Keep either their planner or Google Tasks out while unpacking their bag, so they can create action items from what they "discover" in their back pack.


For example, they might find a completed assignment they hadn’t turned in.


Instead of having them put it back in the bag, ask them, “Do you want to take a picture of this and upload it to Google Drive?”


The audit can be used a weekly or daily check-point to guide them (not do for them), key tasks like turning in completed work, that can quickly improve their grades and self-confidence.


N: Note progress


Lastly, make sure to note the progress, not just outcomes.


Our brains are wired to respond to rewards. Celebrating the completion of small accomplishments leads to the completion of larger goals. According to research by Teresa Amabile from Harvard Business School, people who tracked their small achievements every day enhanced their motivation.

Celebrating progress might look like:


  • Going for a walk together after unpacking and re-packing the bag

  • Listening to a favorite song together

  • Giving them a hi-five and letting them know you are proud they are organizing their materials


Remember, not everything has to earn them sweets or TV.


Genuine attention and guidance can be the key ingredient kids need to grow.


Bonus Tip — For Teachers!

Teachers, to encourage good organization, I encourage you to build in time to your classroom routine for students to organize their bags before they leave your class.


Routines are the soil for executive function skills to grow and your students will remember your investment in their planning and organization skills when these habits become a part of their adult lives.


Last thoughts


If you are finding those banana peels in the back pack try the C.L.E.A.N approach.


C.L.E.A.N. stands for:


  • Create a consistent routine to audit the backpack

  • Let go of 50%

  • Engage through questions

  • Action-ize the process

  • Note progress


Parenting habits like the C.L.E.A.N. approach can offer you a sense of relief, while also fostering executive function skills that will pay dividends as your child transitions into independent living.



Check out these helpful resources for more ideas


About the author

Sean G. McCormick is a former public school special education teacher who founded Executive Function Specialists to ensure all students with ADHD and Autism have access to high-quality online executive function coaching services. 


With this mission in mind, he then founded the Executive Function Coaching Academy which trains schools, educators, and individuals to learn the key approaches to improve executive function skills for students.


He is also the co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, a business with a mission to provide adults with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, access to high-quality executive function coaching services that can be accessed through Self-Determination funding.

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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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