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Dr. Ken Shore's
Classroom Problem Solver

Messy Behaviors

It's not hard to identify a messy student. His desk -- which seems to swallow up papers almost as quickly as you can hand them out -- is a dead giveaway. Inside, you'll find a jumbled hodgepodge of such items as books and school supplies, toys, crumpled papers -- even food. His backpack is a black hole that papers mysteriously disappear into. The messy student spends much of the school year searching for materials and redoing lost papers. In the process -- as he rummages through his desk or delves into his backpack -- he disrupts the entire class.


Set aside a time for students to clean out their desks. Some students won't be able to keep their desks clean unless you build the activity into your class schedule. Establish regular times -- perhaps on Friday afternoons -- when students are expected to clean out their desks. Allow students whose desks already are clean and those who quickly, finish cleaning to choose a fun activity to do while their classmates clean. If a student appears to feel overwhelmed by the task of cleaning a very messy desk, suggest that he put the items from his desk into a bag and take them to a table to sort through. You might have to help him figure out what to do with each item in the bag.

Spot-check students' desks. Acknowledge students who have kept their desks neat. Students who have not kept their desks neat should be given a deadline for cleaning them. Put those students' names and a future date on the chalkboard as a reminder. Tell the students that you'll inspect their desks on that date -- and be sure to follow through. Any student whose desk is not cleaned by the deadline should be kept in from recess until his desk is clean.

Demonstrate to students how to keep their desks neat. Keeping a neat desk does not come naturally to many students. Some will need to be taught how to do it. As you give a student lessons in neatness, however, keep in mind that a meticulous desk is not your goal. You simply want the student to be organized enough that he can find what he needs with little effort. You might point out the items the student should not have in his desk and suggest that he tape to his desk a list of items he may keep there. Allow a student to keep no more than two or three silent reading books in his desk. To help him find his textbooks quickly, you might have him write the subjects on the spines of the books.

Have the messy student keep the top of his desk clear. A student might have difficulty concentrating on his work if extraneous materials on the desktop are competing for his attention. Encourage him to form the habit of clearing unneeded items off the top of his desk before he begins a new assignment.

Have the student clean out his backpack as a homework assignment. Cleaning out his backpack at home keeps the student from using valuable class time to do so. You might need to ask for the parents' help in completing this task, however.

Provide the student with a container for storing school supplies. You might give the messy student a plastic zippered pouch to keep in his binder, or a resealable plastic bag or storage box to keep in his desk. That will allow the student to find needed items quickly without having to take time to search his desk or backpack.

Have students keep their papers in folders. You might want students to have a different folder for each subject area, or to have separate folders for completed work, work to be done, and papers to go home. You might ask students in the upper elementary grades and above to obtain a three-ring binder organized by subjects, with pocket folders that can go into the binder.

Send home finished work. Designate one day each week for students to bring home completed work. Inform parents of that day so they can help their child sort through them.


About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist and chair of a child study team for the Hamilton, New Jersey Public Schools. He has written five books, including Special Kids Problem Solver and Elementary Teacher's Discipline Problem Solver.

Click to read a complete bio.