Creating an Organized Classroom for Spring: Tips for Therapists and Special Education Teachers

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Organize Your Classroom

Cramped. Busy. Less-than-tidy. Maybe even disheveled. What’s a school-based therapist or special education teacher to do when the duties are ginormous and clear – and the classroom is, well…not exactly that?  Therapeutic and special education staff face unique organizational challenges, and often seek creative ways to work within a limited workspace and budget.

Creating an organized classroom is fundamentally different than “tidying” – at least according to Marie Kondo, the world-famous Japanese cleaning consultant and best-selling author of The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  There’s a three month-long waiting list for her services, and despite her home focus, austere tone, oft-bizarre philosophy (folding socks the wrong way is a “fatal” mistake), and eyebrow-raising rituals (like greeting houses with her name, street address and an appeal for help) there are principles that school-based therapists and special education teachers alike can follow and learn from to create the ultimate organized classroom.


Begin at the Beginning: Get Motivated.

To create an organized classroom, it’s imperative to get motivated and thus, committed to tidying, one step at a time.  A condition of the possibility of passionate motivation is belief that you can do it…yes, you, even amid the limited resources, time and the everyday demands you encounter in your special education teacher or therapist job!

“Having devoted more than 80 percent of my life to this subject, I know that tidying can transform your life,” Kondo writes.  The world often objects to such lofty claims of expertise and transformation: “Too good to be true!” When we rehearse and agree with such an objection, do we really know what we’re saying?  And do we realize the cost of such defeatist thinking? That common phrase doubles over with covert (and rather insidious) messages:  “if it’s good, it’s not true” and “if it’s true, it’s not good.”  Without realizing that the true and the good are bound together, we’re susceptible to skeptically insulate ourselves against disappointment, and get snared into a whirlpool of frustration-inertia-frustration.  Both common sense and research indicate disorderly environments breed mental clutter – head trash, in laymen’s terms.  To begin tidying, trash all overwhelmed defeatism and say: “it sounds so good it must be true!”

For example1, the January 2011 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience included results of a study concluding that, based on fMRI and other brain-response mapping tools, a cluttered space puts restrictions on your ability to focus.  To transfer this to the classroom: if your classroom or workspace is disorganized, your productivity and the progress of students on your caseload may suffer unpleasant consequences.

Kondo reflects, “People often tell me, ‘I’m disorganized by nature’, ‘I can’t do it’ or ‘I don’t have time;’ but being messy is not hereditary nor is it related to lack of time.”  According to Kondo, 90 percent of success is the right mindset.

Motivation springs into action from an “I-can-do” belief and “I-will-do” mind: resolute and set like flint.

Let us begin.


Categorize, Decide and Conquer.

Outdated testing materials you’re keeping around for reference?  Old therapy games you barely use?  Stacks of files on the desk to prepare re-evaluations and progress reports? Intervention equipment for multiple therapeutic professions?  Working in a school setting, there’s a lot to keep track of. Depending on the time of year and the caseload, your workspace might (quite understandably) look like a tornado has whirred past.  Perhaps your inclination is to organize your desk first. But if you have papers on your desk, and papers on your chair and papers in your filing cabinet…what hope is there for organization?

A common fallacy, according to Kondo, is tidying by location.  She notes, “When we tidy each place separately, we fail to see that we’re repeating the same work in many locations and become locked into a vicious cycle of tidying. To avoid this, I recommend tidying by category.”  Before you start tidying a small workspace into breathable space for work, it’s helpful to decide which categories you need to organize.  For example, therapists can start with therapy games by gathering all games; Kondo believes it’s critical to put every item in one place so you can see how much there is to tidy in your workspace.

For those committed to a tidy classroom, the only to-dos are discarding and deciding where to keep things. The next step after gathering is to pick up each item and decide if it should be discarded (note: if the therapy game pre-dates your school-based therapy job, check with your Special Education Department liaison).  With adamant orders in bold lettering, Kondo instructs: “Do not even think of putting your things away until you have finished the process of discarding.”

After the first category is complete, move to the next.  We suggest you save the most difficult category – in special education and school-based therapy, paperwork – for the end of your classroom tidying spree, after you sharpen your discard-or-keep discernment skills.


Designate a Place for Everything

Reggio Emilia, a town in Northern Italy with international renown in early childhood education, takes designated space seriously.  While its classrooms might have more room than many U.S. special education teachers and school-based therapists, it’s Reggio Emilia’s classroom philosophy that counts more.  As an Australian blogger and former teacher describes2 it, “the environment is the third teacher” and is clutter-free in Reggio Emilia schools, “where every material is considered for its purpose” and the classroom space, a place of purposeful order and beauty, “encourages collaboration, communication and exploration…cared about by the children and adults.”  Certainly, if special education teachers and related services professionals demonstrate care for workspace, children can grow to admire and emulate that same care.

Storage solutions abound – and Kondo equates them to “prisons within which to bury possessions.” Every item used by special education teachers, speech-language pathologists (SLPs), occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs), board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs), and other related services professionals – books, papers, games, therapeutic intervention tools – should have a designated place.  Sometimes, as adults we must re-learn simple concepts that young children are taught: keep a place for everything, and everything in its place.


Put Vertical Storage High on Your List

When horizontal space is scarce, items start to pile up and teeter a bit:  shoddy vertical expansion by default.  Carefully-planned vertical storage is certainly a better approach, but it can be tricky for special education teachers, speech-language pathologists (SLPs), occupational therapists (OTs), physical therapists (PTs), board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) and other therapists. So what are some practical ways to maximize space – and efficiency?

One simple action is to place posters above your whiteboards, and affix photos to ceiling panels.  Occupational therapists, for example, can display posters with common exercises to optimize space efficiency and give students a static visual aid to reinforce exercise practice.  Another vertical storage tactic is the addition of shelves or units to store therapeutic intervention materials, books, professional journals, and more.  Kondo offers another alternative, asserting that “shoeboxes, which have infinite uses.” You can store materials in them and vertically store away with the lids.  Or, place materials in the boxes and use the lids to hold colored pencils, crayons, or clay.  If you haven’t done so, consider looking up for solutions instead of looking around when it comes to space saving.


Purge Visual Noise

Words abound in a special education setting: teacher-to-student instruction, articulation speech therapy, student questions.  In his classic The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry points out, “words are the source of misunderstandings” – put another way, words have the potential to generate confusion.  Kondo is no stranger to this concept.  Anecdotally, she says that “storage spaces of homes that feel ‘noisy’ even though they look very neat on the surface are usually overflowing with unnecessary information.”

Kondo speaks of one client who was tidy in the home but sensed another step was necessary.  The opening of a closet unveiled the issue Kondo expected: “Labels proclaiming ‘Great Storage Solutions!’ were stuck to the clear plastic drawers, packages of room deodorizers were emblazoned with ‘Freshens Air Instantly!’ and the cardboard boxes announced ‘Iyo Oranges.’  Everywhere I looked, words, words and more words leaped out at me.”  In her matter-of-fact style, Kondo exposes a mess that intrudes upon homes and schools’ special education departments alike: “Particularly if the words are in your own language, they jump into your line of vision, and your brain treats them as information to be sorted.  This creates commotion in your mind.”

Helping children with special needs focus is essential, and a visually “noisy” area could have a negative impact on their learning.  The visual noise factor cannot be quantified on progress reports, but the risk of word-overload can be mitigated so that it’s a non-issue.  Remove unnecessary labels, and don’t display items with a lot of words.  For example, instead of stacking therapy games with the box titles in full view, consider splitting a tall, unmarked cardboard box, and storing the games vertically with one side of cardboard concealing the therapy game titles.  If you’re temporarily using space for therapy or instruction, be sure to remove irrelevant information from view; for example, a student receiving occupational therapy services should not see language posters or speech therapy flashcards in view.


Last But Not Least – Deal with Papers

Kondo is stern with certain categories – not least, papers. She notes her clients are “stunned” when she advises them to sort papers by throwing them all away.  Those working in a special education environment would certainly concur with Kondo’s condemnation that “there is nothing more annoying than papers.” She recommends eliminating all papers that don’t fall into one of three categories:  1) “currently in use,” 2) “needed for a limited period of time,” or 3) “must be kept indefinitely.”  If you’re a school-based therapist or special education teacher, the chances are high the “must be kept” file would be stuffed.  For massive paperwork quantities, Kondo suggests subdividing by frequency of use.   Try inserting papers you need to reference frequently (like therapy case notes or students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) into book-like pages of a clear plastic file folder (p. 98).

Always referring to the root causes of non-tidiness, Kondo warns:  “Don’t forget that the ‘needs attention’ box ought to be empty” (p. 99).  A tidy physical space means a tidy mind – the mind of an attentive professional that does not leave stones unturned or paperwork unfinished.


We hope you’ve enjoyed these tips!  Do you have ideas on how school-based therapists and special educators can organize their classrooms or better utilize space?  If so, please comment below!







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