Seven cough drops, an unopened Christmas gift, a used paper plate and 19 inches of homework - such are the contents of my high school son's backpack the week before school starts. It's clearly time to clean up and clear out because whole trees-worth of papers are just waiting to litter my kitchen counters when the new year begins. Never fear. I am determined to win the paper chase by using some time-tested techniques and strategies I've developed over the last 17 years that my children have been in school. Join me in my journey to process, organize, store or showcase the contents of that 30-pound backpack.

Step 1: File it; don't pile it

Clear out a drawer, cupboard, filing cabinet or a few inches of closet space and designate it as the paper space. This area will be for storing papers that you need to easily and routinely access. Try to have one drawer or shelf per child and label it accordingly. If you have a front closet without any shelves, buy a hanging canvas shoe organizer or a plastic file box that you can store in the closet or tuck under a desk or table. A notebook filled with tabs and clear sheet protectors is also a good way to organize important papers, especially if you are short on space.

Step 2: What's in a name?

Decide on broad categories for school papers and create file folders that are clearly labeled, using pictures or designated colors for younger children. Categories might include things such as:

  • Classroom rules

  • Grading rubrics

  • Class phone lists

  • Class calendars

  • Homework in progress

  • Keepsakes and scrapbook materials

Step 3: Know the ins and outs

Create a clearly labeled in box and out box. These can be folders in a file or boxes on the counter, but they are intended for processing paperwork. Train the kids to put parent homework in the in box and look for it in the out box. If you have several children, you might consider assigning each child a color and then placing colored folders in the out box to keep assignments straight. Ask older children to highlight due dates and instructions.

Step 4: Child labor laws don't apply

Train children to fill out as much paperwork as possible, so all you have to do is read and sign it. Even young children can at least write their name and phone number on papers.

Step 5: Read 'em or weep

Kids are usually in a race to have you read through and sign papers. They've often been promised treats or extra points for returning papers in a timely manner. Try to get paperwork quickly back to the teacher, but do yourself a favor and read it carefully before returning, and when important, make a copy for your own files. Frequently the information that comes home at the beginning of the school year outlines the whole course or objective of the class and is worth absorbing fully.

Step 6: Every paper in its place

Once you have looked at all the papers, assign them a place: on your child's paper shelf, in your "in" box, your filing cabinet, or the recycling bin. Enter as much information as possible on your phone, computer, or calendar so that you can throw the paper out. If you are a paper person and remember things better with paper, tuck important notices into your planning book or pin them on a message board. Don't just pile them up and plan to deal with them later. Avoid moving things from one pile to another. Make a decision and put things in their place the first time so you'll know where to find them later.

Step 7: Create a wall of fame

Some paper needs to be celebrated, not just processed, and so every child needs a place to show off some of his work. Designate a closet door, a bulletin board, a wall, a ceiling or some special area to display artwork, certificates, special homework and great grades. Encourage family members to notice and mention work well done. Siblings can leave comment cards on the wall or children can bring work to the dinner table for others to recognize and praise.

Step 8: Treasure it; then toss it

Display schoolwork for a certain period of time or until your board gets full and then force yourself (and your child) to let it go. I make a sign stating the child's name, age, and grade, as well as the month or season represented on our wall of fame. Then I have the child hold the sign and take a picture of him in front of all his special work to preserve memorable projects.

If your child is a paper junky, give her a notebook or small box for keepsakes. Help her sort it often to make room for new treasures. Reserve a few special pieces to frame or place in the child's scrapbook, either in whole or in part. Send schoolwork to grandparents or aunts and uncles, make it into stationary or placemats, or use information to create a family game. Preserve research papers and written reports on a computer disc. Create ways to treasure the content and the memory without saving every scrap.

Step 9: Paper cuts

If you've played your cards right, you will have a healthy stack of paper in the round file (a.k.a. trash). Have older children cut up discarded papers (not once-treasured papers you have smuggled out during the night) to use as scratch paper or let younger children help you put paper through a safe shredder. Remember to recycle.

Most schools use blogs and other computer resources to disseminate information. When online information is available, use it instead of a hard copy, so you have less paper to deal with in the first place.

Step 10: Celebrate!

If you've followed these steps, you have broken some heavy paper chains and deserve a reward. Treat yourself to a meal using paper plates or go out on the town and spend a few paper bills!

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