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Why some kids have messy backpacks

By Gretchen Vierstra, MA

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Most people would agree: A book bag or backpack that’s overflowing with things that are randomly thrown in is messy. Do kids with messy backpacks not see the mess? Or do they not care about it?

For some kids, messiness is a choice. There are things they’d rather be doing than cleaning up and getting organized. If it’s up to them, they’re going to do the stuff that’s interesting and fun. Having to sift through a mess is a chore. But if they need to get it together and clean up, they have no trouble doing it.

For other kids, organizing a backpack (and keeping it that way) is a real challenge. Messiness isn’t a choice. They simply have a hard time staying organized. That’s because cleaning up a messy backpack involves a bunch of steps. And it requires skills like staying focused and planning.

Dive deeper

When messiness is a choice

So how can you tell if messiness is a choice? One way is to see what happens when it’s time to clean up the backpack. 

If kids know all the steps, stay focused on them, and follow them until the backpack is organized, you’ll know the task isn’t a challenge. You may need to set up a system, though, to help kids remember how and when to clean up the backpack.

Parents and caregivers: Try these tips to help your child with organization.

When messiness is not a choice

If you see kids struggling to follow steps and keep things organized when it’s time to clean up the backpack, messiness may not be a choice. And the reason behind the messiness may not be so obvious. 

When messiness is not a choice, you might see behavior that doesn’t even seem related. Kids might:

  • Get really frustrated or angry when it’s time to do an assignment

  • Walk off without taking out a single thing when it’s time for homework 

  • Throw most things away without looking at them

  • Have other messy spaces, like lockers or desks

Some kids have a hard time keeping their backpack and other spaces neat because they have trouble with focus or with following directions. Others have difficulty with organization and planning. 

If you’re concerned about the reasons behind kids’ messy backpacks, learn more about trouble with focus and trouble with organization .

Next steps

There are lots of ways to help kids who have a hard time being neat. Once you come up with a system, it should be easier for kids to get and stay organized.

Parents and caregivers: Get tips and watch a video on how to organize your child’s backpack

Educators: Download these free printables to help your students and their families get organized.

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  • Staying organized
  • Signs and symptoms

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