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Streamline the Back-To-School Paper Flood

The first day of school is promising. Your children are coiffed and coutured in their cleanest and newest. They are nervous, excited, maybe a little anxious, while you probably feel elated by the possibility of a little time for yourself or reduced childcare payments.

Surely there are a few tears to wipe away, maybe a couple of family members to call or email with the reports of ‘how big’ and ‘so brave.’ Emotions and expectations are surely running high, and then, guess what comes home along with the report on how the first day was? A deluge of paper - and this is only the beginning. Piles form, coming via backpacks or extended in the clutches of paint-and-glitter-covered hands. Stacks quickly start to teeter with appeals for donations, requests for volunteer time, yearbook payments and extra-curricular enrichment, and calls to rally school spirit.

If you have multiple kids, you'd better act fast before a torrent of paper takes over an entire room in your home. It's only a matter of time before papers come reminding you of their predecessors, which you forgot to sign and return. Or maybe you just lost track of them in the flood. What happened to the paper-free plan? Remember how technology was going to relieve us of all of this? Maybe we'll get there someday.

In the meantime, there is a steady stream of paperwork headed your way, and you need to know how to manage it. After five years of dividing and conquering a volley of school communications, I've got my paper-flow systems down pat.

Here's what I've learned:

Recycle most of it. Initially, you will see paper and think, “Oh my gosh, my baby made this.” But, trust me, the thrill quickly chills. Ask yourself instead, “Will I die? Will my child suffer or will we experience serious social disgrace or bumble critical parent-teacher communication if I throw this away?”

If the answer is, “No,” toss it. You won't even miss it. I promise. When you are unsure, invest in some inexpensive cloth wall pockets to temporarily store the papers you can't bear to part with yet, like school directories or instructions for future events you plan to participate in.

Pick and choose. Your first year through the paper mill, you'll need to learn what to participate in and what to pass over. So think of your first year as your paper priority initiation. Parent-teacher meeting? Yes. Fun Run? Okay. Basketball fundraiser? Maybe not this year. Scholastic book purchases every month? It's up to you. Select what you can manage and don't even think about doing more. Whatever you can handle; let it be enough.

Respond immediately. By the third round of requests for payments for the annual yearbook, you won't even hesitate to toss that sucker in the trash. Why? Because you always respond immediately to anything you want to participate in and you chuck the rest. Don't confuse matters by waiting until later.

Get out the calendar. Take charge and make the decision on the spot. If ‘immediately’ doesn't work for you, take care of multiple-step responses on Fridays or Mondays or whatever day works best. Then the next time the teacher is hollering through a paper megaphone that this is the tenth reminder to send in field trip money, you will smile smugly and recycle it, because you always take care of those requests the first time around.

But it's art. You can keep it. But have some display cycles that you put your kids' artwork through for maximum enjoyment before the works go to the big craft heaven in the sky (or the big plastic tub in the basement or the attic or under the bed). In the meantime, hang up a ‘clothesline’ in the kitchen, put up kid's artwork frames around the house, and hang strips magnetized or cork strips in their rooms for the parade of self-expression to come. If you put art up and out for a while, and take photos of it on display, you might be willing to let go of it sooner instead of hanging onto it for posterity.

Preserve the standouts. Your child does not want to remember that they were the last one in class to memorize their addition and subtraction tables, so throw the evidence away. But does your child want to remember the awesome story they wrote when they could barely spell about how she or her and their best friend stared down a millipede on the playground during recess? Set aside one large plastic tub for each child's best artwork and ephemera. The best time for shaking down the clutter that is bound to accumulate in tubs is over the summer, once you've regained some detachment. Sort each artwork tub at least once a year to keep the contents down to size.

My, that's bulky. More power to teachers who can make lessons three-dimensional wonders of elbow noodles, glue and glitter. Have your child pose with the masterpiece. Get several shots. Make sure you get a good one. Then ‘store’ the masterpiece in the basement or garage on a special shelf or rack set aside for amazing artwork. When the shelf is full, take some shots of the whole range of work, from many angles and discretely dispose of the whole shelf's worth at the beginning of each school year.

Share the wealth. At some point, you will have your paper trail tamed but there is virtually nothing you can (or should) do to hamper your child's insatiable desire to create. Encourage your little Picasso instead. First, hang a white board at your child's kneeling height with erasable-ink markers in a bag or bucket nearby. Protect the wall around the white board or repaint it later. Keep manila envelopes addressed and ready to mail to relatives in one of your cloth wall pockets so you can easily catch and share some of the seasonal artwork overflow for relatives.

Paper-flow organizational tools:


  • Cloth wall pockets
  • Clotheslines with string, wire or ribbon and eye-hooks
  • Clothespins
  • Magnetic or cork strips with magnets or push pins
  • Kid's artwork frames
  • Large plastic tubs for the basement or under the bed
  • White boards and dry-erase markers
  • Digital camera

You've got a lot of paper joy floating around your home, you may as well share the wealth.

Happy back to school!

Christina is a freelance writer and columnist. She has written three books for Writer's Digest including Writer Mama, How To Raise A Writing Career Alongside Your Kids.

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