The transition when a son or daughter enters university can be tough. In addition to figuring out what your child needs to take to school, you’ll have to decide what to do with the items and the empty space left behind.

To make the most of this decluttering process, focus on teamwork.

“It’s better if the student is involved,” said Thalia Poulos, professional organizer and owner of Organized Beautifully. “We don’t want mom throwing out that super valuable comic book collection. Plus, it helps young people develop discernment and organizational skills they will use all of their lives.”

Follow these key ways to declutter before sending your child to college.


1. Set a goal.

When starting out, “Determine how the room will be used in the student’s absence,” said Poulos. Perhaps you want to turn the space into a home office or art studio, and then share it with your child during school breaks. If that’s the case, you might leave a dresser and place to sleep in it.

Or maybe you want the area to become a spare bedroom or another child’s room. “Discuss that beforehand so there are no hard feelings or surprises,” said Poulos.

2. Start early.

If possible, begin decluttering several weeks or months before your child leaves home. Agree together on a date when you plan to have the project finished.

If it’s tough to get started, set aside a specific day to begin, or use a tool such as Time Timer to stay on track.

Bring in garbage bags for items that will head to the trash. Use boxes for goods that can be donated or sold, and set up storage bins for belongings not needed at school right away.

Use plastic transparent bins to hold the items your child wants to take to school. This will make it easy to see exactly what is going along.

3. Let go creatively.

Keep in mind that college dorm rooms tend to be tiny. Find out the actual size of the new space. Then measure furniture to see if it will fit, and limit the number of bins and suitcases to pack.

If time allows, go through every piece of clothing your child owns. If it hasn’t been worn in a year, it probably doesn’t need to go to school – or even stay at home.

Surplus clothing, furniture, and toys might sell well before school. “Late summer is a great time for a garage sale, and the prospect of some extra cash may be a little bit of an incentive to sell the Matchbox cars or Barbies,” noted Linda Condrillo of

Freecycle and eBay are other options for extra items. And Listia allows your child to trade belongings no longer needed for items that could be useful in college.

If there isn’t time, put the items in a plastic bin and have your child sell them later, such as at Spring Break, suggested Poulos.

4. Focus on memories.

Rather than keeping boxes of school projects, awards, uniforms, and decorations, sort through the accumulated possessions and pick out several of the best. Get a keepsake box and ask your kid to put the love letters and stuff he or she can’t part with (yet). Then put it away in the attic or a closet, suggested Condrillo.

Consider framing some of the most memorable pieces of artwork, photographs, mementos, and postcards. Wexel Art floating frames use pairs of magnets to hold items in place. Hang several of these, either in the room or another area, to remember your child’s earlier years.

5. Know when to stop.

When a child leaves for school, especially as a freshman in college, “Emotions can run extremely high,” pointed out Lauren Williams, owner of Casual Uncluttering in Woodinville, Wash.

If you start decluttering and find it too stressful, give the project some distance. Set a time to readdress the room and your child’s belongings, such as during the first summer break from college. If that doesn’t work, bring in help to walk you and your child through the process. When emotions have settled, you’ll be able to sort clearly and make better long-term decisions.

(Photo credit: State Farm)

Rachel Hartman

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