Getting and Staying Organized

Psychology research shows that the more specific a plan is for achieving a reasonably attainable goal the better your chances are of reaching that goal. Seems like common sense, right? Well, it isn’t always. Organization and planning time for school-work is important for any student. Skills that make a student more organized are not just useful for high school but also help with college, work, and even personal life. These are life skills, not just school and study skills.

Getting Started: The beginning of the school year

Organization should begin before school even starts.  Let your student know that this year will be different, and that you will be creating and sticking to an organization system.  On the very first day of school, work with your student to set up a planning and filing system.  The tools described below will be crucial to the success of your system.  A strong start to the school year is important, and can set the tone for the rest of the semester.

The Study Space

The first thing to do is to designate a study space for your student.  Here, your student will store all books and school supplies.  Whether this is a study, the dining room table, or a desk in the student’s bedroom, supplies and books must be kept close at hand.  If the study space is in a public area like a dining or living room, consider investing in a small chest or bookshelf to use for storage.  Ensure that there is adequate lighting, minimal distractions, and that the student is comfortable there.  Make sure that the student keeps the study space clean and free of clutter throughout the school year, even when it is not in use.  Keeping this space clean, organized, and accessible will make the transition from play-time to study-time much easier. 

Note: This is not to say that the student must only study in the study space.  However, when the student is done studying in an alternate location, books and supplies should immediately be put away in their designated spot.  This way, the student always knows exactly where to find any tools they may need.


How to use the planner will be discussed later, but make sure that you purchase one by the first day of school.  Find one with enough space to write in extra-curricular activities each week, list daily homework assignments, and plan out weekend activities.  Most students will find a planner with monthly and weekly pages sufficient.  A student with multiple activities, a job, or classes at several campuses may find daily pages useful.  The size of the planner is also important.  If your student lost several graphing calculators last year, buy a large planner that will be easy to find among their books.  If your student always carries a medium-sized purse, consider a planner that will fit inside that bag. 

Most importantly, make sure that your student always has their planner and always uses it.  Set up weekly or even daily planner checks to monitor their usage.  If your student protests these checks as an invasion of privacy (students will often write notes to each other during class on their planners), explain that their planner is not a private document, but rather a tool for communication.  Consider providing them with another notebook to be designated as a private space.

School Supplies

Make an inventory before you go shopping for school supplies and stock up on paper, pens, pencils, and other generic items before school starts.  This will make it much easier to buy specific requests from teachers later.  Middle and high school students will almost always need the following for each academic class:

●       1 2-pocket folder

●       1 ½” or 1” binder

●       5 dividers

●       1 spiral notebook

For high school students, consider buying larger binders to be kept at home to store older work and exams.  This way, the student is only transporting their current unit, and past units can be easily accessed during finals.

Creating Your System: The first 3 – 4 weeks of school

From the very first day of school, work with your student to set up a planning and filing system.  The first weeks will be crucial as you both take advantage of the light work load to critique and modify the system you have created.  It is important to be open during this time period and listen to your student.  They will tell you which parts of the system work, and which do not.  It is crucial to create a system that works as well for your student as it does for you.  These steps will help guide you through the process of creating your system.


Most middle and high school students will need a small binder for each academic class.  Sometimes, two classes can be combined into one binder, but it is better to have multiple small binders than one large one.  A 2-pocket folder stored in each binder can help students who habitually forget their homework.  Reserve one of the pockets for work to be turned in, and the other pocket for papers to be filed elsewhere in the binder.  This way, parents can easily check that all homework is completed at the end of the night, and students can easily access their work when it is time to turn it on.  This also enables students and yourself to check if any filing needs to be done. 

If a syllabus is given, this should always be kept at the very front (or in the clear display) of the binder.  For most classes, contents can be simply divided into these sections:

●       Graded or completed homework

●       Quizzes

●       Tests

●       Handouts and notes

●       Essays or projects

Some teachers will dictate the binder sections, and some students will have a preferred method.  Either way, make sure that the sections are firmly set by the third week of school.  This is plenty of time for trial and error, and from this point on, revising the system will be more time-consuming.

Filing System

An at-home filing system will be necessary for most high school students, and for any middle school students with large quantities of papers or who take finals.  This will enable the student to decrease the amount of items they transport to and from school, and will make preparing for finals much less stressful.  If this is the first time you or the student has set up such a system, this will most likely be the most challenging part.  It is also the most difficult to maintain, and you will need to help your student with this discipline. 

As completed units are necessary to create the system, it may be revised as late as the middle of the semester.  Generally, you will need one binder or one hanging folder for each class.  Within that binder of hanging folder, you will create one divider or one manila folder for each unit or exam.  The following is a generic order for one unit or exam, to be revised according to the materials provided by the teacher and created by the student:

  1. Exam
  2. Teacher-provided review sheet for exam or unit
  3. Student-created study sheets for exam, quizzes, or unit
  4. Quizzes for this unit or since the last exam
  5. Teacher-provided review sheets for these quizzes
  6. Completed homework for this unit or since last exam

This system will vary greatly for each class, but the following principles should apply.  First, the exam should always be the first item in the file.  Review sheets or study sheets, something that sums all the information necessary for that exam, should follow exams.  Smaller quizzes and any study materials for these will be filed after the review/study sheets.  Finally, homework should be filed at the back of the file.  This way, the student only needs to transport current work to school.  More importantly, they have pre-made study packets ready for finals.


The planner should be used not only to write down assignments, but also to keep track of any extra-curricular activities.  This is especially important for students involved in many sports, clubs, or social activities.  Study sessions for a large test must be scheduled around big games, debate tournaments, and weekends at a friend’s lake house.  Proper planning can enable students to maintain high grades without sacrificing busy schedules.  The planner should have three components:

Schedule:  Have students record any scheduled activities, in the monthly, weekly, and daily (if applicable) sections.  These should include regular practices or meetings, nights out with friends, tutoring sessions, family activities, and anything else that means that that time is not available for studying.  This will allow the student to accurately create their study plans and daily checklists.

Deadlines:  Along with the schedule, have students immediately record any deadlines or test dates, usually at the top of each day in the weekly and daily sections.  Important deadlines may be also recorded in the monthly section.  If a syllabus is given, this can be accomplished at the very beginning of the year.  If not, ensure that it is done as soon as deadlines are announced.

Daily Checklists:  In the weekly or daily section, have students create a daily checklist.  Most often, these will consist of nightly homework assignments (Math pg. 15 #’s 20-35, for example).  When a new project or test is announced, the work should be broken down into a study plan and recorded in each day’s checklist that night.  For example, if a test over chapters 1-3 on Friday is announced on Monday, the week’s checklists would include:

-Mon: Study Ch. 1

-Tues: Study Ch. 2

-Wed: Study Ch. 3

-Thurs: Review Ch. 1-3

Note: All study plans should include at least one day for review.

Sports games, social commitments, and family obligations noted in the schedule should be taken into account when creating study plans.  Finally, students can use daily checklists for extra-curricular activities and social events.  “Create poster for Latin Club” or “Bring Susan’s CD to school” would also be included in the daily checklist.  Have your student mark each task as complete as they work, and you and/or the student should check that the list is complete each night.  Make sure the student understands that a task is not complete until the assignment is correctly filed and supplies are put away.  If checklists are created thoroughly, the student will not forget assignments, and time management can be easily monitored.

Maintaining Your System: The semester until finals

After the first three or four weeks of school, discuss with your student that the system you have collaborated on is now decided upon and they will be responsible for keeping up with it.  (You, as a parent or tutor, will be responsible for making sure that they do.)  The best system will not add any benefit if it is not adhered to.  Over time, these systems create great habits and teach discipline.  The following tips for your student will help ensure that they are taking full advantage of their system.

●       Always pack your schoolbag before going to bed at night.  If you’re running late in the morning, you’re likely to forget something.

●       Make notes of questions to ask or sections you don’t understand in the margins of your planner.  This way, you’ll be reminded to ask your teacher or tutor.

●       Don’t forget to take a 10-minute break every 45 minutes during long study sessions.  This will keep your energy and focus high.

●       When you finish an assignment, put it in your folder or binder then place it back into your backpack, and then check it off in your planner.  The task is not complete until it is ready to be presented or turned in, i.e. in its appropriate place.

●       Before you go home from school, make a habit of looking through the daily checklist in your planner to see what exactly you need for that night’s homework or studying.

A strong system, created at the beginning of the school year and maintained throughout, has the potential to improve a student’s grades.  At the very least, it will make study-time much less stressful and noticeably reduce the amount of time needed to spend on school-work.  The habits learned while creating and maintaining such a system will last your student through high school and college and into the workplace.  While setting up such a system for the first time is time-consuming and can be stressful, the value from the experience is well worth it.  If the parent, tutor, and student work as a team, they system will last all year.