Getting organized for a strong start to the school year

School is just around the corner! HISD starts on Monday, August 25th, but many private schools have already started. Take advantage of the first, slow weeks of school to make sure your student has a strong framework for success.

We will cover the following topics:

  1. Establishing a conducive study space
  2. Getting organized with Super Binders
  3. Planning, scheduling, and listing
  4. Tailoring these suggestions
  5. Maintaining this organizational system

Research in psychology 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, setting goals is not as easy as it sounds.

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

Organization should begin before school even starts.  Let your normally disorganized student know that this year will be different (!), and that you will be working with them to create and stick to an organization system.

By 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 conducive 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 that we’re not saying 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.

A Note About Technology

An increasingly large number of Houston schools, particularly private schools, either allow or require tablets and/or laptops in the classroom. However, unless your student’s school is staffed by faculty all below the age of 25 and/or has an insanely large tech budget, we’re going to go forward suggesting tried-and-true dead tree based strategies in addition to ways that technology can supplement.

However, it is both advantageous and possible to go paperless, even if your student still receives papers from teachers. Very affordable tablet apps like Scanner Pro and CamScanner make it relatively easy to “scan” paper documents with a mobile phone and store them in the cloud. The clear advantages here are:

  • Finding documents is as easy as googling
  • Once something is in the cloud, it very rarely goes away (even when you want to)
  • Sharing a document with other parties is easy (i.e. mom, dad, and tutor)

Super Binders

Getting organized starts with binder for each subject. Middle and high school students will almost always need the following “super binder” for each academic class:

  1. 1 binder (1″ to 2″)
  2. 1 two-pocket folder for inclusion in the binder
  3. 5 to 8 dividers
  4. 1 spiral notebook or equivalent loose leaf

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.

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.  With this folder system, 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 in.  This also enables students and yourself to check if any filing needs to be done. But don’t let the folder ever hold more than a day’s worth of material!

For most classes, contents can be simply divided into these sections:

  1. Syllabus – Hopefully your teacher will give you a weekly or monthly syllabus identifying what work is coming up and when it’s due. Place them at the front of your binder.
  2. Notes – This is where you place your spiral-bound or your loose-leaf paper. Take hand-written notes in this section; you should never need to take notes out; leave them here so that they’re easy to find chronologically.
  3. Handouts – Put whatever the teacher hands out in class here. Always put new items on top so that it’s easy to find documents chronologically.
  4. Projects – Most classes have some sort of major project that is responsible for a large part of your student’s grade. Put all of those specific materials here.
  5. Worksheets – Not to be confused with handouts, worksheets tend to be practice that students do in class.
  6. Assignments/ Homework – Always hole punch your homework and put them here; don’t confuse this space with worksheets, which was in-class material only.
  7. Quizzes – Place returned, graded quizzes here.
  8. Tests – Place returned, graded tests here.

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.

Adapting “Super Binders” to Tech

Like we said at the beginning of this piece, it’s unlikely that you’re student is going to be in a paper-free school. Short of converting all paper documents to digital versions, you probably won’t be able to get around the need for binders just yet.

Planning, Scheduling, and Listing

Make sure you have a planner (paper or digital) 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 physical 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. If you’re using an Apple device, make sure you have “find my phone” or “find my iPad” turned on.

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.

The planner should be used not only to write down assignments, but also to keep track of any extra-curricular activities. All inclusiveness 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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 there’s no syllabus, ensure that it is done as soon as deadlines are announced.
  3. 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 that 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.

Adapting “Planning, Scheduling, and Listing” to Tech

Unlike binders, it’s easy to supplant old-fashioned planners with a computer or tablet. In particular, common applications like Microsoft’s Outlook or Apple’s Calendar and Reminder are arguably better than paper and pen. There are also a variety of “student-specific” organization apps. However, we tend to not recommend these programs because of how tailored and specific they are; it’s better for students to get comfortable with an application with broad compatibility and applicability both as a student as a professional.

Tailoring Our Recommendations

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.

However, it’s also important to know when your student genuinely doesn’t perform well with a system versus is simply complaining. An organization system is just like most other societal expectations, rules, and norms – your student needs to know, understand, and master “best practices” before they can go off and make it their own.

Maintaining Your Organization System

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. Since even the best laid plan is useless unless adhered to, you, as a parent or tutor, will be responsible for making sure that they do.

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 organization system:

  1. Always pack your schoolbag before going to bed at night.  If you’re running late in the morning, you’re more likely to forget something.
  2. Keep a list of questions to ask the teacher. Make notes of questions to ask or sections you don’t understand in the margins of your planner or in a checklist on your tablet. This way, you’ll be reminded to ask your teacher or tutor.
  3. Takes breaks. Don’t forget to take a 10-minute break every hour minutes during long study sessions. Breaks will keep your energy and focus high.
  4. Pack an assignment before marking it complete. When you finish an assignment, first put it in your folder or binder, then place it back into your backpack, and lastly 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.
  5. Create and follow a pre-home checklist. 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. Going through this quick checklist will help make sure that you don’t leave important documents or books at school.


A strong organization and planning system, created at the beginning of the school year and maintained throughout, has the potential to significantly improve a student’s grades and decrease family stress.

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.

General Academic can help with study skills. Learn about our full service Academic Coaching & Mentoring Program or cost effective Study Lounge Plus.

This article is a significant revision to a piece we posted in 2011 originally written by former tutor Kate Zeis.