Organization: Helping Students Acquire Organizational Strategies


Many of my middle schoolers (and high schoolers when I taught there) have trouble keeping things organized. They stuff papers into their bags willy-nilly, don’t keep things in order, forget what to take to classes, etc. I’ve tried giving them checklists and color-coded binders, but that didn’t seem to help. What can I do to help them with this problem?

Additional Info:

Staying organized is a difficult task for many students. Finding the right mix of strategies takes patience. Here to answer your question is Dr. Karen Rooney, President of Educational Enterprises. She works with students of all ages to improve their organizational techniques and study skills in Richmond, VA.–Eds.


Thanks for your question. This is a common concern and keeping students organized can be a very frustrating problem. We all know how important it is to be organized, but it is also a very individualized matter. Teachers and parents often develop terrific plans to keep students organized, but often find that the solutions don’t seem to work. There are three very basic concepts that parents and teachers should understand and use when helping students develop their own organizational strategies: (1) authentic visual support, (2) external organization, and (3) student engagement.

Authentic Visual Support

Authentic visual support means that a visual is used to prompt recall so success is not dependent on memory. As soon as the plan relies on the student’s memory, the chance for success decreases. If students are forgetful, they will likely continue to forget so an organizational plan has to really support memory. For example, though checklists may be written, the checklist needs to be in sight to prompt monitoring. If the list is inside a notebook, the student has to remember to look inside to see the checklist, which may not happen. The checklist has to be placed where it can be seen. Some students put the checklist on the front of a thin, three-ring binder that has a clear plastic pocket used for inserts and is being used as the homework assignment book. Other students get clear, self-stick folders/pockets and attach them to the front of their binder or backpack. The key is: being able to see the list is the visual prompt to actually use the list.

External Organization

External organization means the plan should not rely on the student’s organizational skills, and must provide the needed structure. For the “black hole” backpack problem, this concept is useful. Plastic envelopes (such as those sold in office supply stores) become “compartments” within the backpack. An envelope can be used for each subject (your idea of color-coding can be incorporated), or one envelope can be used to store all the materials collected during the day. If an envelope is used for each class, all the supplies for that class should be in the envelope. For example, if a notebook, colored pencils, protractor and calculator are required, all would be in the envelope for that class. If only one envelope is used, the envelope should be clear so the contents are visible. All papers, worksheets or announcements are placed in the one envelope so the contents can be sorted at home. Many students have trouble because they are often rushing to get to the next class or see friends between classes so the opportunity to place materials in the correct location is reduced. Therefore, having one place to put them works better.

A consistent puzzle for teachers and parents is the age-old question, “If the homework was done, why wasn’t it handed in on time?” Often, the big picture is doing the homework and the second step is handing it in, but, for some students, that second step goes off the “radar screen.” The use of that single, clear plastic envelope that gets materials home can be used as a “homework container” to make sure finished work is turned in on time. The envelope should be clear so the students sees the homework and will recognize it hasn’t been given to the teacher.

Student Engagement

Students, particularly older students, must be engaged in the planning so students really understand the organizational system and take ownership, which will increase the chance of success. For example, when making checklists, the list has to be developed by the student and be in sight. Providing several models of sample checklists will allow students to create, and even illustrate, their own individualized lists. When missing homework or having incomplete homework assignment sheets is a problem, students can develop a self-monitoring sheet to use for the homework agenda. A form that has all the typical assignments listed by class is made by the student. All the student has to do then is circle or fill in blanks for the most part. Writing demands are reduced and monitoring is increased. The student makes the form on his/her computer so the form can be changed as needed. The form should include each class, the typical assignments for each class, the words quizzes/tests/projects and section marked other for the occasional assignment (see example at end). Personal responsibilities can also be added (such as meet with Mrs. Smith during study hall).

Final Suggestion

Motivation to use strategies can be part of the problem and can hinder success. It may be very helpful to actually reward the use of strategies by giving an actual grade for the use of a system to support organization. The grade should not be “all or nothing,” but should reflect the level of effort or organization. Traditional academic grades can be given weekly to reflect the success of the system; for example, an A = 95-100 (excellent), a B = 85-94 (most of the time), C= 75-84 (making progress) and D = 65-74 (needs a conference). The grades would be averaged with the quiz, test, participation and homework grades when calculating the final grade.

I hope these suggestions have helped and, just remember, organization is always a work in progress; no system will be foolproof. Put a basic system in place, and then make adjustments to the system according to what goes wrong! Thanks for being such a dedicated teacher!