Back To School Tips – Part 2: Get Organized!

In our last article, we talked about getting motivated for the new school year.  In part 2 of this series, I’ll focus on getting organized. Organization is another piece of the puzzle that is extremely critical for students.  Without good organizational systems & habits in place, students often struggle at school — not because they aren’t smart enough to earn good grades, but because they…

  • Didn’t realize they had a test the next day
  • Did their homework, but forgot to turn it in
  • Forgot about their English essay until 10 pm the night before
  • Left their textbook at school, and didn’t realize it was missing until the night before
  • Waited until the day before their term project was due to start working on it

Does any of this sound familiar?

If so, then helping your teen get organized for the upcoming school year could have a major impact on their success in school…not to mention their stress levels, sleep, and overall happiness!

Getting organized is one of the key skills I work on with students (the others are Time management, Study skills, and Mindset & motivation), so it would be impossible to include everything I’d like to share with you in this one article.  Instead, I’m going to focus on providing you a general overview of the organizational systems that will be useful for your teen to establish this year, and some tips & guidelines to keep in mind when setting them up.

Levels of Organization:

“Organization” is a very general term that can include everything from keeping track of where you left your math book, to keeping track of what you need to do in order to complete your term project by the end of the semester. It can sometimes be helpful to think of the things students need to organize in terms of their level of complexity, ranging from immediate, physical things like binders & papers to the organization of more distant, intangible things like appointments and due dates for long-term assignments.

Levels of Organization (1)

For most students, organizing the more immediate, tangible things tends to be an easier place to start.  But, of course, there are always exceptions – I have certainly met some students who are great at keeping up with their assignments, but who have a hard time keeping track of papers! That being said, here is an overview of the organizational systems that I’d recommend setting up at some point during the school year:

Organization checklist: Physical “stuff”:  Papers, books, etc.

  • Backpack
  • Binders
  • File box & folders, for material that doesn’t need to be carried back & forth to school every day
  • Locker
  • Desk and/or portable office
  • School supplies (extra paper, stapler, hole punch, pencils, eraser, etc.)
  • Room

Intangible “stuff”:  Appointments, tasks, time, etc.

  • Computer documents (Google Drive, Word & Excel files, etc.)
  • Email
  • Calendar
  • Planner / Agenda
  • Reminder system
  • Timer or stopwatch

College students will have a few more things to organize, including:

  • Finances (keeping track of bills, tracking account balances, etc.)
  • Lists of chores, errands, groceries, etc.
  • Filing system for important documents (financial aid letters, etc.)

Depending on how organized your teen already is, it could take anywhere from a few hours to a few months to get to the point where he or she is successfully able to manage all of these things independently.

Strategies for success:

1. Take it one step at a time.

Trying to get organized in all of these areas simultaneously is a recipe for disaster. Instead, encourage your teen to identify ONE area where they’d like to be more organized, create a strategy that works for them, and practice maintaining it for at least a week before moving on to the next area.  It’s tempting to tackle everything at once, but working on one area at a time is more likely to lead to sustainable long-term results.

2. Personalize it!

If a certain organizational approach has worked well for you, it can be tempting to try and set up a similar system for your teen.  However, teens often think about things differently than their parents, and systems that work beautifully for you may not be as effective for your teen.  In general, the more involved your teen can be in the process of designing and creating their organizational systems, the more effective they will tend to be.  And – even more importantly – the more likely they’ll be to keep up with and maintain them over the long term.

This isn’t just limited to parents & teens, either – this is also how I like to approach organization with my clients.  Rather than instructing a student on the “right” way to get organized, I prefer to collaborate with my students in creating a personalized system that fits the way they naturally think and work.  By involving students in the creation process, they also gain a feeling of pride & ownership of the system they have created, which makes them more likely to actually use it!

3. Make it rewarding!

In order for this to work, it’s important to link organization to something that your teen actually cares about…whether it’s earning better grades, getting more sleep, having more free time, feeling less stressed, or even avoiding being “nagged” by their parents!  Sometimes, at the beginning of establishing a habit, it can also be helpful for teens to create an additional incentive they will earn for following through with their plan.  This could be something they give themselves – like taking a break to watch an episode of their favorite TV show after they finish cleaning their room, or something they earn from parents, like getting the car on Friday night after a week of filling in their planner successfully every day.

4. Keep up with it!

Establishing an organizational system is one thing; maintaining it is another.  You could have a great organizational strategy, but if you don’t set aside the time to maintain it, it will fall back out of order.   Encourage your teen to identify what he or she will need to do in order to keep this organizational system up to date, and set aside a regular daily & weekly time to maintain it.

5. Treat it as an experiment!

Sometimes it takes a bit of trial & error for students to find organizational strategies that work well for them.  I like to encourage my students to think of everything they do as an experiment, and view their “failures” or “successes” as data that will help them design even more effective approaches in the future.  It can sometimes be challenging for students to adopt this attitude on their own, so it can be helpful for them to have a parent or coach who is able to help them reframe their “failed” attempts as learning opportunities, and encourage them to try again with another approach.  If the first (or second, or third) approach they try doesn’t work, that’s OK!  As long as they learn something from their experience and keep trying, they will eventually find a strategy that works for them.

I know we’ve only scratched the surface here, but hopefully this at least gives you a good place to start when thinking about how to help your teen get organized this semester!  If you have any questions about this article, or anything else you’d like to learn about, please feel free to leave a comment below, or email me anytime at

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Is coaching a good fit for your teen?

If your teen has been struggling with staying organized and is looking for more support with this from someone other than a parent, I would be happy to talk with you about your teen’s situation and share some more information about how we could work together to develop successful organization strategies for the new school year.


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By |September 6th, 2014|Categories: Organization|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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