Brain-Based Learning

Building Older Students’ Organizational Skills

Educators can help empower middle and high school students to independently manage their growing responsibilities.

January 12, 2023
Gillian Blease / The iSpot

You’ve no doubt had students who were repeatedly unprepared for class or late with incomplete assignments. Although frustrating, these and other inadequate organizational skills don’t reflect low intelligence or motivation. Like other executive functions, such as judgment, prioritizing, emotional self-management, or critical thinking, organizational skills aren‘t inborn in students. However, you can help your secondary students get skills they may not have had the opportunity to learn in their earlier school years. 

In these grades, students begin to face increased demands on their neural networks, which continue in their future education and vocations. Building successful and consistent organizational skills allows them to manage their lives both in and out of school.

Guided Practice Improves Students’ OrganizationAL Skills 

Explicit instruction and opportunities to practice using their executive functions is important for teens’ brain development. Students can apply these stronger organizational skill sets for greater self-management of schoolwork with more success and less stress.

Potential outcomes of these boosted skills can promote the following:

  • Successful and timely completion of work and achieving better results efficiently
  • Improved organization of their backpacks, notebooks, binders, computer, and desk files
  • Reduction of scrambling

When students can keep track of assignments, supplies, and what they need to bring to school, they can more efficiently and accurately do required work unburdened by the stress of disorganization.

To promote students’ awareness that they can organize successfully, especially if they’ve experienced and been criticized for organizational failures, remind them of things they might already have organized, such as music on their playlists, friends’ social media/phone/email contacts, or photos. As they think about those things, they’ll begin to see that they can use those skills to better manage their schoolwork. 

Help Students Apply Past Successes to Future Strategies

Have your students consider systems of organization that are part of their lives and experiences. Then, invite them to actively build organizational skills with personal relevance. 

These are some concepts that students can evaluate for their organizational practices:

  • Textbooks. Select books (divided into chapters) that they think demonstrate good sequence and organization
  • The school year/vacation schedule. Do the vacation breaks promote organization of family travel or activity time? Would it be better to organize the year with shorter summer vacations and more frequent weeklong breaks throughout the year? 
  • Sports they might play. Are the games with any one opponent spread across the season? Does this give a team that’s not playing well at the beginning of the season the time needed for players to improve? Is there enough of a break, especially after long travel days, for players to be fully rested for final and playoff games? 
  • Classification systems of plants and animals. Most biologists find the current classifications (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), such as what distinguishes a plant from an animal or an amphibian from a reptile, to be very effective. They find the characteristics that denote the members of the group to be clearly listed and identifiable. What do students see in these classifications that they could apply to help them organize their computer files/documents?

Model Strategies That Build Skills 

Help students recognize how the strategies they choose for organization can increase their options for participating in activities they enjoy. Successful organization rewards them with increased free time.

For students who haven’t had successful experiences yet and need support with organizing their time, demonstrating those strategies and offering students feedback about how they can use them is crucial. 

Here are some examples:

  • Create color-coded folders, note cards, or computer files. These help students organize what they need for each class and project. 
  • Practice making master folders for files. To get organized for a project, students start by looking at the various types of information they have and make folders labeled with category names they choose. Make sure to explain that these category names and the items in each folder are just preliminary. As the project or unit progresses, they go through each category folder and remove files that don’t fit with the others and create revised categories.
  • Keep a master list of all active files. Guide students to expand their short-term organizational skills with the computer or paper. Once a month, they can remove items no longer needed from each folder and the master list. 
  • Encourage the use of visual (graphic) organizers. Your students have likely had some experience with Venn diagrams, maps, or graphs. Show them how these tools they previously used, which display related information for relevant comparisons, were actually graphic organizers. 

Students also benefit from the guidance of people they respect, both in and out of school. Invite them to consider someone they know who is well organized. What does that person do to stay organized? 

Emphasize Metacognition 

Encourage students to think about how they think regarding organization. Doing this can promote recognition of their strengths and how to use them in different ways, as well as individual challenges they want to adjust. As students are guided to recognize their progress in achieving their goals and the strategies they used, they sustain motivation and exert greater effort as they become more independent learners.

You can offer prompts for metacognition about organization that students can consider individually and potentially share in class, such as these: 

  • What did I do that was the best use of my time? 
  • What improvement did I first notice?
  • What did I try that I’d do again?
  • What would I do differently next time?

Another option is for secondary students to keep a list of strategies that worked for them and how they could apply these in the future. 

Reflection is Important for Teachers Too

As you provide your students with guidance and practice opportunities to build their organizational skills, take time to recognize and appreciate the benefits of your efforts. You might first note greater student success in things such as staying on top of assignments, class preparedness, and timely completion of long-term projects. Continue to take the time and acknowledge your impact on their independence, as learners and in their careers, with the organizational skills and strategies you helped them build.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Critical Thinking
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.