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Why use a Planner?

Why Use a Planner

Students who are most successful in school (and often life) are masters of organization skills, time management, and planning. The amount of homework, tests, projects and extracurriculars challenge students to be able to manage a workload that is greater than prior generations. A thoughtfully designed coil bound planner and homework agenda can help students stay on top of assignments, extracurricular activities, deadlines, and daily tasks. The following are reasons that using a planner supports the development of these key skills.

Adolescent brains could use a little help

The part of the brain that helps us with what’s called “executive function” (planning, organizing, prioritizing, and managing our time) is called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and is still very much under construction during adolescence. It’s the last part of the brain to fully develop and does so at different rates depending on the person. In fact, for some people, the PFC isn’t fully formed until one’s mid-twenties. So given that the part of the brain that is designed for planning and organizing is still developing, students need tools to help them sharpen and manage these skills so critical to academic success. A paper planner is a simple tool that provides students the structure to help them know what they need to accomplish and by when within the context of their academic, extracurricular, and personal lives.  

A planner is where students can see everything that is going on in their lives in one place. In some respects, it’s their paper prefrontal cortex. When using it, students can have in front of them all of their assignments and due dates for all of their classes. This allows them to see which assignments are due when and to determine which one is the most important, takes the most time, or requires the most work. Having everything compiled in one place, including extracurricular and work commitments, also allows them to see when they’ll have heavier workloads, when they’ll have less time after school for homework, or when they might have multiple tests or projects due on a single day. For students prone to procrastination, having everything they have to do in and out of school collected in one place helps them realize that when they say to themselves, “I’ll do that later,”  later isn’t actually an option. This is how the planner supports the development of the executive function part of the brain.

There are some other great benefits to using a paper planner:

  1. Writing is often faster than putting something in your phone or adding it to an electronic calendar.
  2. A planner never runs out of batteries, doesn’t require a login, is portable, and reflects what your teacher said in class (vs. what might be wrong or outdated on the website).
  3. You can color code and/or use highlighters to help you keep things organized.
  4. Writing things down helps you to learn: oftentimes students don’t even need to look at what they wrote in their planner because it’s been imprinted in their memory.

It’s online, so why should I write it down?

Many students are not interested in using a planner because their school has a website where teachers can post homework assignments and details that they view on their phones and/or computers. While these sites can be helpful, they don’t help students see everything at once, which promotes executive function thinking. In most cases, a student has to go to multiple pages to look up their assignments and are unable to see everything they need to accomplish on one screen. This means that either students keep this information in their head or they are constantly toggling back and forth between tabs or screens. Additionally, these sites don’t let students edit or add their own schedules; what they see in front of them, for example, doesn’t take into consideration that they have play rehearsal Tuesday through Friday until 9pm. And there are times when the information on the website/app contradicts what was said in class or is out of date. Thus, while the websites are great resources, they are not great planning tools, and students are often better served by using a paper or electronic planner.

Smartphones are great reminder tools

Because of their small size, Smartphones are not a great tool for planning. It’s hard to see everything that is going on in any given week on the small screen. That said, where Smartphones excel is their reminder function. For many students, using reminders is a lifesaver and an invaluable tool in helping manage time and tasks. For example, students like to set a reminder on their phone to meet with a teacher or to start an assignment that they are concerned they might forget (or blow off). Additionally, your Smartphone can literally help you manage your time if you are using productivity techniques like the Pomodoro Method.

What about an electronic planner or apps?

Some students find great success in using an electronic calendar and task lists or apps to track their assignments and deadlines. These solutions can be very effective but often require that students have already developed solid planning skills. If using an electronic calendar remember to use all the great principles of planning and time management.

A note to parents and teachers

It’s important to remember that students starting middle school face an increase in the level of executive function demands placed on them. We ask them to be able to juggle things we take for granted, like future planning, making to-do lists, and managing their time. These were skills that we ourselves had to develop over time and that are therefore not readily available to our teens. We might have to teach or model these skills multiple times before they fully sink in. Additionally, students often have a different teacher for each subject who each have their own expectations, rules, and regulations. So while most adults have one manager who evaluates and guides their work, students have four to eight, meaning they must learn to negotiate each teacher’s demands.

A final word

Helping students to develop effective time management, planning, organizational, and prioritizing skills is one of the most critical tasks we have as parents and educators. By providing our students with tools for learning and honing these skills, we are setting them up for future academic and life success.

Lesley MartinLesley Martin has been working in education over the last 20 years. She currently works with students privately as an Academic Success Coach and is the CEO of ClassTracker, a company she founded that creates customized academic planners for middle and high schools and students. Lesley has published two books: Where’s My Stuff: The Ultimate Teen Organizing Guide and Make the Grade: Everything you need to Study Better, Stress Less, and Succeed in School.


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