Teaching Students How to Succeed Means Teaching Them How to Plan

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

Sometimes the most obvious things in life are the things we forget to teach students.

I am from Utah, so I grew up in the heyday of the Franklin Quest planners, with every adult carrying a 3″ thick planner and their entire lives planned out to the 30 minutes. No one ever questioned this behavior. It was normal.

Today we keep this information on our phones and we set alarms. This awesome, except it is FAR too easy for us to get lazy with our planning. I personally have moved back to a paper and pencil solution, which is what inspired me to make these planners.


Based on experience and a surprisingly deep google search, here are the skills students need to learn to be successful in the modern economy (info from about 5 websites mashed together):

Adaptive Thinking: In the digital age, the economy is changing at an exponential rate. By the time employees learn the newest software or program, a better version is coming about. Future employers will need to continuously adapt to changing conditions as well as be able to learn new things quickly and efficiently. We need our students to learn how to learn.

Communication Skills: There continues to be an emphasis on the ability to communicate. In the digital age, however, we have access to a wide variety of new ways to communicate from video-conferencing to social media. Future employers need to be able to communicate with people within their team, as well as people outside of the team and organization.

Collaboration Skills: Most classrooms foster a culture of competition and independence rather than one of teamwork and collaboration. Future employers will need to quickly adapt to a culture of collaboration. They will need to collaborate with others within and outside of the organization, often using a number of new technologies.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills: There is a decreased emphasis on employers following directions and an increased emphasis on employers thinking critically and solving problems. In a rapidly changing world, employers need employees who can solve problems, provide ideas and help improve the organization.

Personal Management: This includes the ability for employees to independently plan, organize, create and execute, rather than wait for someone to do this for them.

Inquiry Skills: The large majority of academic assessments ask students for answers. Rarely do we assess students on how well they can ask questions. The ability to ask great questions, however, is a critical skill that is desperately needed in a culture which requires constant innovations.

Technology Skills: Employers will need to be skilled at using technology. In the digital age, technology is everywhere. Schools, however, have been slow to adapt to this change. Rarely are students required or taught to learn technology efficiently. This needs to be emphasized.

Creativity and Innovation: This skill correlates with the ability to ask good questions and the ability to problem solve. Employers will be looking to employees more and more for creative and innovative solutions to issues that exist.

Soft Skills: Schools rarely spend time teaching students soft skills, including skills such as time management skills, organizational skills, the ability to be confident when presenting information to others, or even using an appropriate handshake. Business leaders suggest that these skills seem to be disappearing.

Empathy and Perspective: Although this skill has always been important, it seems to be another one that is slowly disappearing. The ability for our students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand their feelings, and to help solve their problems.

I will focus on Personal Management and, to a lesser extent, Soft Skills as described above as pertaining to time management and organizational skills. More specifically, how appropriate use of a schedule / planner helps us achieve our goals.

How To Achieve the Six Ps

Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. – US Army

At First, I Assumed My Students Knew How To Use Planners

In teaching a class of difficult students in a Small Group Autism classroom consisting mainly of students with standard intelligence and severe behavioral problems, my first goal was to teach them how to succeed if I sent them to a mainstream setting.

When I started planning my class procedures, the first thing I wanted to do was a daily planner. I wanted for each student every morning to copy the plan for the day from the board on to their own planning page. I felt passionate about this because I always felt it was cheating to give a student a picture schedule if they were able to make their own.

Well, it was a monumental failure. Students melted down. Tantrums erupted. Students feigned tremors and illness to get out of this task. Paraeducators were attacked. So I had to scrap it temporarily.


So where did I go wrong?

I forgot to teach the students why they wanted this. Why they needed it. How it would make them more comfortable in class. How it would give them security and control. Basically, I forgot to show them why they should care.

They fought me because it looked arbitrary since they were used to just doing what the teacher said. They did not keep track of the day. They just floated. They were always anxiously awaiting a command. Not a healthy situation for a class full of autistic kids.

No wonder this was a class notorious for being explosive and having poor transitions. They were stuck in a holding pattern, only to be broken by the word of a teacher.


My Second Attempt: This Time I Explicitly Taught Planning Skills

I set out to teach the students why they cared. I showed them my teacher planning book on my desk. I let them see that I had a time written down by each thing I planned to do. I was not arbitrary with when things began and when they ended. I had planned it.

I put the schedule up on the board and showed them that the schedule had times on it as well as what was happening (My whiteboard schedule can be found here on Teachers Pay Teachers). I showed that this matched my planning book. I challenged the kids to confront me if I strayed from the schedule by more than 5 minutes without apologizing first and justifying the delay.

After a week of being explicit with my scheduling, I started to ask the students to read the schedule in the morning. They would read what time the next task was going to happen. They liked this. Helped them organize their day and made school expectations more predictable and therefore more calming.

The next step was initiated by the students. They wanted their schedule like my book. So I made some different laminated schedules they could write on in the morning with EXPO markers. I made a different one from that used at the beginning of the year just to avoiding remembering of the trauma of the first few weeks of school. I would wash the schedules off after school in the sink so they could be used over and over again.

To teach how to use this schedule, I used explicit / direct instruction for each item. I read aloud the time. Had them write it down. Then went to the task. I spelled out everything for them. They were successful. The showed ownership and significant buy-in.

They loved having their schedule and would actually look at their desks to see what they had to do next rather than the class schedule on the board. They took ownership of it. By the end they loved planning out their day. Some even took the initiative to keep track of their classroom points on their planner so they knew how good they needed to be to earn iPad time.

My Planners

My approach now is to explicitly teach how to use a scholastic planner. My first class needed to learn the gateway drug for planners, which was how to write their schedule. Now we move on to planning out our time and keeping track of things across days.

To accomplish this the way I feel is best, I developed a planning tool. There is one for elementary (K-5th grade) students (Teachers Pay Teachers Link), another for Middle School (6th-8th grade) students (Teachers Pay Teachers Link), and High School (9-12th grade) students – or even college students come to think of it (Teachers Pay Teachers Link).

Now, I will be talking about my planners I have available for sale, but the teaching methods I will discuss can be used with any planner. My methods apply to Panda Planners, Moleskine Planners, a K-Mart blue light special, one from May Designs (my last planner before I made my own), or the stripped down planner that many schools give out to all students (examples from a wholesaler here).

Pages available in all planners

All of these previews show two facing pages. This is to demonstrate that I have set up the margins so these planners can be placed in a three-ring binder, disc bound, spiral bound, or any other binding method.


The first page has a year in review section that can be used to orient the student in the school year:

middle-year.png

A Monthly View covering two pages for general info (holidays, school half days, birthdays, etc):

elementary-month.png

There are planning pages for projects. In today’s environment of project-based learning (PBL; link), it is critical we teach our students at a young age how to break large projects down into smaller projects and complete each step in turn.

elementary-additional.png

Finally, there are pages to help students keep track of books they have read. This page can be useful for helping students understand how great of readers they are! Personally, I would have killed for this. I kept my list on a bunch of sheets of notebook paper in a plain easy to lose (and often lost for weeks at a time) binder.

Elementary (K-5 based on Common Core State Standards)

For Elementary Students it is a relatively simple planner. In addition to the calendar, project, and book pages, there is a homework tracker with a due date column and a checkbox for whether assignments were completed, as well as a good habit tracker. Each week fits across two facing pages. Students can keep track of every day they read at least 20 minutes, get at least 10 minutes of exercise, and there’s even room for students to set good habits they want to build:

elementary-homework.png

Intermediate/Middle School (Grades 6-8 based on CCSS)

For Intermediate/Middle School Students it is a slightly more complicated planner. In addition to the calendar, project, and book pages, there is a homework / study planner, as well as a week at a glance schedule to keep track of their school day. This helps the students to plan for multiple deadlines and other complications of an A-B schedule.

middle-homework.png

The building good habits section is updated so students can keep track of every day they read at least 30 minutes, get at least 20 minutes of exercise, and there’s even room for students to set their own good habits they want to build.

There is an additional project planner that allows for group project planning to help keep groups organized and on task to complete their projects.

middle-additional.png

High School (Grades 9-12 based on CCSS)

In High School, things get more freeform and modular for the needs of the student. The weekly Homework / Study Planner and Daily Schedule are the same as for the Middle School planner, except that the weekly schedule has more hours available for planning.

high-week.png

Two daily tracker pages are added. Students can plan their classes, tasks, study needs, and celebrations (woohoo, I finished my math homework!). There is also a 30-day Habit Tracker to keep track of whatever good habits the student wants to create.

hs-daily-habit.png

Also for the High School planner, there are a bunch of note taking pages. They come in Cornell and the typical note-taking styles, as well as a bullet-journal format. These forms let the student create additional pages for taking notes or anything else they feel they need to organize their life.

I personally would teach the awesomeness that is checklists using these different forms – particularly the Cornell formatted graph pages.

hs-cornell-lined.png

hs-cornell-graph.png

hs-cornell-blank.png

hs-dotted.png

hs-graph.png

hs-lined.png

How to Use These Planners

Basics

  • Although I have separate planners for K-5th grade, Middle School, and High School aged students, you may find your needs different. Take that into consideration. Full previews are available on Teachers Pay Teachers as well as the example facing pages shown above
  • Formatting allows for a week over two two pages
    • You have full freedom to organize pages how you want since odd and even pages designs are provided
    • Using Adobe PDF reader or Apple Preview, you should be able to duplicate pages, move pages around, and adapt the pdf to your needs

Printing and Binding

  • Pages are intended to be printed two-sided
  • Pages are designed so a week covers facing pages
  • Margins have been adjusted to allow for multiple types of binding
    • Hole punch / 3-Ring Binder
    • Spiral bound
    • Wire bound
    • Disc bound
    • Send to a printer and get it bound any other way you like

Important note:  I am willing to make myself available to help tweak anything so the margins are correct in a PDF so each week is on two facing pages, so there is no need to worry about something not working. I am here to help you.

How to Teach Students to Effectively Plan

To teach students how to use planners, I will unpack my methods above and put them into the context of explicit instruction. The key to explicit instruction is that the task is broken down and taught point for point so no element is misunderstood or neglected.

Anita Archer, one of the originators and proponents of this method (videos of her methods can be viewed here), simplifies explicit instruction into three steps: I do, We do, You do. This means the teacher models the material / lesson, there is a guided practice wherein the teacher and class work together to complete the task to mastery, and finally (if and only if mastery has been obtained during guided practice) independent practice wherein the students complete tasks on there own with teacher support to ensure student success.


For teaching how to use a planner, the steps are as follows. I will focus on teaching elementary-aged students how to use the associated planner. The same procedure can be followed for the more complex planners, but it will be a more time-intensive process.

I do

The first step can take a number of forms. I showed my students my planner and explained that my planner was what determined our daily schedule.

More to the point would be to explicitly model a planner identical to the students. To do this, I would use some kind of a projection system to show the planner in front of class and I would talk out loud about why I am writing what I am. Also, I would write in the planner instead of use a computer to type. If the kids have to write, then I write.

So for the K-5th grade elementary planner, I would go through each subject and ask myself out loud if I had any homework assignments. If so, I would write them in the space as well as when they were due to be turned in. I would also state that I had not turned it in, so. would not check off the Done box.

The next day I would go through the previous day’s planner and ask myself out loud if I had turned in anything that was due. If so, I would check it off. If not, I would write it again on today’s planner. I also would go through the section involving habits, marking down if I read 20 minutes and / or got 10 minutes of exercise.

We do (We do, We do, We do, We do … )

After a few days of my showing the students how to use their planners by me directly showing them how I use their planners, we would start filling them out as a class. To do this step, I would start again by projecting my planner, but this time I would have all the students pull theirs out as well. If there are students that need adaptations, I would provide it, be it stickers that can be used instead of writing or a scribe to write for them.

Now, I would speak out loud the name of the first category and ask the students if there is any assigned homework. By raise of hand or random selection I would have them respond yes or no, and if yes tell me what it is. I would then write it down, verbally speaking it letter by letter so all students can get it written correctly. Same for the due date.

The next day we would go through the procedure described above as well. I would read off the category that there was homework in and I would have students check if they had turned it in or not. We also would fill out the 20 minutes of reading and 10 minutes of exercise portions.

I have to emphasize here and I would emphasize it to the students, this section is not for me  to grade and not for credit, it is for them to keep track of good habits so they can feel pride in their accomplishments.

I am not a proponent of making kids get planners signed as an assignment, I prefer to teach them that I trust them to motivate them to be truthful. 

Basically, we would go over our planner for 5 minutes as a class first thing in the morning at school as part of morning procedure and we would go over it again for 10-15 minutes within the last 30 minutes of the day as a class. Importantly, we will do this as a class as long as is necessary for students to be successful. If that means all year, then great.

You do

Students that do not need my support can move to this You do section and then read a book or draw a picture after they finish. They can use what the class comes up with as a check to their work on the planner.

In this step, I verify with the student that they feel they are able to perform all the tasks associated with filling out the planner on their own. I then remind them if they get stuck, they can look up at the board. I am there to help them and all I ask is they do they best.

How I have seen it done

I have seen these methods used explicitly in a school I worked in a few years ago. All the teachers in the school were tasked with making the school’s planners effective. The teachers banded together and came up with the following plan:

They would set apart a time in the early afternoon to dedicate 15 minutes to planners. The teachers projected the planners on the board using an Elmo (lower grades) or just wrote what to enter in the planner on the white board (for the upper grades). All homework due and assignments completed were written in the planners. Their planners had an hour by hour planner as well, so they wrote down at what time of day they did which academic tasks (including recesses and lunch). Students also write down if they received any disciplinary actions through the school wide PBiS system.

The result was that students started turning in their homework. This was ensured by asking parents to sign or initial the day’s planner page for the student to receive credit for reading for 20 minutes each day, which was worth class cash that could be used at school wide auctions for prizes and opportunities like extra recess. The parents incidentally saw there was necessary homework and ensured the kids did it and turned it in.

Broader Implications of Planners

I think there is a lot we can accomplish by teaching students how to plan. I will provide a few examples below, focusing on how I have used planners to help students achieve success.

Planners as a component of MTSS / PBiS / 504 Plans

The example I gave above for the school wide use of planners was an explicit part of their school wide PBiS system. The principal needed a unifying element to the school and decided that a planner that could be used by everyone and was universally applied could only help. Importantly, she left the implementation steps to the teachers to discuss and agree upon rather than dictating how it should be done. The teachers decided upon the explicit / direct instruction model.


I have also been a part of implementing the use of a daily planner as part of a 504 plan for a student with a severe anxiety disorder. She was not able to handle any insecurity in her day and was driving the teacher into a fury by asking about every single minute of the day what was going to happen next and was there going to be any homework. This girl was very highly accomplished academically, but she was unable to function in school because her anxiety was getting the better of her. She did not have a disability as defined by IDEA (2004), but she did qualify for a 504 plan under the American Disabilities Act.

My plan was simple. I gave her a cheap planner I found at Wal-Mart and showed her how to use it. I asked the teacher to simply scrawl on a piece of paper what the day was going to look like and hand it to this girl for her to do as her morning work. The teacher was resistant because of the annoyance of doing her planning and then copying it for a student. However, I explained 10 minutes of writing was a lot less frustrating than 6.5 hours of questions. As soon as I said this the teacher was on board. She photocopied her planning book each day and gave the page to this girl.

I gave the girl some nice gel pens for her planner and told her she had to keep track of her own day because I had told the teacher not to answer when she asked what was happening next. I wanted her to keep track instead. She agreed and started filling out the planner. I also instructed her to take the planner to the teacher to get a stamp to verify it was completed and correct and to get credit for her morning work.

This was all the girl needed. She was able to sit in class and do her work. She flipped to the day in her planner every 5 minutes or so at first, but after a month or so she would just check her planner when she finished her work so she knew how long she had until the next task would begin.


As a component of MTSS, a planner can be used as a Tier 2 intervention for students that cannot complete their work and turn in only incomplete assignments, if anything. The 20 minute small group instruction can be spent with a teacher, paraprofessional, or volunteer helping the student organize their work into folders and writing in the planner. Simple rewards can be set up for both turning in work as well as filling out the planner. In this case, I would have the teacher mark if something was turned in and the student as well. Every 10 checks for homework turned in or so I would set up a reward.

This is just a slightly more covert version of a daily contract, and that is how I want it. I want the student to internalize success being a result of good planning rather than because the teacher intervened.

How to Use Planners as a Component of an IEP

I have also used a simplified planner as a sort of contract in a Resource class. My students loved to come to my room, but they were scared to hand in their homework to their teacher. They did not want the attention of getting things wrong as they were accustomed. However, they were now getting everything correct on their work. This was my solution to that problem.

For 5 minutes of a 45 minute resource session we filled out our planners and the students got a stamp when they turned in their work. They got some 1:1 time with me during a recess period if they received 5 stamps (5 days of homework being turned in).

I followed the above steps for how to teach a planner precisely, simply limiting it to homework and handing it in. Worked like a charm.


I see picture schedules put into IEPs all the time. Sadly, I rarely see them appropriately administered. I see the student given a list of Velcro strips with icons, but no times or additional information provided. Often, I see the teachers just give a completed schedule to the student and never addressing it in class.

Can you tell me what any of this really means? 

As I said above, I am not a fan of giving a student a picture schedule if they can make their own. So here is how I would do it. I would have icons of clocks at the times things begin and icons for each subject. I would also provide stickers or templates for tracing any homework into a planner. As the class is filling out a planner, the student would put together their own picture schedule. They would also fill in any homework they have using whatever adaptations are necessary for them to be successful.

This way the teacher does not just hand out a schedule. The student has to make the schedule. Not only does this provide anxiety reduction by having a schedule, but also the student now knows when things are going to happen because they set it up themselves.

Applications for Autism

For autism, we can always do the last example I provided above if they need picture schedules. The vignette I provided to start this blog was in a class of autistic students. So I can say from experience,  planners work.

It is my personal opinion that we do not empower autistic students to have control in schools. In fact, we often teach them that they are wrong to want things highly organized and they are wrong to complain when schedules are ignored. This is wrong.

In the real world, schedules have to be followed. Work has to be completed as scheduled. Appointments cannot be missed. And no one will come to our houses to pick us up for meetings if we are busy.

For the autistic student, here is how I propose we use planners.

  • We teach them the importance of having a planner and explicitly inform them that the planner is a way to make the world predictable and stable.
  • We teach them how to fill out the planner with any adaptations they may need to be successful using explicit instruction as described above.
    • We provide incentives for the students filling out the planners a first to shape their behavior because, from experience, at first all kids hate filling out planners.
    • We also provide menial homework so the students can feel the success of checking off completed items
  • When students have their schedules, we can give them timers, watches, etc to empower them to keep track of time and transitions.
    • As a side note, I have found 99% of issues with transitions are not that the student does not want to transition, they only get a 1 minute warning and that is not long enough to change mindset to a new task
    • We give the students rewards or opportunities to engage in fun activities when they use their planners and have successful days
    • When students fail, we reteach and help them. This is a life skill after all and they need to learn how to take the reigns of their own lives and cut any dependence on teachers

The most important part of this plan when working with autism, is that the teachers have to be 100% compliant with their schedules If they are midway through a hard lesson, they need to stop the task to timetable and begin it again the next day. This is the only way we can help these students succeed.

Conclusion

If we want students to gain independence, we must teach them how to write things down. Checklists. Schedules. Planners.

 

If we teach them to plan for themselves, they will make it to job interviews on time. They will complete their projects on time. They will contribute to the economy. It is that simple. All that is required is that we teach them how to do it.


Please feel free to send me your comments, anecdotes, and ideas below!

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