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How Paper Planners Can Support Executive Function Skills

How Paper Planners Can Support Executive Function Skills

Why Supporting the Development of Executive Function Skills Is So Important fro Academic Success

Not all students are born organized or know how to manage their time effectively. These skills, like other executive function skills—working memory, regulating emotions, focus, task initiation, self-restraint, and prioritization—can be learned and are developed over time. For some students this takes longer than others. The section of the brain that controls executive function, the prefrontal cortex, is the last part to develop and for some people isn’t fully formed until twenty-five years old. 

Yet increasing studies are pointing to the key role that executive function plays in academic success. A recent review in Frontiers in Psychology concluded that, “deficiencies detected in the executive components affect levels of school performance, which in turn has a heavy influence on the subsequent development of people at all levels—training, employment, social life.” 

Given that the part of adolescent brains that is responsible for planning, prioritizing, organizing and managing time is not fully formed, providing your students with tools to learn and practice these key skills is paramount to their success. And with the right tools, students struggling with executive function skills can succeed. 

Why a paper planner and not a digital tool?

Some students rely on apps or the school’s LMS to keep track of their assignments. While this may be more convenient or easy for students, this strategy often falls short and is less beneficial for students overall. Once a student picks up their computer or device the opportunity for distraction is high. It’s easy for students to swipe over to TikTok once they have picked up their device. Unlike a digital device, a paper planner has no games or notifications vying for their attention and students are able to stay focused on their to-do list.

Furthermore, a recent study based on 450 college students found that students who used paper planners, “developed higher quality plans and fulfilled them at a higher success rate than their counterparts who used mobile phones.” The study found that paper planners, in comparison to mobile apps, allowed students to see the bigger picture of their lives. This includes their non-school commitments as well as more detailed plans about what they need to get done and by when. With this complete picture, students can see where they may have conflicts between school and life and can make a back-up plan to avoid conflicts. 

How to identify a planner that will support learning executive function skills

The best school planners reflect the student’s experience, are designed with science-based principles, and provide a distraction-free environment where students can stay focused on their assignments.  With these components students are better able to learn and practice planing, prioritizing and organizing.

The design matches the student’s experience. The daily lives of middle school, high school and college students are distinct. Middle schoolers generally take core academic courses with a few electives and have nightly assignments to complete. By high school, more long term projects and major assessments are introduced, students have more choice about their classes and their lives are busier with extra-curriculars, jobs and social lives. Once in college, each day of the week can look unique, midterms and finals can have a significant weight on academic success and students take on increasing “adulting” responsibilities. To manage this successfully, students benefit from a planner that reflects these experiences. Many school planners maintain the same designs across grade levels and swap out reference materials or adjust the size. A one-design-fits-all-students planner does not reflect how students’ lives change over time. 

The best school planners are uniquely designed to reflect the specific experiences of each academic level to provide students the framework needed to practice their executive function skills. Students' brains, bodies and lives evolve dramatically from middle school through college and their planner must evolve accordingly.  The size and content must shift to accommodate handwriting size, daily schedules and the daily life of each academic level. 

The weekly planning pages provide age-appropriate structure. A planner designed with science-based principles provides students with the age-appropriate structure to help them record, track and successfully complete assignments and extra-curriculars.  Weekly planning pages include a space for all daily demands including key reminders, major assessments, nightly assignments and after school commitments. With this framework they will be able to see their entire week at a glance and will be able to start mastering skills like organization and prioritization. This allows them to create a plan that provides a clear path forward.

The planner itself isn’t distracting. For many students, the hardest part of getting organized is simply getting started because they feel overwhelmed or don’t know where to begin. Sometimes the planner itself can even be a distraction. Some come full of reference pages and weekly planning pages with busy designs that can be great sources for diversion for the easily-distracted student. Yet, when they sit down with a pen and a clutter-free planner they are able to map out a plan that feels achievable. Armed with this roadmap, they are able to make progress and stay focused without having to figure out what they need to do next.  

Research shows students can overcome all of these hurdles by using a paper planner. Read more about the benefits of teaching students to use planners and how writing things down helps student to remember and complete more assignments. Finally, see the benefits of planners in action by checking out this case study!

Get School Planners Designed with Executive Function Skills in Mind from Class Tracker®!

For custom school planners that are set up to reflect your students’ unique circumstances, whether they’re in middle school, high school, or college, turn to Class Tracker. Our planners are intuitive to use with weekly planning pages designed according to science-backed principles. To place an order today, visit our website.


Lesley Martin works with students privately as an Academic Success Coach and is the CEO of Class Tracker, a company she founded that creates academic planners for middle school and high schools and college 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.