Skills of Successful Students: Turn Small Actions into Big Wins

When our teenagers start to struggle in school, it’s tempting to think that something significant is wrong:

Maybe they aren’t cut out for the advanced classes they’re enrolled in

Maybe their friends are a bad influence and affecting their grades

Maybe we need to drop everything, get them a tutor and double down on study time

But many times, the story isn’t quite so dramatic.

When we work with them we often find that it’s not that they hate learning, don’t want to try because it’s not “cool,” or have some fundamental deficiency in a particular subject. Instead, most of the time it’s a few small things that have gone wrong, and have started to accumulate over time. Things like:

Missing a key concept in geometry class, which then causes them to not fully grasp the next concept, and they start to fall further and further behind.

Not using their agenda book to keep track of assignments because they simply forget to bring it to class, or grab it from their backpacks when they get home.

Doing poorly on exams because they don’t think to plan ahead and incorporate a little bit of studying each day rather than cramming it all in at the last minute.

In this post we cover key skills of successful students, and how you can use these small, manageable actions to create some big wins for you and your child.

let’s jump in!


Time management is a struggle for a lot of students, especially as assignments become more complex.But they don’t have to be planning gurus to be successful. If we break it down into the simplest time management habits of successful students, there are a few things almost all of them do:

They use a planner.

The simple act of writing down their assignments is the cornerstone of staying on top of their schoolwork, having a better sense of when things need to be done, and making the best use of their time after school. Often just the act of getting something down on paper is enough to set off a chain of events that leads to homework getting done on time, and projects getting started on earlier than the day before they’re due.

They set small goals.

They use their agenda book or planner to write out what they’re going to do, but not in big general terms like “study for math test.” Rather, they break it down into smaller goals like: “spend 15 minutes working on fractions worksheet.” This makes it easier to get started, and easier to see progress as well.

They learn to pay attention to a watch or clock.

This is one of those “duh” type habits, but it’s one that a lot of teens don’t develop. Without learning a sense of time from paying attention to how time actually passes, many students have a hard time estimating how long things will take, as well as how much time they’re spending on un-productive activities. Encourage them to check the clock or wear a watch on a regular basis.


Set up a homework routine at a consistent time each day

Get everything ready in the backpack the night before

Color code and label folders and binders

Now it’s all well and good to put new habits in place, but the difficult part is getting them to stick. How many times have you reminded your son or daughter to write down their homework, only to find missed assignments a week later?

So not only do successful students work on their organization habits, they also work together with their families to monitor and revisit them to make sure they’re working.


If you’re lucky, maybe your son or daughter takes to studying like a diligent professional – planning ahead, setting aside time each day, and cruising into their quizzes and tests without so much as a hiccup to their usual bedtime.

Well, I can confidently say: most of us aren’t that lucky.

Instead, most of us have teenagers who, although maybe they aren’t chronic “Crammers,” definitely have their moments where they wait until the last minute to study for their tests.

Why cramming doesn’t work

Because they don’t tend to have a strong sense of urgency until they are right up against a deadline, if they have a test on Thursday, they start getting ready on Wednesday night. This type of cramming can pay off in the immediate term, but when they need to learn information on a deeper level, it backfires.

Cramming only puts information into short-term memory, whereas learning it over many nights and sleeping on it (by the way, sleep is a fantastic study tool) stores it into long-term memory.

This is because of a concept called Distributed Practice..

Why distributed practice is so effective

Distributed practice (also known as “spaced repetition”), is just a fancy way of saying: study a little bit each day rather than cramming it all in the night before the test.

When you learn information and then sleep on it, you’re consolidating that information into long-term memory. However, when ystudents cram for a test, that information is learned at a superficial level, really for regurgitation the next day. It’s going into short-term memory. Long-term memory is more beneficial, because when you have a test later on, say a month later, you’re much more likely to be able to retrieve it.


There are definitely some students who get into class, pull out their notebooks and a pencil, and start transcribing everything the teacher says like an efficient note-taking robot.

There are other teens who will plop down at their desk and sit… comfortably listening (or not) to what the teacher has to say, until he or she notices said student is doing nothing, and tells them to get out a piece of paper and write down what they’re saying.

The proper balance is somewhere in the middle, and there are any number of different note taking methods successful students use.


Speaking of mistakes, the most successful students don’t dwell (and don’t avoid either). Many times students get down on themselves due to a missed question on an exam. Unfortunately, by viewing their mistakes in this way, they almost always ensure they won’t learn from them and improve the next time around.

So, it’s important to help foster a growth mindset: the idea that your teen’s skills and abilities aren’t fixed (e.g., they’re not “smart”) but can be improved over time with practice and effort (e.g., they’re hard workers and can become “smarter”).

With this type of self-talk (and encouragement from mom and dad), teens are much more likely to dig into their mistakes and work hard to correct them so that they learn what to do correctly the next time.


Some teens are extroverts and have a vast network of friends they can reach out to at a moment’s notice. For others, making friends in class can feel like climbing Mt. Everest.

Regardless of your teenager’s natural temperament, having at least a few other classmates your son or daughter can reach out to in each class is critical.

Even with just one or two friends in class to text, your teen can quickly clarify assignments, ask questions if they’re not sure about something from class, or set up a meeting time to study for an upcoming test. All of these will serve as a buffer against forgetting to write something down, missing a class due to absence, or just simply having some material go over their heads.

Even better, if they schedule a regular time to meet up over Skype or FaceTime, it can be a great accountability tool to make sure they’re staying on top of assignments and exams.


I know, it’s tough to see your teen struggle. Especially when you can see exactly what they’re doing wrong and you know you could just step in for a split second and help them correct the problem.

Unfortunately, while it’s absolutely critical to be loving and supporting to your teenager, helping them with their homework or studying when they could do it on their own does them a big disservice.

The more a student can expand their abilities and level of competence independently, the better – because not only does it set the stage for success in higher level classes in high school and college when mom and dad aren’t around (or don’t understand what they’re learning!), but for success in life when it’s time for them to experience the difficulties of navigating in the real world.


On the flip side, one of the most consistent habits of successful students we observe is their comfort and ability to ask for help when they need it.

These students are much less concerned with what their teachers and classmates will think when they ask a question about something they don’t understand, and a lot of this comes from the growth vs. fixed mindset distinction we discussed earlier. They know that in order to learn they’re going to have to ask questions when they don’t understand something because they aren’t expected to know everything right off the bat.

That all being said, these students also know that they need to put in the effort to try to find the answer themselves first. Whether that’s looking back through their class notes, reviewing the textbook for explanations and examples, or using Google to try to find what they need. If they’ve done their best to try to figure it out, but still are stumped, they don’t hesitate to ask the teacher, mom and dad, or a friend for help.

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