Near the end of elementary school, David started losing track of his papers.
A lost worksheet here, a late book report there. Not unusual, really, among a fifth-grade teacher’s charges. Often came the reminder: “Use your planner” — that spiral-bound calendar provided or required by so many schools to help students organize assignments and due dates.
But that system didn’t work for David. By the middle of high school, his continued struggles with organization were affecting not only his grades, but also his entire outlook. So this past spring, he and his mother turned to an outside source for help: an educational services firm that specializes in brain therapies and organization-skills coaching.
“Everyone kept saying, ‘Use your planner, use your planner.’ Well, after four or five years, it became apparent — he wasn’t going to use his planner!” says his mother, a Seattle-area physician who asked not to be identified for the sake of David’s privacy. (David is the boy’s middle name.) “He was floundering. He was not succeeding at any of this stuff. And as a parent, you just don’t want it to get that far.”
David’s organizational challenges fall under the category of “executive function.” Experts describe it as an “air traffic control system” for the brain, responsible for working memory, self-control and mental flexibility. Humans rely on these life skills every day, almost without thinking about it, whether to complete a multistep assignment or to plan dinner. Some children may have diagnosed special needs in the area of executive function, while many others simply need coaching, from professionals or parents, to develop their own internal systems and routines.
Skills start early
In school, children rely on their executive function to follow instructions, make the transition between activities, persevere to solve problems and manage their time to complete assignments. Cognitive growth in these areas spikes in preschool, according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, and continues to increase through the teen years. Executive function, Harvard researchers say, is linked to successful social and work habits in adulthood; the center provides a series of age-based online activity guides (developingchild.harvard.edu; click on Resources, then Tools & Guides) to help parents promote executive function development in their children.
The Washington State Department of Early Learning (DEL) has spent the past two years piloting an executive function curricular program — with activities to address self-regulation skills such as impulse control — at a handful of day-care centers and preschools around the state. Now, the department is planning an executive function project that will involve parents in state-funded preschool programs.
For toddlers and preschoolers, the idea is to develop skills that precede task organization, says Angela Abrams, professional development administrator for DEL. Activities such as “Simon Says” help them perceive and understand multiple instructions or steps of a process. As children grow older, following a series of steps, whether in games or assignments, becomes a regular part of life.
“We’re calling out executive function as a skill set all its own,” says Abrams, who’s been involved with the pilot project in Seattle, Spokane, Vancouver and Bellingham. “We’re identifying the skills that children and adults need to be successful and make us who we are.”
While the skill building begins early, a child’s struggles with organization often manifest in intermediate or middle school — the time when students start juggling multiple homework assignments and classes, and are expected to do so independently.
“It’s a critical skill. When everything is organized, it creates a sense of peace and control,” says Cindy Lehman, a former teacher who, for the past 15 years, has run Lehman Learning Solutions in Lake City. “By middle school, you’re into multistep assignments. You have to organize your time, your materials, your information. If you’re not good at that, then it becomes problematic for you. Disorganization gets in your way.”
Lehman and her staff work with children and teens on a variety of issues, addressing academic needs, learning disabilities and executive function. Help with organization is a common request.
An early step is to identify a system that works for the student. David, for instance, didn’t like the paper planner, so Lehman recommended he use an iPad app. (“It’s made a significant difference,” his mother says.) Some kids like having a whiteboard calendar on the wall in their bedroom.
Another key: Designating an appropriate, quiet place for homework, with ready access to pencils and other materials, and a system for storing papers. Just having everything ready can help procrastinators avoid distractions.
Such processes give kids a foundation, Lehman and other educational therapists say. But the goal is for the child to assume the responsibility. Parents tend to want to jump in and sort through the backpack or check over the homework, but where does that leave a teen who eventually needs to make her own way?
Choices and ownership
Organizational skill building can start early, says Barbara Bennett, a University District educational consultant. Consider time management: Kids typically don’t have a sense of how much time a task will take, so help them verbalize a process. Model this by talking through how you set aside time to prepare dinner and follow a recipe, for example.
“If you have language, then you can develop a plan of action,” Bennett says.
Help children make choices about the goal of a task and the steps to follow to complete it — maybe getting dressed for the day, or picking up toys.
The more families can slow down and take time to tackle this skill, Bennett says, the better equipped a child will be to manage himself later on. Not every child needs explicit instruction to develop executive function, she adds, but when a problem doesn’t go away — when a child frequently is unable to complete a task, even when you break it down to two or three steps — consider outside help. “It’s about being able to step back and take the time to think about: What do I want my child to be able to do? How do I teach my child how to make choices, how to break the task down?” Bennett says. “Instead of telling them, ‘Clean up’ or ‘Get ready,’ the two of you sit down and decide what needs to be done.”
Specialists agree: When a child takes ownership of a task, or feels that she’s had input in decisions about that task, she is more apt to feel invested in it.
Louise Berman teaches organizational skills to small groups and sometimes, entire classes, in her role as counselor at a Snohomish elementary school. She works with her intermediate students on “backward planning”: Identify the due date of an assignment, say, a book report. Circle it on a calendar. Then back up to figure out everything from how long it will take to find a book to how long it will take to edit the report. The key: Get their buy-in. Let them help call the shots. And if they make a mistake or miss a deadline, allow that to be a teachable moment.
“We want them to think independently and be problem solvers. Parents rescue kids far too often rather than let the natural consequences of their behavior happen — that’s what they learn from. What are we really helping them with, by doing it for them?” says Berman, who serves as vice president of the Washington School Counselor Association.
“Once they can stand on their own, they can just soar. Once their self- confidence is up, they feel like they can do anything.”
Kim Eckart is a Seattle-area writer, editor and mother. She has been a newspaper reporter and editor, and, more recently, an elementary-school teacher.
Tips from the pros
- Use a calendar: Pick a kind that works for your child: Is it a school-provided planner? A display calendar? A whiteboard? Label assignment due dates, activities — anything your child needs to remember.
- Color code: Use different colors of folders for different school subjects: green for science and red for math, for instance.
- Find a storage system for papers: If your child has trouble throwing things away, designate a stack — or a folder or a bin — for papers they don’t need but aren’t ready to toss into the recycling bin.
- Prioritize: When deciding what assignments to tackle first, ask these questions and plan accordingly: Which one is due first? Which one takes the longest? Which one requires the most help?
- Tidy weekly: Ask your child to clean out his or her backpack once a week until it becomes routine.
- Make a space: Create a bin of homework supplies and designate a distraction-free homework space.
- Take short breaks: Decide how much time your child can spend on an assignment in one sitting and take a break if necessary.
— Louise Berman, Barbara Bennett, Cindy Lehman, from Scholastic