Our daily lives are made up of an endless stream of thoughts, decisions, actions and reactions to the people and environment in which we live. The internal and external actions fit together, sometimes seamlessly sometimes not; largely dependent upon a set of invisible yet highly important skills we call Executive Functioning (EF). These skills, which involve planning, organizing, sequencing, prioritizing, shifting attention, and time management can be well-developed in some people (think traffic controllers, wedding planners, business CEOs, etc.) and less developed in others. They are vital in all parts of life, from making coffee to running a profitable business. The skills develop naturally, without specific, formal training, and we all have them to some degree - or at least, we all assume we all have them.
Nowhere does an EF skill challenge cause more turmoil than in the area of homework, producing monstrous levels of anxiety and dread in students, parents and teachers alike. The myriad of details that need to be accomplished in a student's class, school day or week can overwhelm even the healthiest student.
I am often asked: "If tasks are so overwhelming to their EF systems, should we just avoid having students deal with them?" The answer is an unequivocal emphatic NO! Organizational skills are life skills, not just school skills and like social skills they are rarely directly taught. Few states include explicit teaching of EF skills in their "standards of education."
So where do we start? First, we need to understand how complex organizational systems are by the time students reach middle school. We can only be good teachers if we appreciate the demands the skills we teach place on our students. Next, we need to organization as a skill set of both static AND dynamic systems.
Static vs. Dynamic Systems
Static organizational systems and skills are structured in this manner: same thing, same time, same place, and same way.
Static organizational tasks are introduced in kindergarten, first and second grade. We break down tasks and ask students to explicitly complete very defined units of information, at a certain time and place. For example, write your name at the top of the page, read the instructions, complete the work, when done turn the paper over and sit quietly until time is up.
Dynamic organizational systems and skills involve constant adjustments to priorities, workloads, time frames, tasks and places. They are less teacher-directed and more student-directed. By 4th grade, teachers are introducing dynamic assignments to students with moderate levels of support. Soon after that we expect students to be able to manage increasingly dynamic workloads with little extra support or direct teaching. By high school, almost all school and homework has dynamic components requiring students to use EF skills to allocate time, resources, places to work, etc.
Here's the good news: most of us understand that to tackle a dynamic task we have to break it down into its static elements.
The dynamic part of the task requires thinking. The static part of the task requires doing.
A dynamic assignment such as writing an essay requires a significant portion of time is spent thinking about the topic before launching into the static task of actually writing the paper. One of the great challenges for many of our students with social learning challenges is learning to break down dynamic tasks into more concrete, static chunks of work.
Students hone organizational skills starting in preschool, when we first ask them to clean up their toys. Teachers can accurately identify organized versus disorganized students as early as kindergarten. By 4th grade teachers expect students to be proficient with EF skills.
However, the reality is that the majority of our ASD students of all ages desperately need help with homework, specifically, and EF skills in general. Help is available. The following 10 steps illuminate specific aspects of EF skills that increase students' static and dynamic organizational coping mechanisms. While these steps are interrelated and synergistic, avoid trying to teach them all at the same time. Each may be difficult to grasp and master for the student with ASD; allow learning to take its own pace. Keep expectations realistic, talk things through regularly, and probe for misunderstandings or miscommunication. Learning EF skills is a dynamic system of its own, with its static components. Make sure your child or student experiences success and feels competent at each stage of the process.
10 Steps to Foster Organization Skills
- Clearly define what needs to be done - Avoid assumption. Too often, parents and schools view organization goals too simply: "the student must write the assignment in his planner." We are assuming that getting the general information in the planner is enough - it's NOT! Adults must be organized in their own thinking if they are to effectively teach students with EF challenges this skill. Go beyond giving out assignments; help the student understand how to also approach the task from an organizational standpoint.
- Move it with motivation. Almost all students with weak organizational skills also struggle with motivation to accomplish homework tasks. Parents and teachers often don't realize this lack of motivation can stem from feeling overwhelmed by the task demands. Students with the greatest motivational challenges are often our most intelligent students (e.g., those with high IQ scores). We often assume "smart" means "organized" and say things like "come on, I know you can do this, I know you are smart." Yet, they may have the hardest time motivating themselves when overwhelmed because they have never had to work at learning. By adolescence, students need to appreciate that completing work - even work that seems somewhat ridiculous to them - has its rewards. It establishes them as hard working in the eyes of others, improves their grades and increases feelings of self-worth through meeting their grade level academic expectations. Many students need to start at a much more concrete level of motivation, with very small work steps combined with reward early in the task completion process. For example, if a student cannot easily work for an hour, have him work successfully on a single part of the task for just 10 minutes before he gets to pause and congratulate himself. Self-motivation increases when students feel confident in understanding and accomplishing the task - even part of the task. If a student is not motivated, it doesn't matter how well you teach how to approach the assignment, they will not implement the ideas.
- Prepare the environment. Most adults familiar with helping students "get organized" understand this point. Establish a dedicated workspace for homework that includes the essential tools: technology, supplies, oversight (if possible), and materials needed for the task.
- Chunk and Time it. Assignments that sound coherent and structured to teachers can still overwhelm a student with EF challenges. For example: "write a report focusing on the economy, culture, weather and climate of a specific country." Clear enough? Probably not. Make sure the student understands how to "chunk" an assignment (break it down into smaller pieces) and how the individual parts create the larger whole. For example, not all students will know their report needs four sections, producing essentially a "mini-essays" worked on separately and then joined together. Furthermore once they chunk the project, they still need to predict how long each chunk will take to complete. The majority of our students with poor organizational skills have a matching inability to predict how long projects will take across time. In fact, they tend to be weak in all aspects of interpreting and predicting time. This is an essential life skill! Consider this: Is there anything you do without first predicting how long it will take? We time map just about everything, gauging how the task will or will not fit into what we're doing now, an hour from now, later in the day or later in the week. Homework functions in much the same way. Students are more willing to tackle homework when they can reliably predict how long they will have to work on the task. For example, a student will usually calmly do math if it should only take 5-10 minutes. However, for those who don't predict time well, the nebulous nature of the activity incites anxiety and they may cry 45 minutes over doing a 10-minute math assignment. When the student does not - or cannot - consider time prediction as part of his organizational skill set, he is likely to waste a lot of time rather than use time to his advantage.
- Use visual structures. As the school years progress, homework shifts from mostly static tasks given by one teacher to mostly dynamic tasks assigned by many different individuals. We expect students to self-organize and know how to juggle the many pieces of learning that make up each class, grade and level of education. Yet, this valuable skill is never directly taught! Visual long-term mapping charts, such as Gantt charts, can help students plan and monitor multiple activities. These bar type graphs allow a student to visually track multiple projects across time, determine when they are due and how much time is available to work on each. Gantt charts are frequently used in businesses and project managers, but have yet to make it into student software for school/homework planning.
- Prioritize and plan daily.Keep in mind that many of us make daily lists, but don't always complete all tasks on our list. We get to the priority items and postpone other tasks. Within the school setting the teacher often dictates priority, but priority is also dependent on the point or credit value. Just because a task is due does not mean a student needs to make a decision to complete it, especially if it is a low value to the student or the teacher. Sometimes students have to make a choice: Do I study for the test or turn in the assignment only worth 3 points? Help students to develop priorities and understand that the most desirable tasks sometimes need to come last - after slogging through the drudgery of other tasks. We all have to do the boring work! However, even with a prioritized plan in hand many students will still struggle with actually working on the tasks. Many students with high intelligence may have difficulty working on projects not of their liking. Their baseline attention span may be no more than 7-10 minutes on non-preferred tasks. (Test baseline attention by observing how long s/he can attend to mundane projects without self-distracting. You may be surprised by how short it is!) Help students succeed with their daily schedule by teaching them to take frequent small breaks at the end of their baseline attention span. For example, a graduate student in theology found he could only push himself through 10-minute work cycles before feeling overwhelmed or internally distracted. He used a visual time-timer and gave himself a short stretch break every 10 minutes. Once he completed a number of these short work cycles he gave himself a larger reward. The key to using self-reward is to make sure the small reward isn't likely to be distracting or absorbing (computer games, TV, reading a book). Instead make these small breaks quick and refreshing, just to refocus attention: sensory based activities (stretching or movement), a small snack, a quick trip to the bathroom or walk around the room.
- Hunt and Gather. Simply put: students need to plan time into their schedule to locate different resources to complete a task. For example, research at the library might be a "chunk" they plan for on their homework list (don't forget travel time!). Check out the work of Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen for great strategies around the concept of "Get Ready, Do, Done."
- Consider Perspectives. Homework is more effectively completed when students start by considering the teacher's perspective before diving into the assignment. An assignment done well is one that meets the teacher's expectations and follows the teacher's instructions. A high school student went to great lengths to develop a computer program for his computer programming class. His teacher came to me exasperated, explaining that while well done, the project was totally unrelated to the class assignment. Parent perspectives enter into the homework plan also. Many parents expect children to finish homework before watching TV or going online. Even though the child may have accomplished a great deal of homework (in their mind enough), trouble can still erupt because it wasn't finished in the parents' minds. Perspective taking can be quite overwhelming to many students with social learning and organizational problems. A strategy called Social Behavior Mapping can help students understand how expectations, actions and reactions affect others and ultimately has an impact on the way they feel.
- Communicate and then communicate some more. Knowing when and how to ask for help can be challenging for students with social learning and organizational weaknesses. Avoid assuming students - especially "bright" students - should intuitively know how to ask for help, clarification or even how to collaborate with others on assignments. These skills are not nearly as simple as they seem and may need to be explicitly taught. Tip: as students age into middle school and beyond, most are turning to their peer group rather than their teacher for help. This helps to establish peer support networks desperately needed for success in college.
- Completion and reward. Be sure the child knows what finished means, both at school and at home. For instance, a homework assignment is not truly "done" until it is turned in to the teacher at school. While homework baskets/bins (static) are commonly found in elementary school, they are less obvious during middle and high school years. Make sure your students know where to turn in homework. Also, parents should save celebrations for completed projects until after the assignments are actually turned in. Many of our students do the work, but never get around to turning it in.
Take the Time!
This is a message we need to constantly reinforce. As children age up, tasks become increasingly more complex and dynamic. Teachers and parents need to work together in identifying and teaching any or all of the 10 steps mentioned in this article that are problematic. Teaching organizational skills takes time across a long period of time and is critical not just for homework - but also for life!