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Middle School Students Need Strong Organizational Skills

stack of paper

“How do I help my middle schooler who doesn’t write down assignments, hand in reports or turn in papers that need to be signed!?” asked a mom out of frustration with her child’s recent behavior. Her daughter, Emily, was a strong student all through elementary school so she wasn’t prepared for Emily to fall behind on her work in middle school.

In our center we have a number of middle school students with executive functioning difficulties like Emily child. One great resource is the book Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare. I like Dawson and Guare’s definition: “ Executive Functioning skills enable us to manage our emotions and monitor our thoughts in order to work efficiently. Simply stated, these skills help us regulate our behavior”. This book will gives a good overview of executive functioning. I think the authors’ explanation of developmental trends and brain development is wonderful. There is a good discussion of executive functioning skills and how to link assessment to intervention

Another great resource is Gaskins & Pressley’s chapter on metacognition in Executive Function in Education, 2007. You can also read my blog article on building metacognition skills. Metacognition is thinking about thinking, and taking control over your thought processes. This is the step missing in most students with executive functioning difficulties.

So, how to help the unorganized middle school student who is “not writing down assignments, not handing in reports, not giving notes to parents that need to be signed or not returning the signed note”? I’ll give you an example of a plan that was made between a parent and one of our executive functioning coaches just yesterday.

  1. First, we created a motivational plan for the student. We needed to figure out something that will make him want to complete the checklist that we were going to give him. So, you need to figure out what that will be for your child, something that you can give to him every week if he completes the checklists that are created for him.

  2. Once we had the reward system that the parents and the child were happy with, we were able to present the child with the checklist. The first part of the list included the items that needed to be in his backpack and taken to school each morning.

  3. That second part of the checklist included the items that needed to be taken out of his backpack and handed in once he got to school.

  4. The next part of the checklist was for things that needed to be in his backpack and taken home each night.

  5. And finally, the last part of the list was the before-bedtime checklist of things that needed to be in his backpack and ready to go to school the next morning.

  6. Now the most important part of the system is that the checklist needed to be signed by both the parents and teachers daily.

The reward was given for completing these checklists on a weekly basis. It is important to figure out what percent of the time your child is completing these tasks now. If your child is currently doing these things 50% of the time, make the goal that he complete the task 80% of the time to receive the reward. You want to set the system up to succeed, so we don’t want it to be overwhelming. You actually want to make it so your child is earning the reward.

This is important: Set your child up for success by implementing a program that is broken down into steps that are achievable. So, pick one thing that you think your child can do and set that as the first goal. For many of our students, the first goal is just to get the checklist signed.

If the goal is just to have the checklist list signed daily, it means the student doesn’t have to have everything in the backpack before they take it to get it signed. The parent and the teacher should reward the child for consistently presenting the checklist for their signature. Then the parent and the teacher, can gently remind the student to either write down assignments that are missing from the worksheet, turn in assignments that are missing, or add any materials to the backpack that should be there and aren’t. Once the first goal is achieved consistently you can set the next goal.

Children with executive functioning difficulties need to have tasks broken down into manageable parts. That is the goal (being able to break tasks into small achievable steps) for parents and teachers to set in order to help these children achieve. Generally, students that are not organized tend to become overwhelmed by the prospect of the task ahead. This overwhelmed feeling is what stops them from being able to begin the task. By teaching students how to look at a task and mentally, or physically by making a list, and breaking it down, you are teaching your child executive functioning skills.

We have seen so many children with this area of difficulty that we are currently developing a workbook that parents and children can use together to build the skills. Our Executive Functioning Workbook is available through . The most important message is that children cannot do this alone. Building executive functioning skills need to start with an external structure guided by a coach, who can be a parent or a professional, who helps them consistently review the steps needed and follow them, until the external structure becomes an internal monologue. This internal monologue is metacognition in action. I sometimes tell parents they just need to help their children learn the mantra: “Stop, Think, Plan, Do, Check”. We find the first step to be the most difficult. Most children with executive functioning issues go straight to DO without taking time to do the other four for steps. So, if you can help your child STOP, THINK, PLAN and CHECK you will be instilling great executive functioning skills which will help him in school and in life.

Here is an example of a checklist from our Executive Functioning Workbook. This checklist is teaching a child to use his/her planner each day. The important thing to remember is to discuss strategies to make using the checklist successful. That is the Stop, Think, Plan, and Do mantra. Stop: What am I doing? Think: Do I have a checklist for this? Think: Yes, I do, because I want to make sure everything I need from homework tonight gets home. Do: Get out the planner and go down the list.

I hope this helps.

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