As we head back to school and make new resolutions, one of many people’s resolutions is to get organized. Many of us are thinking about being organized at home or being organized as the teacher, but it is also a great time to think about a resolution to help your students be organized. Many students with disabilities, and many without an identified disability, struggle with executive functioning abilities. I talked about EF skills in an earlier post. I thought today I would highlight some strategies that can be built into routines of the classroom to promote EF skills for all students, including those who struggle with it.
1. In younger grades we tend to tell the students how to organize their materials. In secondary grades we expect them to have this skill already, but many students don’t as the work and materials become more complex and plentiful. Plus in secondary they start to move around and have to track their materials. For many students setting up systems early on is sufficient for them to learn a strategy. However, for students with EF difficulties, they probably need more practice and more explicit instruction. In elementary grades, instead of just telling students how to organize their materials (e.g., put this in your folder to go home), ask them where it should go and have a way for them to show you the result. You could use response cards to have them pick where the material should be put or just have them hold up their folders to let you know. This then lets you, as the teacher, know who needs more assistance and practice with the skill.
2. Have a strategy wall or notebook that the students can refer to of organization strategies. Have them brainstorm strategies they can use to organize materials and use them. This could include anything from write yourself a note to put it in your calendar. Have all the students work together to brainstorm about strategies for specific situations and add new ideas to the wall. When they need to organize or remember something, have them use the wall to generate ways to do it (e.g., how can you remember to ask your parents to sign your permission slip for the field trip and bring it back to school?).
3. Discuss individual differences of organizing materials with the class as a whole. This helps students discover what strategies work for them and what don’t. It’s important to remember that not every strategy is effective for every individual. Some people need a paper and pencil list or calendar. Others do better if it’s on a tablet or phone or computer so they always can access it (often because they lose the paper copy). Have a discussion periodically in class about what students feel is working and what is not. Returning from break is a great time to have this type of talk with the class or with individual students.
4. Think about your routines throughout the day and whether they are used consistently. Do you assign homework frequently? Is it written in the same place each day for the students to write it in their notebooks? Do the students have a designated place to write their assignments in their calendar or notebook? Could you write a checklist for the end-of-the-day routine or the arrival routine in you classroom? If you aren’t sure, try it. Then use that checklist for the students who are struggling. Think about writing it on the board for a while after the break so that students get back in the groove with it. Some students may also benefit from having this as a written checklist at their desk beyond the first week back. Rae did a great post about the importance of routines at the end of the year and returning. If you have students who are struggling to turn their homework in or bring their papers back from their parents, take a moment and think about your routines and systems and whether they are clear.
5. Finally, one of the most important elements of any strategy for EF skills is to practice it and keep at it for long enough for it to become a habit. It’s easy to develop a system and leave it before it becomes part of the daily routine. If I had a dime for every calendar system I’ve used just in my professional career, I could….well at least buy another organizer system. It’s easy to abandon strategies too early and think they aren’t working. There are lots of articles and books written with folklore about how long it takes to make or break a habit. In truth it depends on the habit, the extent of the change, and the person doing the change. However, if you have ever tried to change your eating pattern, exercise more, or any other resolution, you know that it goes well for a bit and then it may stop working. This doesn’t mean you throw the system out…but it might mean you need to tweak it a bit. Forming a habit takes time and repetition. It also means breaking the old habit (e.g., shoving all my papers in a backpack instead of taking time to put them in the folders). The more times you repeat the new behavior and it pays off, the more likely you are to do it again. Think about how to motivate the student to use the new strategy and keep a reminder system in place long enough for it to truly become a routine.
These are just some ideas for how to encourage EF skills in all your students, which will in turn help those who struggle with it the most. There are many more so please share any other ideas you have in the comments. I’ll be back soon with a post about how to teach flexibility which is a topic that is particularly salient for some of our students on the autism spectrum.