Does your kid leave the house with one shoe on, a handful of crumpled papers flowing out of her bag, and no clue about where she is headed after school?
Students with learning disabilities and difficulties with executive functions (the sets of skills that act as the brain’s traffic controller) often have trouble organizing their time and materials. These five changes around your home will help keep your child heading in the right direction.
1. Monthly Calendar
This is an essential tool for helping students with time management, planning, and prioritization. Having a visual representation of time is beneficial for students, and if your whole family uses it reliably, your child will get a sense of what is to come, whether it's soccer practice or a sister’s birthday. A monthly calendar can also become a great topic of conversation. Discuss what’s coming up with your child, which reduces anxiety and increases independence, and be explicit about the benefits of a calendar: it helps you know where to be and when).
2. Visual Morning Routine
This tool is helpful for helping children get a sense of time and sequence. You can make them by hand, use templates, design it on the computer, and/or involve your child in the process. You may also consider using Velcro, which you can buy at most hardware stores and office supply stores, and then, your child can stay on track by moving things from a To-Do list to a Done list. These will increase children's independence and avoid any task initiation difficulties since they’ll know where to start. It will also help kids internalize the routines, as they will need to remember which task is next and eventually, the next two tasks, or three tasks, etc., thereby improving their working memory.
Children with learning disabilities or executive function difficulties often have trouble with estimating how long things take. (Honestly, who doesn’t?) Timers help in several ways. At their most basic, timers help children measure time. If you tell them there’s only five minutes left before dinner, they may think they’ve only read or played video games for five minutes, but soon, you’re yelling that fifteen minutes have passed! Timers can also help your child become better at estimating how long things take. Lastly, timers can be set up in a way that your child gets frequent breaks to prevent fatigue or inefficient uses of time. In turn, this also increases sustained attention during the active periods. Aim for a 4:1 ratio: e.g., 20 minutes of work and then a five minute break or 40 minutes of work and a ten minute break. (Students should not be expected to focus for more than 40 minutes.)
I like egg timers and Time Timers because they visually represent time (i.e. as time passes, there is less of something) better than digital countdown timers, but those can help fulfill the same function.
Modeling organizational systems that are logical and visually appealing can help children devise their own management systems for homework, baseball cards, electronics, etc. Before they are ready to create their own systems, however, take the guesswork out of where things belong. They may not think it’s obvious that the knives go next to the forks or remember where the glasses are in the kitchen. Well-labeled areas, particularly in their closet and bedroom, but also the kitchen and bathroom, help children feel confident about cleaning up, since they will know where everything goes.
5. Work Crate
When I was younger, my dad used to say that my stuff spread like a liquid. Somehow, what began as a pencil and paper flowed through the living room and became a trail of markers, worksheets, and textbooks. Even if your child has a consistent work area, a crate or box will ensure that she can tidy her own things easily in a set, confined space. It is also particularly helpful as these kids tend to lose their belongings. Just be sure to use it consistently!
Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2009) Smart but Scattered: The Revolutionary "Executive Skills" Approach to Helping Kids Reach their Potential. Guilford Press: New York.
National Center for Learning Disabilities. What is Executive Function? Retrieved from NCLD.
Sklar, M.D. (2013) Seeing My Time (Pamphlet).