School Organization TechniquesThere can be a mismatch between routines, systems, and tools that work for parents and those that work for their children. Parents and teachers often make assumptions based on what they can do, perceive, or process. “If I can do it, you can too.” They believe that “practice makes perfect.” However, we cannot all do, perceive, or process in the same way and that variation among us is okay, it’s normal. This often leads to a great deal of frustration on all sides. When working with middle and high school students I use a video game metaphor. The conversation usually goes like this: Mom is a Wii and you are an Xbox. What happens if you take a Wii game and put it in the Xbox? Answer: It doesn’t work. What happens if you take an Xbox game and put it in the Wii? Answer: It doesn’t work. Is there anything wrong with the game? Answer: No. Is there anything wrong with the gaming system? Answer: Nope. They are both video game systems. They both play games. They both work.

I work with students whose issues are not with subject matter, in fact, many of my student clients have IQ’s in the gifted or genius range. Their problems stem from the disconnect between delayed development of EF skills and where the school expects them to be. In general, a good student has good EF skills. A gifted student has superior cognitive ability but that does not always translate into great grades. Good grades come from good EF Skills. All kids with ADHD have EF skills issues but not all kids with EF skills issues have ADHD. Many things can impact EF skills Autism, Primary Executive Dysfunction, Developmental Delays, Anxiety, Depression, Concussion/TBI.

Improve learning skills in school

Developmental delays just mean that some kids are not on the same timeline as others. Children usually walk well by the time they are 14 or 15 months old. Some can walk well at 9 months and some at 17 or 18 months. Some start even later but eventually learn to walk. Their development is delayed in relation to some other children. Executive Functioning skills and other hard-wired processing skills can also be delayed. My students tend to lag anywhere from 3 to 5 years behind the developmental charts. Why does success sometimes come after so many failures and sometimes using a system that has been tried before? Because the delay has finally caught up. The skill deficit is gone and success is possible. These students need supports and systems to help them until their EF Skills catch-up.

This chart shows the implications of a 30% delay in executive functioning skill development. There is generally a leap in the independence, and therefore EF skills, required with each move to a new school environment.

Middle School is in the yellow zone. At this point some students cognitive and other strengths can still compensate. Parents are often still in charge and supervising homework. Students with IEP’s are often in classes with more than one teacher or have accommodations to help bridge the gap.

High School is in the orange zone. The difference between where the student’s skills are and what is expected is greater, the subject matter is becoming more difficult. Most schools are trying to phase out supports for students at this point.

College is in the red zone. EF skills are now at the level of a high school student while students find themselves not only solely responsible for course work, studying, and scheduling but also for waking up, getting enough sleep, feeding themselves, laundry, and other activities of daily living. This is the point at which even the most cognitively gifted students with the best compensatory strategies often find they can’t keep up.

Actual Age EF skills Age Grade in school
10 7 5
11 7.7 6 Middle School
12 8.4 7
13 9.1 8
14 9.8 9 High School
15 10.5 10
16 11.2 11
17 11.9 12
18 12.6 Freshman College
19 13.3 Sophomore
20 14 Junior
21 14.7 Senior
22 15.4 Work/Grad school

Processing Speed

Cultural bias identifies smart as fast and slow as not smart. Processing speed has no relation to cognitive ability. You can have a genius IQ and still have a slow processing speed. Slow processing speed looks different in different students. For one student, work is not completed during the times allotted for it in school and must be added to the homework load each night. But another student whose processing speed is slow will rush through assignments anyway and make “simple” mistakes. Some students get extremely anxious because they can’t keep up, while others seem lost or oblivious.

Executive Functioning Skills

Many of my clients have above average to superior cognitive ability but they also have some delays or weaknesses in executive functioning skills. Executive functioning skills are located in the prefrontal cortex. The part of your brain right behind the forehead. These usually develop from High School to age 25, however, some people’s development of these skills can be delayed up to 5 years. This is the part of the brain that helps us get and stay organized. I use an educational EF Skills model developed by Dawson & Guare.

They are broken into 12 separate skills:

  • Response Inhibition
  • Working Memory
  • Emotional Control
  • Task Initiation
  • Sustained Attention
  • Planning and Prioritizing
  • Organization
  • Time Management (time sense)
  • Flexibility
  • Metacognition
  • Goal-directed Persistence
  • Stress Tolerance