William Benson, Psy.D. | Staff Psychologist:
Has this ever happened to you? Your child has a large homework assignment or project due tomorrow. He has yet to start. Worse, he can’t even give you many specifics on what the assignment is supposed to be. You spend about half an hour searching through his backpack, which is full of loose papers (some of which seem to be past homework assignments that were never turned in…), broken pencils, toys, and perhaps a moldy orange or banana, but you cannot find the sheet from the teacher that lays out those needed details for the assignment. Curiously, his glasses that he wears only in school do not seem to be in the backpack. At that point, you end up having to reach out to the parents of another student in the class. You’re both exhausted. But he still hasn’t even started working on the assignment… If you’ve had this experience, or perhaps your child has often failed to bring home textbooks, forgotten to turn in assignments that he had completed, or left multiple jackets, lunchboxes, hats, and, yes, even pairs of prescription glasses at school, you may welcome online or blended learning. Indeed, there are certain advantages. All homework assignments are online, so no missing rubrics or situations where your child has failed to copy down the homework assignment from the board. For 100% virtual learning, there is no need to take things to and from school, which means no lost jackets or moldy fruit. But for students with ADHD or other “executive functioning challenges,” is this really the utopia we’ve been waiting for?
If you’ve been in this remote learning game since March, you probably realize that not all challenges with regard to organizing, keeping track of assignments, and planning are vestiges of the past, and this new format brings new headaches as well. For example, even though all assignments are online, they are not always in the same place. Especially in middle school, when your child may have seven different teachers, each class tends to have its own page. This means your child has to remember to check every page every day and ensure they’ve completed every assignment. In terms of new challenges, he may now have assignments that are due at 4pm or midnight and need to be uploaded at that time, but the teacher may not send any reminders, so low-and-behold, we still have assignments that are not turned in or turned in late.
Blended learning could be even more challenging. Depending on how it is organized at your child’s school, they may have all their assignments listed online, but there still may be physical materials, such as books and notebooks, that need to go back and forth between school and home, but not every day. Perhaps none of the homework due tomorrow requires the math textbook, but they won’t be back in school for three days, and two days from now there is an assignment due that involves copying problems from the textbook and sending a picture of the completed work to the teacher.
Ok, now that I’ve got you feeling completely overwhelmed (sorry about that!) here are just a few strategies that can help.
1. Short homework/assignment to-do lists. Your child should use a planner or a notebook to keep a daily list of the subjects in which there is homework. They should go through each class’s online page and write down in the planner which subjects he has homework in (for example simply writing down “Math, science, ELA”). Then he should go back to the first subject, or the one that is best to start with, look at the details of the assignment, complete the homework, and mark it off on his list. This will prevent forgetting to do the work for a particular class, which I’ve found to be a common struggle for those whose assignments are posted online.
2. Designate a workspace. If you’ve been working from home, you may have established your own “office” or work space (even if it is just a spot at the kitchen table) where you work. Your child should establish such a space too, which is his home base or headquarters for homework. In or near this spot, you should try to keep all the materials that he will need for various types of homework assignments, for example pencils, pens, scissors, tape, scrap paper, calculator, etc. This minimizes distractions caused by having to get up and look for supplies.
3. Daily schedule. Whether it’s blended learning or all online, your child should (but may not) understand their daily and weekly schedule. Write this out together and review it every day. Each day should include start and stop times for school, times that live/interactive learning occurs, any extra-curricular activities that occur on each day and their times, and any other important events for the day (for example doctor’s appointments, play dates, etc.)
4. Master plan. When discussing the daily schedule or after the school day ends but before homework, it is helpful to plan with your child what their evening will look like, in terms of what homework they have to do, and how much time each assignment will take, so they can decide when they will start homework and have reasonable expectations about how much leisure time they will have that evening.
5. Planning out multi-step assignments. In addition to the daily master plan, any assignment that is multi-step or longer term, such as a project or paper, should have its own plan. If your child has ADHD or otherwise has difficulty with executive functioning, they may need your help in understanding how to break things down into steps and decide what steps to do in what order. Creating and writing down a plan with your child of the steps, as well as deciding when to do each step, will minimize stress and maximize efficiency. If you go through the same steps in much the same way for every assignment like this, you will also teach your child a process to follow that they can then begin going through more and more independently over time.
6. Create a backpack checklist. Pin a checklist to the inside of your child’s backpack with the most important materials your child should make sure are inside the backpack before leaving school to go home or vice versa. Have your child practice visually looking at the checklist and verifying each item is in the backpack by finding and looking at the item (rather than just “remembering” that they packed it). This is especially helpful for blended learning.
Hopefully, you will find the above tools helpful in getting your child more organized and reducing the stress that comes from tracking down materials or assignments at the last minute and searching every lost-and-found and classroom nook and cranny for those expensive eyeglasses. For more details on some of these strategies as well as helpful forms to use, I recommend The Organized Child by Richard Gallagher and Elana Spira, available from Amazon or Guilford Press. This book includes several strategies for improving organization that have been proven effective in research (research in which I myself was involved, so I can attest to the effectiveness of the program).
If you really identified with the challenges I described and have a child or teen who is currently in middle school, they may benefit from my organizational skills training group, which we are offering again this fall, now adapted for remote and blended learning. Please contact our office for more details or to register.