Brain-Based Learning

Organizing Students for Learning

Ten simple strategies for helping students who struggle with executive function skills like organization and prioritization.

November 15, 2018
A teacher going through an elementary student's work folder with the student
©iStock/SolStock

If you’re like me, nobody taught you how to organize yourself for middle and high school academic life. You just picked it up over time. That might work for some adolescents, but not for those with executive function (EF) struggles. They need more intensive support.

Dr. Christina Young, who coaches students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in New York City, describes EF as cognitive skills processed primarily in the prefrontal cortex: “organization, prioritization, activation, personal and academic reflection, and emotional regulation and modulation.” In contrast to the amygdala, which gives us full access to emotions at birth, the prefrontal cortex is not completely developed until the age of 25. That’s why 15-year-olds roll their eyes at their teachers more than graduate students do.

According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities and other sources, an individual may have EF challenges if he or she struggles to:

  • Initiate or plan a project
  • Pay attention
  • Understand different points of view
  • Follow directions
  • Keep track of belongings
  • Regulate emotions
  • Tell a story (verbally or in writing)
  • Remember and communicate details in a sequential manner
  • Retain information needed to complete a task

Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

Helping Students With EF Issues

EF coach Seth Perler says his executive function clients are “start-a-million-projects-but-finish-none type of people.” To help them, Perler starts with a backpack overhaul. Each item is discussed and put in a specific location, and the students do backpack rehab sessions once a week to keep organized.

Instead of multipurpose binders, Perler recommends that kids with EF issues purchase a distinctive paper folder—not plastic, because papers slide out too easily—write “QUEUE” in giant letters on both sides, and insert blank Post-it flags in the pocket. All active papers should be kept in the folder and flagged as homework needing to be completed, homework ready to be turned in, or forms to be signed by a guardian.

Anything else is either archived or thrown out during the weekly backpack rehab.

Students with EF struggles have difficulty organizing their brains to interact meaningfully with a text, according to Barbara Cartwright, the author of Executive Skills and Reading Comprehension. She recommends that teachers provide explicit guidance in goal formation as a pre-reading strategy. Some prompts based on her recommendations: What are your goals for reading? What will get you there? What parts should you slow down for or read quickly? What do you already know about this text that will help you reach your goals?

10 Tips for Teaching Organization for All Kinds of Learners

Whether their students struggle with EF or not, teachers can help all of them develop more orderly dispositions with the following tactics.

1. Make assignment details memorable. Unorganized students will repeatedly ask, “How many pages are due again?” Try to make the details sticky: “The essay needs 10 pages, 10 sources, and is due on 10/10.” Consider offering a visual checklist of assignment details, or a process infographic, or a bookmark with reading reminders.

2. Set up a start page. Have learners embed study resources into Start.me to quickly access popular online tools like Google Drive and E.gg Timer and checklists like TickTick and Wunderlist. Less familiar tools are also worth including:

  • Calmly Writer and ZenPen are writing tools that attempt to remove distractions.
  • Noisli plays ambient sound to block out noise.
  • Timetable plots learners’ homework and exam times and mutes their phones during designated study periods.

3. Help students feel in charge. If kids ask what to do next, don’t give them a quick answer—ask them what they think comes next.

4. Space out assignment dates. Cramming big-assignment due dates into the last two weeks of a semester overwhelms even organized students.

5. Use motivation techniques. Connect organization habits with students’ specific life goals. Praise them for improvement and effort.

6. Introduce long-term projects with care. On a calendar, show how the project is divided into stages with multiple due dates. Scholastic recommends that instructors show kids “how to work backward from a due date and set interim goals.” Because disorganized learners often underestimate how much time and effort a task will take, it’s helpful to address how many hours of study per week are expected.

7. Keep parents informed. Share with parents a Google Calendar of color-coded assignment and quiz dates. Send out due dates with Classroom Messenger or Remind.

8. Discuss organization in class. Who has the most organized backpack? Which cooperative teams organized and executed their projects deftly?

9. Show students how to preplan homework. Ask kids to write down when, where, and for how long they will do their homework. Then they can make a homework menu of what they will study and in what sequence.

10. Help students visualize to-dos. To reduce cognitive overload, students can use online “canvases” like Lino—have them organize the left-hand side of the board with tasks that take less than 30 minutes, and the right-hand side with tasks that take longer than that. Lino allows users to set alarms for due dates.

A last word about ownership. Don’t insist that the disorganized student get organized “the right way.” Organizational practices that kids launch to placate adults are quickly abandoned. Instead encourage students to experiment with methods that fit them and fuel their highest ambitions. And tell them, “You got this!”