Parents and Professionals Advocating for Students (PAPAS)
The Disorganized Student: Strategies
for Parents and Teachers
Dr. Caren Baruch-Feldman
Dr. Helene Walisever
Westchester Day School
January 26, 2009
What Are Executive Functions and How is it Related to
A student’s ability to manage their time,
organize their paperwork, and numerous other
day to day classroom activities are impacted by
their executive functions.
This presentation will explain the role of
executive functions and offer practical strategies
for parents and teachers to help the disorganized
What Is Executive Functioning?
Executive Functioning refers to our ability to be
able to make and carry out plans, direct our
attention, focus and also control our internal states:
our impulses and emotions and to be able to switch
from one task to another.
It is involved in processes such as planning,
cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule
acquisition, initiating appropriate actions and
inhibiting actions, and selecting relevant
People with Executive Functioning Problems have
Difficulties in 6 Major Domains: Activation, Focus,
Effort, Emotions, Memory, and Action
Children with ADHD Have the Following Executive Functioning
On Demand Deficiencies
Because internally driven production is much easier to
accomplish than externally demanded production for
children who have these difficulties their lack of production
on demand often stands in stark contrast to their seemingly
effortless production “when the spirit moves them”.
The on-demand deficiencies observed by others are often
attributed to negative personal characteristics such as being
UNMOTIVATED, WILLFULLY LAZY and
DISORGANIZED, POSSESSING A BAD ATTITUDE,
DOING THIS ON PURPOSE.
More and more however, neuroscientists are saying that
these underachievers may suffer from neurological
abnormalities, particularly in the FRONTAL LOBE.
Executive Functioning and the Brain
Can’t Versus Won’t
“We are encouraging people to become involved in their own rescue.”
Remember rewards will not work if the child does not have the skill. Reward programs imply that
a child can do it if he/she wants to or is motivated enough to. This often leads away from
the realization that many children who do want to change their behavior don’t know what to do
to change it.
Kids Do Well If They Can…
Behind every challenging behavior is an unsolved
problem or lagging skill.
Challenging behavior often occurs when the demands
being placed on a kid exceed his capacity to respond
One needs to determine what thinking skill the child is
lacking so that the thinking skill can be taught.
One needs to determine the triggers/antecedents: the
what, who, when, and where.
The goal is to develop a plan with the child that resolves the
problem in a realistic and mutually satisfactory manner.
Executive Function and Development
Because EFs are developmental
in nature, natural maturational
delays and lags are observed.
Inter-individually, there is also
great variation relative to
The developmental progression
is from external to internal.
A Developmental Perspective for Interventions for
Children with Executive Skills Deficits
skill deficits also fit this
from external to internal.
skills can be supported in
one of two ways:
1. By Intervening at the
Level of the Environment.
2. By Intervening at the
Level of the Person.
Intervening at the Level of the
Environment Changing the Physical
or Social Environment
to Reduce Problems
Changing the Way Cues
are Provided To
Prompt the Child to
Perform Tasks or
Behave in Certain Ways
Changing the Nature of
Intervening at the Level of the Environment: Changing
the Physical or Social Environment to Reduce Problems
Are there impediments to smooth executive
functioning that can be removed or added to the
Front versus back of the class.
Moving them away from a window or near their friends
or talkative students.
Placing a student with weak skills with a very structured
For impulsive children, placing them in smaller settings
or under more adult supervision.
Intervening at the Level of the Environment: Changing the Way
Cues are Provided To Prompt the Child to Perform Tasks or
Behave in Certain Ways
Verbal prompts or
reminders, Visual Cues
Schedules, Lists, Pager
Systems or Alarms
Provide time management
aids such as calendars, clocks,
Audio-taped cues that
increase self monitoring.
When the tape sounds the
child is instructed to answer
the question, “Was I paying
Intervening at the Level of the Environment: Changing
the Nature of the Task
Make the task shorter
Make the steps explicit
Make the task close ended instead of open ended (e.g., fill in the blanks, T/F,
rather than essays, providing word banks)
Build in variety or choice with respect to the tasks to be done or the order in
which the tasks are to be done
Offer bonus points for handing in homework and assignments on time instead of
taking points away
Offer feedback and opportunities to revise writing assignments before grading
Offer students choices for ways to demonstrate content knowledge
Offer credit for all efforts to correct work
Offer opportunities to retake failed tests
Deduct no more than 5-10% of total points for minor detail errors
Teach note-taking, memory strategies, and study skills when necessary
Changing the Way Teachers Interact with Children
With Executive Skill Deficits
Changing the way adults interact with
them can often ameliorate the
negative impact of weak skills.
Remembering that you are the
biggest vehicle of change and a
model of good executive functioning.
Increasing the level of supervision,
support, and cueing are the easiest
way to impact executive functioning.
Increasing children’s involvement in
the decision making process.
Creating a balance between support
and acting as the child’s frontal lobe
with the ultimate goal of having the
child develop their own executive
skills sufficiently so they can function
Intervening at the Level of the Person
The goal of this strategy
is to change the child’s
capacity for using
his/her own executive
1. Teaching him/her
ways to develop or fine
tune executive skills that
2. Motivating him/her to
use the executive skills
that he/she has but is
reluctant to employ.
Teaching Children Executive Skills: Teaching Thinking and
Organizational Skills in Addition to Content Knowledge
Initially teachers become the frontal
lobes for the child.
After having walked the child
through the process many times the
teacher can then begin to reduce the
level of supervision and support.
The next step might be to begin to
transfer the responsibility to the child
by asking a more general question
(e.g. “What do you need to do?”)
The transfer is complete when the
child reaches the point when he/she
asks himself/herself “What do I need
to do”? and either refers to the list
independently without prompting
from the parent or remembers the
steps on the list and can perform the
task without referring to the list
Motivating Children to Use Executive
Aligning External Demands with Internal
Commands. Using natural self-generated sources of
motivation whenever possible.
Motivating May Include: Praise and Recognition or
Your child is not lazy.
Think Win-Win: You need to teach students
the importance of
management, attention to
detail and other important
State the problem in
behavioral terms that indicate
a behavior that can then be
Learning is a process.
As much as possible try to
align external demands with
internal desires to maximize
Tips for Organizing Paper and Time
A coach teaches skills,
keeps the child
Form the team: your
spouse; your child
Who should coach?
You, spouse, or
Help Your Child Accept Help
Middle-schoolers want more independence but
need more supervision.
Don’t fall for “I don’t care” attitude.
Motivate your child to be open to help: Use mild
Use small incentives
Collaborate With Your Child
Child should help choose
Goal should be small,
short-term, likely to yield
Goal should improve child’s
quality of life
Prioritize, choose top 3
Do something fun with
Develop A Plan
The devil is in the details
Review the plan nightly for a few minutes
If the daily goal was not met, ask what got in the
way. What helped it work on successful days?
Don’t give up too soon, but revise plan if
needed. It takes 3 weeks for new habits to form.
Your child didn’t fail, the strategy failed.