The Case and its Origin
On February 15, 2016, I made a house call on a family whom the Today Show had chosen for me to work with as a children’s productivity expert. Robert Powell, the producer, chose Aries, a third grade girl who had a great deal of trouble completing homework. The child was taking up gymnastics, and with the extra commitment of practice and competition, she would need better efficiency in order to be able to maintain her grades and be part of a team.
The Educational Therapy Design
Robert Powell and I designed a day in five parts. First, came an interview about the science of working with children with ADHD or executive function challenges.
We chose a backpack organization, a desk organization, a time management piece with planner, calendar and timer, a homework segment with the timer, a mindfulness meditation section for focus and concentration, and lastly, a recreational game segment.
The rational for these exercises was to organize materials, time, space, and thinking in order to become more efficient at homework time and throughout the school day.
The Day and How It Went:
I had research prepared for Robert about each part of the day, with the why of what I was doing supported that way. In my experience, the thing most difficult for children with attention or executive function difficulties is the concept of time itself. I typically give the student a shoebox and ask them how much can fit inside before the box is full and spilling all over the place. That, I explain, is a good metaphor for time itself. It’s finite, it occupies space in that we do physical and mental things that fill it, and it’s limited.
The backpack investigation yielded a mix of hats (3), a water bottle that had spilled onto a binder, four reading books for class and for pleasure, and a number of loose papers. We made headway in organizing the backpack by using a file folder with 7 pockets, some files, all beautifully labeled by Aries, and a system for filing them. Then we put the backpack together again, but found an exterior pocket for the water bottle.
When Do I Get Up?
Next we worked with some worksheets I prepared for her with questions about time. I asked Aries to read and answer a few questions about her day: What time did she get up? She wasn’t sure, but she guessed about 6:45. What time did she eat breakfast? 6:30.
So Aries sense of time was challenged, and without an analog clock she had little opportunity to study one with a sweeping second hand or minute hand. When we estimated how long her reading assignments usually took, she said, “20 minutes.” We timed a reading homework assignment that Aries needed to do. This she did, often supplying very short answers to a number of reading questions in 4 minutes. She was amazed that a task that usually seems so long was accomplished so fast. Aries’ sense of time is so mutable, it seems, that a short task can seem long (if it’s boring), and a long one can feel infinite if she doesn’t know how to get it done in sections.
Discovery: Decoding Issues and Answers
I noticed some spelling confusion, and did a quick fix on the sound that “oo” makes in words like “book.” Aries needed to touch her mouth to feel how open her lips and jaw were when she said “oo.” She is a kinetic child, and she seemed to be able to learn through her body very well. Aries and her mother proudly announced that her school has just assigned a reading specialist to see Aries twice a week to help with her phonics and decoding skills. When a young person is challenged by attention or executive function issues, spelling skills can develop slowly. Aries had some difficulty with her handwriting and let me know that writing was a least favorite thing to do, organizationally and physically. Her mother and I spoke about teaching Aries to type, which is being done and offering Aries some relief from handwriting.
Complexity: Teaching Mindfulness Meditation
Aries and I did the most difficult part of the afternoon for her, a three minute version of a body scan meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work in mindfulness-based stress reduction. Aries found this exercise tiring, and got in touch with some unpleasant feelings of hunger. Mindfulness is not a relaxation meditation, but a meditation to put us in touch with our internal experience. Aries did well to articulate what she found. Using this to turn one’s focus to mindful work takes practice.
The Irrepressible Need for Fun
Finally, Aries and I played a game of pick-up sticks. Not the most educational game, but such fun, and Aries was excellent at it, as I thought she might be. Let’s all remember that children need to have areas of life where they blow the experts away. It’s exhausting to work hard and feel frequent doubt or confusion. Play is a vital area to restore the balance of the day. After all, these skills aren’t the goal of life, but just an assortment of tools to make life richer, easier and better!
Had my job been to continue educational therapy with her, the discovery that Aries has an under-developed sense of time, some decoding and spelling confusion, and organizational challenges would keep me busy for a while. However, these organizational strategies are something that parents can help their children learn with a little instruction and practice. I often coach parents on how to be a good helper to young children, and it is very rewarding work. Aries is an active, excellent learner, and I believe that she will grow in organizational skills over time. She really wants to do well, which is a great beginning.