“Bruce has been a positive factor in our program, as he is committed to doing a good job, is enthusiastic, and will push himself even if he is not really into a particular group. He does not have any glaring weaknesses although he could be a bit more organized.”
Dr. John Cloninger, Ed.D – 12/23/88
Yes…A BIT more organized. The passage above comes from an evaluation I received from my internship site supervisor when I was a first year graduate student. When I got the evaluation, I was really proud of the overall positive tone it took. But I got a good, hearty laugh from the sentence about needing to be more organized and I ran to the phone to tell my mom about it. “Listen Mom….my supervisor thinks I should be A BIT more organized!” She had a good laugh too. Organization is a task that has never come easily for me. She and my dad spent many frustrating, thankless hours trying to help me have a clue. Someday I’ll find one. It’s been a long, hard slog and I know it’s out there somewhere.
It’s fitting that I married someone who shares my “prowess” in the realm of organizational skills. And it’s been no shock to find that our 9 year old daughter is, shall we say, more successful at some of her other pursuits than she is at getting organized. Lucy is an excellent student but ever since she started getting report cards, we’ve been getting some feedback about her chaotic desk and overall elevated level of discombobulation. At her school, they grade on a 1 – 4 system. On her first report card, she got mostly 3’s and 4’s but next to “Takes Care of Belongings,” there was a 1. When I asked her about it, her response was “Well, I’m just glad they don’t give out zeroes!” Recently, her teacher let us know that she hasn’t always been turning in her homework. This came as a surprise to us because we know she’s been working conscientiously to get the work done on time. When I talked about it with Lucy, she wondered out loud “Why do I have to learn to be organized?” We talked about how much simpler it makes life when you have some systems in place to keep things on track. I told her that even though it doesn’t come easily for me, I do my best to create systems that help me stay on top of things at work and at home. Without them, I’d have a very hard time living up to commitments I’ve made and things would get ugly very quickly.
Fortunately, as this issue emerged for my daughter, I happened to be reading the book Late, Lost, and Unprepared, by Joyce Cooper-Kahn, and Laurie Dietzel. I’m very glad I did because it’s a wonderful book.
Late, Lost, and Unprepared is a handbook for parents who have kids with executive function challenges. It’s divided into two parts. The first part is entitled “What You Need to Know” and consists of a description of the executive functions along with information about their developmental course, assessment, and effects on the family. The second part of the book is entitled “What Can You Do About It?” which is what it’s about. Lucy and I sat down and read chapter 15 together- Helping Children Plan and Organize. We’re working on checklists that she can tape to her desk and locker at school but there were a lot of other great ideas in that chapter we can try if our first attempt fails.
This book is written with parents in mind. The authors recognize that parents don’t have the time or motivation to tackle a heavy treatise loaded down with high falutin’, irrelevant theories. There are two different ways to use this book and I plan to avail myself of both of them. For one, you can read it start to finish in order to give yourself a good, holistic understanding of subject matter. It is well written and thoughtful, and it’s a pleasure to read. You can also use it as a reference for use with your own particular child and his or her own particular issues. For each type of EF issue described (impulse control, cognitive flexibility, task initiation, working memory, organizational skills, self-monitoring) the authors describe a number of different interventions. In each case, they recommend sitting down with your child and really examining the problem, tracing it back to the point or points at which problems develop, and then tailoring your intervention to provide support when and where it’s most needed. The authors draw heavily on their clinical practices and they’re clearly well versed in the many different ways that EF delays play cruel pranks on our lives.
I’ve always felt that my life would improve if I just plastered post-it notes to my forehead with all the reminders I need for the day, (maybe even a embedding a railroad spike in my head with the same reminders – for those especially out-to-lunch days). Fortunately, Late, Lost, and Unprepared offers suggestions that may be more effective, more practical, and definitely less socially penalizing and than either of those options.
Drs. Cooper-Kahn and Dietzel also go out of their way to emphasize that even if readers were to faithfully execute every single idea described in the book, they would still not find a magic bullet. It takes practice and patience. The goal is improvement, not perfection. According to the authors:
“One of the most effective ways of building executive skills is by developing habits and routines that eventually become automatic. Building habits requires repetition, repetition, and more repetition. Here’s the good news: Once you no longer have to think about doing something, you largely bypass the executive system.”
In a nutshell, the authors urge us to think of executive function delays through the lens of Dan Patrick’s old ESPN catchphrase – “You can’t stop them. You can only hope to contain them.” This book is rich with suggestions that can help your child build good habits in a systematic way. When it comes to your child’s EF problems, you can’t stop them, but this book will give you a fighting chance to contain them.