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Homework: Teaching Organizational Skills to Individuals with ASD

Posted Sep 22 2011 7:14pm
As Appeared in theJuly/August 2007 issue.www.autismdigest.comReprinted with permission of publisher.(Sorry about the format...)By Michelle Garcia Winner, CCC-SLPOur daily lives are made up ofan endless stream of thoughts,decisions, actions and reactionsto the people and environmentin which we live. The internal andexternal actions fit together, sometimesseamlessly sometimes not,largely dependent upon a set of invisibleyet highly important skills we callExecutive Functioning (EF). Theseskills, which involve planning, organizing,sequencing, prioritizing, shiftingattention, and time managementcan be well-developed in some people(think traffic controllers, weddingplanners, business CEOs, etc.) and lessdeveloped in others. They are vital inall parts of life, from making coffeeto running a profitable business. Theskills develop naturally, without specific,formal training, and we all havethem to some degree – or at least, weall assume we all have them.Things are never quite as simple asthey seem, and these EF skills are noexception. They require a multitieredhierarchy of decisionsand actions, all comingtogether within theframework of time, knowledge andresources.Imagine trying to navigate life whenEF skills are impaired or nonexistent, asthey are with individuals on the autismspectrum. For most of us, our imaginationwon’t stretch that far. Therefore,we assume all these kids – especiallythose who are “bright” - have EF skillsand we act and react to our spectrumchildren or students as if they did.Nowhere does this EF skill deficitcause more turmoil than in the areaof homework, producing monstrouslevels of anxiety and dread in students,parents and teachers alike. The myriadof details that need to be accomplishedin a student’s class, school day or weekcan overwhelm even the healthiest student;it can shut down our ASD kids.I am regularly asked: if tasks are sooverwhelming to their EF systems,should we just avoid having studentsdeal with them? The answeris an unequivocal emphatic “NO!”Organizational skills are life skills, notjust school skills, and even though theyare “mandatory prerequisites” for succeedingat school, like social skills theyare rarely directly taught. Few statesinclude explicit teaching of EF skills intheir “standards of education.”So where do we start? First, by understandinghow complex organizationalsystems become by the time studentsreach middle school. We can only begood teachers if we appreciate thedemands the skills we teach place onour students.Second, by understanding organizationas a skill set, which involves staticand dynamic systems.Static organizational systems andskills are structured: same thing, sametime, same place, same way. Static organizationaltasks are introduced in kindergarten,first and second grade. Webreak down tasks and ask students toexplicitly complete very defined unitsof information, at a certain time andplace. Write your name at the top ofthe page, read the instructions, completethe work, when done turn thepaper over and sit quietly until timeis up.Dynamic organizational systems andskills involve constant adjustmentsto priorities, workloads, time frames,tasks and places. They are less teacher directedand more student-directed.By 4th grade, teachers are introducingdynamic assignments to studentswith moderate levels of support. Soonafter that we expect students to beable to manage increasingly dynamicworkloads with little extra support ordirect teaching. By high school, almostall school and homework has dynamiccomponents requiring students to useEF skills to allocate time, resources,places to work, etc.Here’s the good news: most of usunderstand that to tackle a dynamictask we have to break it down into itsstatic elements. The dynamic part of thetask requires thinking; the static partof the task requires doing. A dynamicassignment such as writing an essayrequires a significant portion of thetask be spent thinking about the topicbefore the static tasks of actually writingthe paper at a table, at a specified hour,etc. One of the great challenges for ourspectrum students is learning to breakdown dynamic tasks into more concrete,static chunks of work.Fostering organizational skills instudents with ASD requires an evolutionaryapproach towards teachingstudents, one that is ideally started atan early age. Students hone organizationalskills starting in preschool, whenwe first ask them to clean up their toys.Teachers can accurately identify organizedversus disorganized students asearly as kindergarten. By 4th gradeteachers expect students to be proficientwith EF skills.However, the reality is that the majorityof our ASD students of all ages desperatelyneed help with homework,specifically, and EF skills in general.Help is available. The following 10steps illuminate specific aspects of EFskills that increase students’ static anddynamic organizational coping mechanisms.While these steps are interrelatedand synergistic, avoid trying toteach them all at the same time. Eachmay be difficult to grasp and master forthe student with ASD; allow learningto take its own pace. Keep expectationsrealistic, talk things through regularly,and probe for misunderstandings ormiscommunication. Learning EF skillsis a dynamic system of its own, withits static components. Make sure yourchild or student experiences successand feels competent at each stage ofthe process.10 Steps to FosterOrganization Skills1. Clearly define what needsto be doneToo often, parents and schools vieworganization goals too simply: “thestudent must write the assignment inhis planner.” Clearly this is not nearlyenough detail for most tasks and maynot even be the best starting goal fora particular student. Adults must beorganized in their own thinking if theyare to effectively teach students with EFdeficits this skill. Go beyond giving outassignments; help the student understandhow to also approach the taskfrom an organizational standpoint.Adults must be organized intheir own thinking if they are toeffectively teach studentswith EF deficits this skill.2. Move it with motivationAlmost all students with weak organizationalskills also struggle with motivationto accomplish homework tasks.Parents and teachers often don’t realizethis lack of motivation can stemfrom feeling overwhelmed by the taskdemands. Students with the greatestmotivational challenges are often ourmost intelligent students (e.g. thosewith high IQ scores). We often assume“smart” means “organized” and saythings like “come on, I know you cando this, I know you are smart.” Yet,they may have the hardest time motivatingthemselves when overwhelmedbecause they have never had to workat learning. Learning just happened ifthey stayed attentive.By adolescence, students need toappreciate that completing work - evenwork that seems somewhat ridiculousto them – has its rewards. It establishesthem as hard working in the eyes ofothers, improves their grades andincreases feelings of self-worth throughmeeting their grade level academicexpectations. However, as obvious asthis sounds, this level of cause-effectcan still be too overwhelming to somespectrum students because it requiresdelayed gratification. Many studentsneed to start at a much more concretelevel of motivation, with very smallwork steps combined with rewardearly in the task completion process.For example, if a student cannot easilywork for an hour, have him worksuccessfully on a single part of the taskfor just 10 minutes before he gets topause and congratulate himself. Self motivationincreases when studentsfeel confident in understanding andaccomplishing the task before them.It doesn’t matter how “well” you teachstudents these EF skills; if they areunmotivated, they will not implementthe ideas. Work directly on helping studentstackle and overcome motivationchallenges.3. Prepare the environmentMost adults familiar with helping students“get organized” understand thispoint. Establish a dedicated workspacefor homework that includes the essentialtools: pen, pencil, paper, etc. Colorcoding tasks, making sure the studenthas an organized binder, possibly accessto a time-timer ( structures that promote successduring homework time.4. Chunk and time itAssignments that sound coherent andstructured to teachers can still overwhelma student with EF challenges.For example: “write a report focusingon the economy, culture, weatherand climate of a specific country.”Clear enough, you think? Maybe to us,but not to them. Make sure the studentunderstands how to “chunk” anassignment (break it down into smallerpieces) and how the individual partscreate the larger whole. For example,not all students will know their reportneeds four sections, essentially “mini-essays”worked on separately and thenjoined together.Furthermore, once they “chunk”the project students also need to predicthow long each chunk will take tocomplete. The majority of our studentswith poor organizational skill have aresounding inability to predict howlong projects will take across time. Infact, they tend to be weak in all aspectsof interpreting and predicting time.Consider this: Is there anything youdo without first predicting how long itwill take? We “time map” everything,gauging how the task will or will notfit into what we’re doing now, an hourfrom now, later in the day or later inthe week.Homework functions in much thesame way. Students are more willing totackle homework when they can reliablypredict how long they will haveto work on the task. For example, astudent will usually calmly do mathif it should only take 5-10 minutes.However, for those spectrum studentswho can’t predict time, the nebulousnature of the activity incites anxietysuch that they may cry 45 minutes overdoing a 10-minute math assignment.When the student does not – or cannot- consider time prediction as part ofhis organizational skill set, he is likelyto waste a lot of time rather than usetime to his advantage.5. Use visual structuresAs the school years progress, homeworkshifts from mostly static tasksdoled out by one teacher to mostlydynamic tasks assigned by many differentindividuals. We expect students toself-organize and know how to jugglethe many pieces of learning that makeup each class, grade and level of education.Yet, this valuable skill is neverdirectly taught!Visual long-term mapping charts,such as a Gantt Chart, ( can help studentsplan and monitormultiple activities.These bar typegraphs allowa student tovisually trackmultiple projectsacrosstime, determinewhenthey are dueand howmuch time isavailable to work on each. For example,a history paper may be assigned inFebruary and due in late March; a linewould run from early February to lateMarch to indicate the time allocated tothe project. A math project assigned inearly March is also due in late March;another line would represent this project.Visually the student can see thattwo big projects are due at about thesame time, and both are worth significantgrade points. This then helps thestudent understand why he should notwait until the last minute to start oneor both assignments. Gantt charts arefrequently used in business, but haveyet to make it into student software forschool/homework planning. However,they are easy to create and use at homeor in the classroom. For students withASD, they are invaluable tools fororganization.Visual structures can represent entireprojects and then also be used for individualchunks, creating the visual organizationalframework students with EFdeficits need. Once assignments areunderstood as needing to be worked onacross time, we can encourage studentsto chunks tasks to be worked on duringspecific weeks, then make related listsof things to do on specific days.6. Prioritize and plan dailyLearning to prioritize is a valuableskill and helps the student get thingsdone. Keep in mind that many of usmake daily lists but don’t always completeall tasks on our list, and that priorityis largely based on the value weplace on the assignment. Within theschool setting, “value” is often dictatedby the teacher. Priority is a factorof the task’s value overall, its deadlineand the time to complete it. However,just because a task is due does notmean a student needs to make a decisionto complete it, especially if it is alow priority or low value task to thestudent or the teacher. For example,during her sophomore year in highschool my daughter was looking ather math grades online. I looked overher shoulder and saw she had mostlyA’s and B’s but noticed she had twoF’s. I exclaimed, “Robyn, you have twoF’s”, to which she replied, “Mom, theywere each worth one point. They werehardly worth doing.” Robyn realizedthat in light of the many assignmentsshe had to juggle for all her classes,projects with the least point valuewere not worth doing; she’d rathersave her time and effort for the larger,more important projects.With a prioritized plan in hand,many students will still struggle withactually working on the tasks. Evenstudents with high intelligence mayhave difficulty getting themselves towork on projects not of their liking.Their baseline attention span may beno more than 7-10 minutes. (Test oneof your student’s baseline attentionspan by observing how long he canattend to mundane projects withoutself-distracting. You may be surprisedby how short it is!)Help students succeed with theirdaily schedule by teaching them totake frequent small breaks at the endof their baseline attention span. Forexample, a graduate student in theologyfound he could only push himselfthrough 10-minute work cycles beforefeeling overwhelmed or internally distracted.He used a visual time-timerand gave himself a short stretch breakevery 10 minutes. Once he completeda number of these short work cycleshe gave himself a larger reward. Thekey to using self-reward is to makesure the small reward isn’t likely to bedistracting or absorbing (computergames, TV, reading a book). Insteadmake these small breaks quick andrefreshing, just to refocus attention:sensory based activities (stretching ormovement), a small snack, a quick tripto the bathroom or pencil sharpener.7. Hunt and gatherSimply put: students need to plantime into their schedule to locate differentresources to complete a task.For example, research at the librarymight be a “chunk” they plan foron their homework list (don’t forgettravel time!).Keep in mindthat many of us makedaily lists but don’t alwayscomplete all taskson our list.8. Consider perspectiveHomework is more effectively completedwhen students start by consideringthe teacher’s perspective beforediving into the assignment. An assignmentdone well is one that meets theteacher’s expectations and follows theteacher’s instructions. A high schoolstudent went to great lengths to developa computer program for his computerprogramming class. His teacher came tome exasperated, explaining that whilewell done, the project was totally unrelatedto the class assignment.Parent perspectives enter into thehomework plan also. Many parentsexpect children to finish homeworkbefore watching TV. Even though childrenmay have accomplished a great dealof homework (in their mind “enough”),trouble can still erupt because it wasn’t“finished” in the parent’s mind.Perspective taking can be quite overwhelmingto many students with sociallearning and organizational problems.A strategy called “social behavior mapping”(Winner, 2007) can help studentsunderstand how expectations, actionsand reactions affect not only how weare viewed by others, but how theirresponses ultimately impact the waywe view ourselves.9. Communicate andthen communicatesome moreHomework assignments often resultin students needing help from others.Knowing when and how to ask forhelp can be challenging for studentswith social learning and organizationalweaknesses. Avoid assuming students– especially “bright” students - shouldintuitively know how to ask for help,clarification or even how to collaboratewith others on assignments. Theseskills are not nearly as simple as theyseem and may need to be explicitlytaught by the special education teacheror speech language pathologist at yourschool. Tip: as students age into middleschool and beyond, most are turningto their peer group rather than theirteacher for help. This fosters peer supportnetworks desperately needed forsuccess in college and later life.1r0e.w aCrodm pletion andHaving a clearly defined “end” to a taskis important for the concrete thinkingminds of students with ASD. Besure the child knows what “finished”means, both at school and at home. Forinstance, a homework assignment isnot truly “done” until it is turned in tothe teacher at school. While homeworkturn-in boxes (static) are commonlyfound in elementary school, they allbut vanish during middle and highschool years when even the act of turningin homework becomes dynamic.Make sure your students know whereto turn in homework. Also, parentsshould save big celebrations for completedprojects until the assignmentsare actually turned in. Some studentsmay need reminder systems set up tomake sure work is turned in on time.Visual notes, PDA messages or watchtimers can be used to help.At home, “finished” homework yieldsits own rewards when students canengage in more personally pleasingactivities, such as a computer game,watching TV, reading for pleasure, etc.Even our favorite activities have a finitetime frame attached to them before itis time to go to bed. Many of theseorganizational strategies can be usedto help a student learn to shut down afavorite activity and get his brain readyfor bed.“Planning takes time!” This is a messagewe need to constantly reinforcewith our spectrum students. “Teachingorganizational skills takes time, acrossmonths and even years!” This is amessage we need to reinforce to parentsand teachers. Whether studentsare using organizational skills forhomework, doing chores, preparingfor a weekend activity or somethingas simple as getting a snack, as childrengrow and develop, tasks becomeincreasingly complex and dynamicwith each passing year. Teachers andparents need to work together, whilechildren are still in elementary school,to identify and teach any or all of the10 steps mentioned in this article thatare problematic for the spectrum child.In doing so, we give children the toolsnot just to handle homework, but tobe successful in all areas of life.Michelle Garcia Winner is internationallyrecognized as an innovative clinician,enthusiastic workshop presenter and prolificauthor in the field of social thinkingand social cognitive functioning. for additionalinformation.ReferencesAllen, D. (2001). Getting Things Done. The art ofstress free productivity. Penguin Books: New York.(recommended by an adult with AS)Dawson, P. and Guare. R. (2004). Executive Skills inChildren and Adolescents: A Practical Guide toAssessment and Intervention. The Guilford Press:New York.Giles-Brown, C. (1993). Practical Time, Language andLiving Series. Imaginart. www.proedinc.comHyerle, D. (1996). Visual Tools for ConstructingKnowledge. Association for Supervision and CurriculumDevelopment: Virginia.Myles, B. & Adreon, D. (2001). Asperger Syndromeand Adolescence: Practical Solutions for School Success.AAPC: Kansas. www.asperger.netSoper, M. (1993). Crash Course for Study Skills.Linguisystems: Illinois. recommended for building a curriculum!)Winner, M. (2005). “Strategies for Organization:Preparing for Homework and the Real World.”The Gray Center: Grand Rapids, Michigan. (, M. (2007). Social Behavior Mapping. ThinkSocial Publishing, Inc.: San Jose, California
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