Homework case study #4: Disorganization disorder
One middle-schooler struggles not with the academics but the assignment itself.
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Scattershot syndrome: A surprising diagnosis for a student struggling with disorganization and distraction.
By Chris Colin
Delicate parents, peer not into Tim Campbell's backpack.
Somewhere along the way, the 13-year-old eighth-grader from Connecticut developed a habit whose roots are complex but whose consequences couldn't be clearer: utter disorganization. At its worst, Tim is as likely to produce his evening's homework assignments — forget about a finished product — as to recite War and Peace.
"It was late in seventh grade that I started noticing a pattern where I could never find anything," he says. "I'd always have papers scattered everywhere in my backpack and never knew where anything was. I wasn't getting my work in, and I started getting worse grades."
The downward spiral
To hear his mother describe it, this isn't a case where the student loses his homework because secretly it's too hard. Tim's problems didn't seem to be about comprehension — somehow they orbited exclusively around the more practical aspects of schoolwork: taking note of his assignments, bringing home the necessary material, and going through the concrete steps of getting them done.
"We gave him folders, but he wasn't using them," Tim's mother says. “And he would lose things. He wasn't writing down his assignments, so we wouldn't even know about them until they were late."
Like so many homework problems, Tim's snowballed. What might have been a containable issue mushroomed until he felt wholly overwhelmed — the prospect of ever catching up on old assignments seemed impossible. Soon D's began appearing on his report card. Meanwhile, efforts by Tim's parents only seemed to make things tenser.
"Sometimes I'd take things out of his book bag and have him put them back neatly. But he'd just get upset. He'd say he has his own way," his mother says.
The diagnosis: More than carelessness
Indeed, he did have his own way — it just wasn't one that worked in the context of middle school. So says Marc Hoffman, the academic coach Tim's family hired to work with their son. His organization, Hoffman Education Group, offers something beyond subject-specific tutoring: a broader look at how to approach schoolwork more effectively. What Hoffman found — which was confirmed by tests Tim took — is that the disorganization problem was rooted in what psychologists call executive functioning.
"In layman's terms, this means understanding the steps necessary to complete a task. It involves planning — a child with executive functioning issues doesn't understand how to estimate how much time it will take to do an assignment, or what the steps are in, say, writing a paper," Hoffman explains. "'Write a paper about Ben Franklin.' The dilemma would be, Is it supposed to be a biography? Or a thesis-driven paper? What exactly is the teacher asking for? These questions then lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed: How am I going to get this written down?"