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"What's the point?" One teen flat-out refuses to do her homework. Can our expert bring her around?
Scattershot syndrome: A surprising diagnosis for a student struggling with disorganization and distraction.
By Chris Colin
Hoffman says these issues frequently manifest around seventh grade, when schooling becomes more of an independent process. "Middle school and beyond isn't systemized for students with these issues," he says. "[For] good students who do well, their system is aligned with the structure of the school. Not so when there are executive functioning issues: That's where serious disorganization develops."
Hoffman's approach in such cases combines nuts-and-bolts solutions with a whole new approach to talking about the problem.
"With chronic issues like this, the student loses his or her sense of control, and there's an instinct to give up," he says. "One of my first steps is emphasizing what he's doing right. In positive psychology, there's the idea that focusing on the positive will evolve into additional positive experiences. So many of these kids are so often slammed for what they do wrong. So when a kid misses seven assignments but gets one in, you focus on that one — ask what it is they did right in that case, so they can learn from it."
In his twice-a-week meetings with Tim, Hoffman works to create a running conversation about recent assignments that might otherwise just swirl chaotically in Tim's head — or get buried in the stress of discussing them with parents.
"Then it's about concrete things: We get his planner out. We look at what he's written down and discuss what the upcoming assignments are going to be. We discuss what assignments he might've missed. And we've created a running column in his planner: immediate, long-term, and reminders," Hoffman says. "I'm helping him keep lists too. Recently he had to speak to his science teacher, for example. Now he writes that down in his planner because he understands he'd forget to do so otherwise."
That last part is crucial — understanding the problem. Hoffman says this "metacognitive element" is essential to effecting lasting change. By continuously talking things out, students start to recognize their own behaviors. Given the developmental limitations of a young person, that's no small trick, Hoffman says.
What's emerging from these meetings, according to Tim and his mother, are gradual but steady improvements. There haven't been any D's on his report card in a while. He's using a planner now, with an easy-to-use binder system. And he's got something like a mantra that he repeats when a teacher starts describing the evening's homework: Get the assignment in there. Get the assignment in there. It may sound obvious, but when disorganization is an ingrained habit, simplicity is key.
Still, Hoffman sees his students' tasks as about hard-won improvement rather than miraculous transformation. “I don't think they're ever going to transform into incredibly organized people,” he says referring to some of his students. “That's fine. What they can do is develop skill sets to keep their lives in order.”
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