Thursday, April 2, 2020

Part Four - Executive Function Help: Maintaining Organization, Minimizing Distractions, and Managing Logins

As we all remain on "lock down" and kids and adults alike are working from home, we conclude our timely four part series by Beth Guadagni on helping your children (and maybe yourself) organize their digital lives.

We are operating The Yellin Center remotely at the moment, complying with the Governor's mandate. We are responding to calls, speaking with families, and using telemedicine wherever possible. Please stay in touch, stay home, and stay safe!

Maintaining Digital Organization
Lots of parents and teachers help students implement systems to organize work and important dates, only to see those systems fall apart quickly. This can be frustrating. Parents/teachers/kids typically react to an initial failure of this kind in the same way: they throw up their hands and assume that the system didn’t work or that the student is simply beyond help in this department. Now, we’re not saying that every system works for every student. However, every student should be given ample opportunities to succeed within a system before it is discarded in favor of another.

If you read our last few posts or if you’re trying a new system of your own, schedule time every single school day (and maybe once on weekends) for your student to tidy up her digital life. Setting a time for this for this home schooling era calls for some flexibility but this is usually best done after the school day ends, before homework begins. Help you student put this on her calendar, if she keeps one. Set aside at least 15 minutes initially, and sit with her for at least the first few sessions.
First, she’ll need to work on email. Remember that her goal is to have no more than ten messages in her inbox. Look at each email that’s there and encourage her to consider the following questions: 

  • Which of these can be taken care of quickly. 
    • She should write and send a quick reply, add a date to her calendar, etc., then archive them.
  • Which of these are pressing? 
    • She should do what needs to be done in time to meet an upcoming deadline, then archive them.
  • Which of these can I leave here? How do I know this?
    • She should articulate a clear plan for why the emails aren’t as pressing as others and when she will return to them.
Now, on to files: prompt her to go through each folder of her digital file storage. Any document that is in the wrong place should be moved, and anything that is not titled should be named immediately. If she needs to create any documents for that day’s homework, watch her create them from the correct folder and title them right off the bat.

Habits take time to form, but these are so powerful that they are worth the time. Be consistent with practice and troubleshooting and your student will be develop skills that will serve her throughout her life.

Minimizing Distractions

For kids who struggle with executive function, doing online research can be a minefield. Watching a helpful YouTube video aimed at learning a procedure or conducting research (yes, those exist) can spiral into an hour-long session of following clickbait. Extraneous content on webpages can distract your student from the task at hand.

If your student uses Chrome, help her install an extension called DF YouTube; the DF stands for “distraction-free.” When it’s turned on, this extension hides all the thumbnails advertising related—or, often, not-so-related—videos that can tempt students down the rabbit hole.

While you’re installing things, add an ad-blocker. A good one like AdsKill will prevent pop-up banners and videos and even malware. Many people with poor executive function struggle to filter out distractions, so these tools can help students zero in on the material at hand, allowing them to produce better work, faster.

Managing Logins
Most adults are overwhelmed by the number of logins that need to be managed, so imagine the difficulties faced by young people with weak executive function! We recommend two ways to approach this problem: a master list or a password keeper.

If it would benefit your student to give teachers, tutors, etc. access to passwords for academic sites (think school email, typing practice, Schoology, etc.), consider a master list. Help your student create a document, to be stored in the cloud, with an innocuous name like “Jenny’s Stuff.” On it, put all the login credentials she needs for academic sites. (To protect her privacy, she should not enter anything social or financial.) Next, share this document with any professionals who might need it. Now your student has what she needs to access important sites, and if she struggles an adult can jump in and point her in the right direction.

If your student is more independent (and can be trusted to remember one master password), help her set up an account with a free service like LastPass or Keeper Security. These services are great because when a student is logged in to the service, she can open whatever page she needs to access and her saved login credentials will auto-populate. However, a huge word of caution here: If your student loses track of her device and someone else finds it, they may be able to get into all of her accounts. Help her set up preferences for her password keeper that will log her out automatically after half an hour or so. Also, be certain that your student’s laptop, phone, and tablet are all protected with a good password or passcode. “1234” will not cut it.

Technology can be hugely helpful to students, but the digital world brings challenges as well. We hope this series has given you some useful ideas for helping your student use these tools to her advantage!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Executive Function Help: Part Three - Teaching Kids to Manage Their Email Accounts

As we all remain on "lock down" and kids and adults alike are working from home, we continue with Beth Guadagni's timely series on helping your children (and maybe yourself) organize their digital lives. 

We are operating The Yellin Center remotely at the moment, complying with the Governor's mandate. We are responding to calls, speaking with families, and using telemedicine wherever possible. Please stay in touch, stay home, and stay safe!

Establish Order
Many adults lack strategies for managing their email inboxes, so you may be learning alongside your student here! Virtually everyone who has an email account finds themselves flooded with incoming messages. Important emails get lost in the clutter, and many students don’t notice these critical messages when they come in and can’t find them easily later.

To solve this dilemma, help your student create folders for his email. Just like when he organized his files, he’ll want one for the current school year with a folder for each subject within it. Within the folder for that school year, he should also create a folder for each school activity he gets emails about (Cross Country, Band, etc.). If he gets personal email through this account, he should create a Personal folder as well, and he may want one for extra-curricular activities, too (Ski Team, Community Theater, etc.). And he’ll want at least one folder for older emails; if it’s unlikely that he’ll need to look back through them, he may want just one called Archive. Otherwise, he can create one for each year.

Clear out the Inbox
Explain to your student that the goal is to have almost nothing in his inbox. (More on that later.) First, starting with the oldest files, your student should delete anything and everything that he will never need again. This includes all advertisements, every message from Google informing him that someone logged in to his account from a new device, etc. As with organizing his digital files, this could take a while. Encourage him to do a little each day. Because this kind of purging is a fairly mindless process, some kids can do it while watching TV, riding in the car, etc. (Others will need more focus; you know your child best.) To be frank, most of us never need to reference old emails again. However, you never know when something from the past will turn out to be useful, so err on the side of caution when it comes to deleting.

Now that all the junk is gone, your student should categorize older emails by making use of his folder system. Show him how to drag emails into the right places, starting with the oldest ones first. Again, this will likely take some time. He should keep going until he has only a handful of emails left in his inbox. Aim for ten (or fewer). Everything that’s left should be considered “active.” For example, the email from his math teacher reminding the class that they have a test in two days is still active (though in two days it won’t be). The email from his debate coach that he needs to write a reply to is still active. The packing list for the overnight field trip last month is not active and should be moved.

Maintain Order
Believe it or not, there is a magic formula for ensuring that important emails never go unnoticed and that your student doesn’t read, then forget about, an email (and this formula may just help some adults you know, too…) He should never have more than about ten emails in his inbox at any time. Ideally, he should have fewer than that. His inbox can double as a to-do list if he manages it that way. Here’s how: Each time he reads a new email, he should do one of three things:

1) Delete it immediately – Spam should not languish in his inbox. This is the easiest action.

2) Take care of it and archive it – Write a response, download the attachment, add a date to his calendar, then move the email into the right folder. Anything he’s taken care of should not sit in his inbox.

3) Keep it in his inbox because further action is needed, but he’s not going to do it right now.

Old habits, as they say, die hard, and your student may need many weeks of supported, daily practice. He’ll need to be reminded to purge and categorize. He will likely need help determining what can wait and what should be taken care of now. But he’ll likely start to feel less anxiety about what’s overlooking, motivating him to want to maintain the order he’s created.

Coming up in our next and final post in this series, a grab-bag of topics: First, you’ve got great systems – how do you make sure they actually get used? We’ll also cover tips for minimizing internet distractions and staying on top of the many logins students are expected to manage.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Executive Function Help: Teaching Kids to Manage Their Digital Files

Back on March 11, which now seems a long time ago, we introduced a series of posts by Beth Guadagni on executive function and how kids can manage their digital lives. Now that students are working from home, keeping their digital materials organized is more important than ever. So we are picking up this series and hope that it helps your students stay on track. As Beth noted during her introductory post on this subject "having a sense of control over their time and materials lowers anxiety". And we can all benefit from a bit less anxiety in our lives.

Teachers’ increasing reliance on cloud storage like Google Drive means no more lost papers – hooray! Your student can now access assignment sheets and submit work online. But working from the cloud can mean misplaced files. Some kids have even more difficulty with digital file storage than they did with papers because they often use the same account throughout their career at a school or in a district. That means that, in theory, if a high school senior was assigned her district email address when she was in, say, fifth grade, she could be searching through seven years’ worth of disorganized digital files. Not pretty.

Here are some tips for helping your student resolve the digital chaos. Remember: It’s almost certainly going to take a while for your student to do all this independently, so provide patient support for as long as she needs.

Establish Order 

A student shouldn’t store work on both a computer’s hard drive and in a digital cloud because it can be hard to remember which of the two places she used last. Ask her to commit to one. Once she’s committed, first thing’s first: Create a system for a student’s existing files and help her put things where they belong.

She should begin by creating one folder for the current school year and one for each previous year from which she has documents saved. If she gives the file the name of each grade (e.g. 8th, 9th, 10th, etc.), she should be sure to arrange them in reverse-chronological order so that her most current grade shows up on top.

Now, within the folder for the current year she should create one folder for each of her classes. If she includes a number to correspond with which period she has each class (e.g. 1. Biology, 2. Spanish, etc.), the folders will be organized in the order of her schedule and not alphabetically.

If you really want to take things to the next level, most file storage systems will allow users to choose colors for each folder. Pick a color for each subject, then give your student colored pens, folders, and binder dividers to correspond with her digital organization system. For example, if she chooses green for biology, the divider for the biology section of her binder could be green, too. She could also use a green pen to put biology assignments into her planner (or choose green for biology work she enters into her electronic calendar). This color-coding process can help her make sense of her schedule and materials at a glance. Better yet, the mental process of selecting the correct color each time she saves information and writes down a due date enforces the categorization of the different parts of her schedule, helping her brain to be as organized as her planner and files.

Now that she’s got her system in place, it’s time to organize her files. This could be a multi-day process if she’s got several years’ worth of documents willy-nilly, and that’s OK. Anything from previous years can get dragged into the appropriate folder for that year; there is usually no need to organize them further. With documents created during the current school year, your student should take the extra step of dragging files into each class’s folder. Show her how to arrange her files by date in reverse, so that the most recent documents are at the top of the list.

Maintain Order

If you’ve gotten this far with your student, you’ve almost certainly encountered an alarming number of documents named “Untitled.” This frustrating situation is a great learning opportunity. Point out to your student that she has open each of these documents to determine what it is before she can put it in the right place. This is a waste of time, and after having to do this over and over she’ll likely become a believer in titling documents. The next step is to make titling a habit. A good practice is to prompt your student to title each new document immediately upon creating it, before she begins working on it. If she uses Google Docs, she can type the title into the body of the document, then click on the field for the name of the doc and the title she entered will auto-populate, so she needs to type it only once.

Each time your student creates a document, slide show, etc., she’ll need to drag it into the correct folder. But for kids with weak EF, streamlining processes is important. If she uses Google Drive she can eliminate this step and still stay organized. Show her how to create the new document from within the correct folder. Next time she needs to type a reading response for a novel, for example, ask her to open the folder for that school year, then for Language Arts. Now, when she clicks “New,” the document will automatically be saved to that folder. (She can, of course, move it later if she accidentally creates it in the wrong place.)

Step One: Complete! Now that your student can find what she needs on her hard drive or in her cloud storage, check back for our next post about how to manage email.