Tuesday, August 15, 2023

A Student’s Perspective on Seeking Help

The Yellin Center is delighted to welcome guest blogger Annabel Bayer to our blogging family.  

As a young student in a classroom, you are not always aware when something is taking a toll on your learning. You may not understand why you are struggling to comprehend material as well as others, finish your assessments in the time given, or perform efficiently on in-class assignments. This can lead to frustration and self-doubt, as you question what seems wrong with you that isn’t wrong with others. Students can easily lose their confidence and motivation as confusion and anger build in regards to schoolwork. This may have an academic impact, but also impacts the mental health of the child in their daily life. 

As a student, I struggled with the challenges of slow processing. During my freshman year of high school, I began to realize that I was not understanding the material in class at the same pace as other students. In addition, I noticed that I was using all of the allotted time to finish my tests, which usually still wasn’t enough. I began to doubt myself and my capabilities to perform and succeed academically. I became frustrated and angry as I compared myself to others and my grades remained below average despite so much effort. This took a toll on my mental health as my confidence suffered. As I advanced into sophomore and junior years, these issues and feelings persisted, leading me to lose more and more motivation.

This frustration escalated to a point when my parents recommended that I get a neuropsychological evaluation to help me understand and address how I learn. I had never heard of a neuropsych, and it sounded scary, but at that point I wanted any help I could get. The neuropsych process was fascinating and enlightening. One conclusion is that I discovered was that I had slow processing. Having this knowledge about my brain gave me a sense of comfort; I understood that my processing was different from other students, but not because I was any less intelligent. Heading into my senior year, I became eligible for accommodations, permitting me to use extra time when taking tests. I performed significantly better in almost every course and my confidence and motivation as a student grew. I felt at peace discovering how many other students also struggle with learning differences and my confidence and motivation as a student grew. 

The neuropsych process helped me to recognize my ability to feel in control of my own academic success, and had such a positive impact on my mental health. In college, I continue to use my accommodations with great success, alongside many classmates from around the country who’ve experienced similar situations. My parents played an important role in helping me gain back confidence and motivation as a student. When I expressed frustration and struggles in my classes, they listened to me and tried to understand my challenges. They encouraged and supported me, even when my grades were below average, recognizing that I was always trying my hardest. 

What mattered the most was that they prioritized my emotional well-being, and paid attention to my feelings rather than focusing on my grades in my classes. They sat with me, listened, tried to understand my experience, and wanted to help. Getting a neuropsych ended up changing my academic career for the better, and I could not have done it without the support of my parents and their validation of my frustration. In writing about my experience, I hope to make students and their families feel more comfortable embarking on the neuropsych process to hopefully end any cycle of frustration and discouragement. I want students and families to realize and accept that having a learning difference does not mean that there is something wrong with you, and that using accommodations like extended time is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of taking agency. Accommodations can change your entire academic career for the better. Sometimes a little bit of help can go a long way

Annabel grew up in New York City. She is currently an undergraduate at Lehigh University majoring in Psychology. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Lead Domino Series: Part 3 - When Students Feel Stuck

Today we conclude our three-part series by guest bloggers Brandon Slade and Katie Zak of Untapped Learning, who have explored how the concept of Lead Domino can help students and others move ahead when Executive Function issues complicate their progress. Check out the first two parts of their series here and here.

We know lead dominos come in all forms. Sometimes they take the form of a task, other times the form of an action, or even a process.

For many of us, work or school is the driving force behind our "overwhelm". There’s often a big project to start, a paper or proposal to write, or a test to study for. We have to remember—the lead domino for any of those scenarios is just the one thing we can do that will give us some momentum.

Here are some frequent scenarios our students encounter:


  1. There’s an assignment due at the end of the week and you’re confused about the instructions. What’s the lead domino? Send an email.


Teachers and professors want to help you succeed. They definitely don’t want to see you fail just because you misunderstood part of an assignment. Reach out to ask for clarification, come into office hours, or even schedule a Zoom call if that would expedite the process and be more convenient. (Side note: make sure the clarifications around the instructions are documented somewhere, like in a notebook or on a Google Doc—you don’t want to have to email them a few hours later to ask again.) Asking clarification questions can save you from HOURS of work wasted on guessing. Not emailing, on the other hand, could cost hours of your future time as you redo the assignment, or the cost could be the hit your grade will take due to the points deducted. By sending this email, you’re also showing the instructor that you care about their class and your academic success overall, helping to establish a positive student/teacher relationship.

  1. You have a test coming up and you need to focus and study. What’s the lead domino? Create a clear workspace.


Notebooks, textbooks, flashcards, slideshows on your laptop—you have so many materials to sift through when preparing for an exam. They may all be helpful and necessary, but you know what’s not necessary? Yesterday’s half-full cup of coffee, the balled-up, dirty workout clothes on your chair, and pieces of an unfinished art project strewn across your desk. There’s no room for the materials you need, so take a minute to clean your space before you jump into studying. This will save you from wasting time searching for missing flashcards in the midst of scrapbook paper, or frantically cleaning up cold coffee when it inevitably spills on your notes. Take a minute to set yourself up in a clean environment, void of distractions.


  1. Tasks are piling up, but you’re just spinning your wheels. Where do you start? What’s the lead domino? Write everything down.


It’s hard to prioritize effectively if you’re not looking at a full list of the things you have to accomplish. If you have limited time to complete a number of tasks, you can’t always dive in blindly and hope for the best. Write down every task, assignment, or action that needs to be done. Once it’s all written down, you have a clearer idea of what things already have fixed times (class at 12:30, soccer practice at 4), providing structure to build around. At that point, you have everything you need to map out a realistic plan!


Planning is the first thing we do at Untapped when we sit down with students. We take every assignment, test date, dentist appointment, and violin lesson of the week and assign them to the appropriate days. If we don’t write down a test date, we might forget to account for study time in the days leading up to the test. If we don’t write down a violin lesson, we could incorrectly assume the number of hours available to do homework that night. Creating a plan is one of the best lead dominos, on both micro and macro levels, when you find yourself needing to get started. Whether you’re looking at your week as a whole, or you just can’t bring yourself to get to work on a specific project, take a moment to make a plan and organize your thoughts.

Monday, February 6, 2023

The Lead Domino Series: Part 2 - Beyond Academics

 We are pleased to share the second part of a three-part series by a new team of guest bloggers, Brandon Slade and Katie Zak of Untapped Learning, whose first post for The Yellin Center Blog explained the concept of the Lead Domino as a way to look at Executive Functioning.

When we talk about the lead domino with our students, it’s often in the context of school.

 If you can finish the missed homework assignment in math from Monday, you’ll have a better, more complete understanding of that section, then you’ll be able to finish your review packet, which will set you up for focused studying material for the chapter test next week…

However, we sometimes face situations where our lead domino is something outside of academics or work; it’s actually just a small change we could implement in our everyday lives that would make things run more smoothly.

One of our favorite lead domino examples to help people start their day off on the right foot is the landing/launching pad. For adults, the landing pad is where we drop our wallet, keys, and sunglasses as soon as we walk in the door. When we leave, it becomes our launching pad. Because we’re taking the step to place our necessities in the same spot every time we come home, we aren’t scrambling the next time we head out the door. Everything is right where we left it, every time. We can simply scoop up those essentials and leave on time. For students, a launching pad can be an organized backpack sitting by the front door each morning. At night, if you and your student can take the time to pack their laptop, chargers, pencils, all binders, etc., and even make lunch before heading to bed, you can prevent the majority of conflicts that usually take over your mornings.

Another lead domino that can positively affect our day is exercise—we know that exercise is the miracle drug. Exercising helps us activate neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. When we find ourselves stuck, unmotivated, or overloaded, getting up to go for a 20-minute walk can change the trajectory of our whole day and our productivity. This exercise increases blood flow to the brain, triggers those neurotransmitters, and helps us concentrate. When we return to our to-do list, workload, or whatever it is that’s overwhelming us, we’ll find that our focus has improved significantly thanks to that exercise and its impact on our brain. When students are stuck on a homework assignment and have been sitting in front of a computer for too long, the action they need to take is entirely non-academic; they just need to get up and move.

One of the most important, and hardest, lead dominos that sets us up for success, is sleep. Sleep can dictate almost every aspect of our lives: focus, mood, energy level, etc. It has the power to positively or negatively define a day, or even a week. However, getting more sleep is never a quick fix. Behind better sleep is a routine that must be developed and maintained.

The lead domino can be, but does not always need to be, an action or a task that defines your whole day. It may simply be a choice that can help you move forward in a small series of events, and you probably have a few lead dominos that you could choose from that would all result in the same outcome—you just have to get started. Common examples of this include: jumping in the shower, making a cup of coffee, or choosing to face the one task you’ve been putting off that’s hanging over your head. All of these actions can help you move forward in a small way, but that little bit of momentum can make it easier to tackle the rest of your day. Two hold-ups we see, in both adults and in adolescents, are: struggling to follow-through with the lead domino, and getting caught between two actions and not being able to decide the best way to move forward.

For example: You’re trying to brush your teeth and get out the door to go grocery shopping. As you’re putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, you realize you have a load of clean laundry that needs to be moved from the washer to the dryer. So you put down your toothbrush to go flip the laundry, but on your way to the basement you stop to pick up and put away shoes that were a tripping hazard. As you’re putting them away, you notice some empty mugs on the coffee table, which reminds you that you haven’t had a single sip of water all morning. You pause for a minute to go grab and drink a nice, big glass of water. As you set the glass down, you remember the laundry, but you also remember that your toothbrush is sitting on the bathroom sink, locked and loaded for you to brush your teeth. What’s your next move?

Brush your teeth, flip the laundry—you just need to decide. Committing to that decision and moving forward will help propel you to achieve your original goal: getting out the door and making it to the grocery store.

Does this series of events sound familiar?

As parents, educators, or just trusted adults, we can get so focused on helping students succeed that we forget that everything we relay to our students also applies to us. We’re not above facing those daily challenges, they just typically don’t come to us in the form of math assignments. When we can apply our own advice to ourselves, we model real-world efforts and accomplishments for our students, showing them the effectiveness of our lead dominos outside of school.

Monday, January 30, 2023

The Lead Domino: A Unique Way to Look at Executive Functioning

We are pleased to welcome a new team of guest bloggers, Brandon Slade and Katie Zak of Untapped Learning, who today begin a three-part series, introducing a new way to look at Executive Functioning.


Some days, we feel stuck. Maybe we have a clear to-do list with reasonable tasks, maybe we have a full page of high-priority items. In both scenarios, we can feel overwhelmed and find ourselves spinning our wheels. Why can’t we just pick something from the list and get to work? In these moments, we debate if we should choose the easiest tasks just so we can knock them out quickly, or if we should start a harder, longer task that’s the source of some tangible anxiety. Instead of getting caught between these two options, we have a third: Find the lead domino. 

Part 1: Identifying the Lead Domino 

Take a step back. Look at your list. Maybe even look beyond your list. What one thing could you do that might positively impact the rest of your day? Maybe it’s not a work or school task, maybe it’s just jumping in the shower. Maybe it’s pausing to really prioritize your to-do list. Maybe it’s committing to not checking your phone, email, or other distractions that can pull your attention, until the task with the closest deadline is complete. Regardless of what your specific “lead domino” is, it has the power to positively impact your day. By knocking it down, you’ve opened yourself up to a strategy and system that can more easily carry you through the rest of your responsibilities. One domino knocks over the next, and the next, and the momentum is perpetuated in a chain reaction.

If you begin with a “lead domino” task, you can build the momentum needed to cross off the rest of your list items more easily—even if they are exponentially larger. Often, by achieving one key task on the list, the rest of the tasks will be significantly easier. 

If you set up 13 dominos in a row, each domino one and a half times bigger than the one before, the first domino could be five millimeters tall and the last domino could be more than one meter tall and weigh 100 pounds. If you knock the first domino over, after just 13 “reactions,” the largest domino would topple over easily. We can apply this idea to our lists. The “lead domino” task is like the five millimeter domino; if you get this one accomplished, toppling the 100 pound domino at the end will be much easier than trying to push over the heaviest domino first. How can we identify the lead domino? 

● Slow down: This may feel counterintuitive when the goal is to accomplish your long to-do list, but by slowing down and taking the time to examine which tasks will help achieve other tasks, you will make your systems more efficient. Taking the time to identify the lead domino allows us to re-evaluate priorities, reorganize your list, and maximize efficiency. 

● Ask yourself: How do these tasks relate to one another? How can you shift the order of your tasks to best maintain your momentum? 

● Make a new list: Based on the information you’ve observed, make a fresh list. For example: As a busy college student, creating an email template will help you cross off the three emails that you need to send to professors, allowing you to figure out what your missing assignments are, which then will let you get to work on those assignments. All of those tasks are grouped together and they depend on tipping over that lead domino: creating the email template. 

Completing your lead domino may take awhile and be more tedious than you’d like, but by tackling this task first, the other tasks will be easier to complete going forward. Your lead domino could be anything from outlining a paper to going to the gym for a workout! Both of these activities are examples of lead dominos that give you the momentum to get your work (or your day!) started.

image by wirestock on Freepik