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Starting a Nature Journal

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By Kristin Backert-Evans

Like many of you, I scrambled to locate fun, educational activities to work on with my students when distance learning began. With schools significantly reducing the amount of homework students normally received, they found themselves with tons of extra time in their schedules. As I searched through various activities, I found one that spoke to my students’ inner naturalist: a nature journal.

A nature journal is exactly what it sounds like. You can either observe an animal in your backyard or on a zoo’s livestream if you don’t happen to have tigers lurking nearby, and you watch them. Whether it’s for a matter of minutes or a half hour, you then write down what you see: how the animal behaves, what it looks like, and what its environment appears to be. After that, you create a list of questions based on your observations. For example, why does this animal have claws? Why does it have short fur even though it lives in a cold environment? The next step is to research potential answers to these questions and jot down what you discover. Depending on how artistically-inclined your children are, you can also have them draw a picture of the animal so that they can refer back to it later! 

The nature journal was a big hit with my younger kiddos, especially those in elementary school. To me, this activity was a great way to work on their attention and critical thinking skills. For many kids with executive functioning weaknesses, sustaining focus on a single task can be a challenge, as they tend to become distracted. Watching an animal, though, was something that they were legitimately interested in, and this exercise allowed them to practice the crucial skill of concentrating. Not only that, the observatory nature of the journal required them to process what they were seeing and think about its larger purpose; instead of just noting that the animal had claws or short fur, they asked themselves why this was the case.

If you’re looking for fun activities to do with your kids this summer that promote executive functioning skills, I highly recommend giving the nature journal a go!

Erica MechlinskiStarting a Nature Journal

Choosing A College Major

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By Kristin Backert

You’ve finished the college application process, you’ve been accepted to a university, you’ve hit it off with your roommate…but what comes next? How do you make the big decision of what to study? You’ve probably heard from several people that choosing the right major will have a huge impact on your life post-school and that if you choose incorrectly, you’ll regret it later. With all this pressure, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed, especially when it seems like everyone around you has a clear idea of what they want to do with their lives. 

The pressure is real, there’s no denying it. Yet it’s crucial to not rush into a major without first giving it a lot of thought. There are many factors that should go into your decision about what to study, and this list is just a small sampling:

  • Talk to people.Your academic advisor, professors, and TAs are here for several reasons, and one is to give you advice! You’re not the first person who’s been confused by college majors, so reach out to your support team. They can share their own experiences and those of others; talking to someone who’s been through the same challenge and seeing how they’ve grown can be a huge morale boost.
  • Think big. A common misconception that students have is that there is only one job they can have based on their major (English = teacher, History = historian, Philosophy = Plato’s heir), and that’s just not true! If you love to read, consider majoring in English. Not only will you develop critical thinking and communication skills, you will be able to apply these skills to a variety of fields, such as law. Each major offers a skillset that can be applied to multiple disciplines, so don’t discount a major without first looking into the skills it offers.
  • Take gen eds.Colleges tend to require students to take classes from a variety of disciplines. While it may sound terrible to take another math or French class, taking gen eds is actually a great way to figure out which majors you like and which you don’t. If your Bio 101 class makes you want to fall asleep but your Chem 101 class piques your interest, consider signing up for another class! Don’t prejudge your gen eds before seeing whether any of them appeal to you. 
  • Consider your interests.It’s no secret that some jobs pay more than others. But majoring in something you don’t legitimately enjoy will be painful. If you’re passionate about dance, take some classes to explore it! You may discover that the teaching aspect of dance is something you can see yourself getting into, or perhaps you’re enthralled by writing about the history of dance. Majoring in something that puts a smile on your face will make the next four years go by happily, and you’ll feel more confident in looking for jobs later on. It’s hard to pick a major without first taking some classes, so sign up for the ones that you’re sincerely interested in!

Half of college freshmen end up switching their major, so you’re in good company if you change your mind about what you want to study. The important thing is to experiment in your first two years. Take a bunch of classes, write down your impressions of each, and talk to people in those departments. In fact, you can declare yourself as an Exploratory or Undecided Major until you find the right classes that speak to you. You don’t need to have your life figured out on Day One of college; all you need to do is keep an open mind.

Erica MechlinskiChoosing A College Major

The Secret Power of Board Games

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By Stephan Nazarian

With the holidays in the rearview mirror, I’m hoping to convince you to carry over one holiday tradition throughout the new year. If your family is anything like mine, the long open stretches of time afforded by the holidays means board games. While games can simply be a way to pass the time during your next snow day, they can also be a powerful tool for challenging your child’s brain. Everyone knows the timeless classics, but the arrival of the internet has given a platform to the widest variety of games in human history, some specifically designed to help strengthen your child’s brain and others hiding that mental goodness under a thick layer of family fun.

Consider the following games, organized by the skill they primarily challenge, for your next family game night:

  • Logic and Reasoning. The oldest games in the world almost always revolve around strategy, and strategy means logic and reasoning. These ancient games remain a powerful tool for building your child’s fluid reasoning skills, whether it’s Go, Chess, or Mancala. If you are looking for something more modern, strategy games like Catan, Axis & Allies, Risk, and Diplomacy force players to weigh dozens of factors and make strategic decisions to press an advantage. All of these games, based on concrete rules but with no defined path, build the type of flexible thinking that makes tests like the SAT and ACT much easier to tame.
  • Language. Perhaps no type of game has benefited more from the boom in game development as much as those requiring our language processing skills. From the old standbys like Scrabble and crossword puzzles, to fun new party games like Apples to Apples and Bananagrams, these games challenge players to utilize their language skills in new and different ways. But most importantly, they allow children to work on these vital skills without even knowing it. 
  • Memory. Most of the games on this list will test a child’s memory, whether short-term or long-term. Chess grand masters can recall the step-by-step gameplay of matches they played decades before. Scrabble requires players to quickly search their long-term memory. And many card games your family may already be playing (my family played Hi Low Jack) reward players for remembering what cards have appeared. There are also many games that reward memory directly, such as Guess Who, Simon Says, and, of course, Memory. 
  • Creativity. Mastering Calculus is important and clear enough that a robot could learn it, but success in the humanities requires a bit more creativity. Games like Dixit, Salad Bowl, and Pictionary challenge players to be more creative. Building creativity is essential for a wide range of humanities skills from writing essays to understanding the complex metaphorical language in Shakespeare. 

Any of these games can be a fun evening for a family while also helping children to build crucial skills for their future success. But the best advice when it comes to games is mixing it up. My grandmother could knock out the New York TimesSunday crossword in under 10 minutes and she absolutely always knew who was holding the Jack, but one of the biggest benefits to games comes from the learning. As you challenge your brain to understand not only the rules, but also the strategies that underpin the game, new neural pathways are being built. Once you’ve become an expert, construction has usually long since concluded. So trade games with your neighbor, go to a restaurant where they have a collection of board games, or check out new games from your local library. Challenge your child to read the rules and explain the game to the rest of the family. Ask them how the game you’re playing this week is different than, and how it’s the same as, the game you played last week. With the current boom in board game, you could play a new game every single week and never run out of new option

Erica MechlinskiThe Secret Power of Board Games

To-Do Lists: Check the Box

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By Kristen Carlson

We can all benefit from the use of checklists – whether we’re shopping at the grocery store, keeping track of appointments, or planning for a trip! Making a list helps us to orient, organize, and prioritize our thoughts to come up with a clear plan. For students, to-do lists help break down longer-term projects, which are often breeding grounds for procrastination, into individual, easier-to-accomplish subtasks with firm deadlines. In the 21stcentury, creating checklists on your phone makes your tasks even more accessible; you can even sync your tasks to your smartwatch!

Here are some to-do list highlights to try out:

  • Google Tasks: Many students use Google Classroom or Google Drive in school, which makes Google Tasks a perfect option for tracking assignments. Not only can you access Tasks from the sidebar when using any Google application, but tasks can be synced to your calendar and accessed from your phone. Students who have messy handwriting or find it challenging to utilize a traditional academic planner may find checking off their work using Google Tasks a much easier and productive method.
  • Microsoft To-Do: This task app syncs your to-do lists to your Microsoft 365 account so you can access it from your Outlook Calendar. Tasks can be moved, grouped, and organized into individual sections. This app also allows you to make subtasks to break down more complex responsibilities. You can assign tasks or share your lists with other members in your organization, which makes this app ideal for working professionals!
  • Actions by Moleskine: With this app, you can view, track, and color-code your tasks. When you create a task, the app takes care of scheduling, reminders, and notifications. This way, you can receive push notifications when you need to get a job done! Tasks can also be moved around by priority and can be dropped into lists. This app also offers smartwatch and Siri compatibility, which makes it even easier to keep track of important items and keep your productivity hands-free.
  • Post-It: Take pictures of existing Post-it notes or add your own digital notes to help you brainstorm, collaborate, and get organized! Once you’ve added your notes, you can group them on a grid and share them to PowerPoint, Excel, PDF, and more. This app allows a lot of creativity and independence, and it’s great for group projects, business meetings, or quick reminders when you are on the go!
  • Good Old Pen and Paper: If you’re not tech-savvy or just prefer the act of physically writing tasks down, putting pen to paper is always a great option. If it’s a grocery list, consider grouping items by their location in your local store. If it’s a daily list, you might organize the tasks by the order you want to accomplish them in. Add check boxes next to each object or action so you can get satisfaction out of checking them off the list!

There are many options out there when it comes to checklists; some prioritize accessibility and ease, while others focus on versatility and functionality. It’s important to try multiple possibilities until you find one that works best for you. Ultimately, your efforts will result in the same outcome: a handy tool to help you plan, prevent procrastination, and give you the satisfaction of getting the job done! 

Erica MechlinskiTo-Do Lists: Check the Box

School Mornings

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By Kristin Backert

The alarm rings. Once. Twice. Three times. You go into your child’s room and discover he’s still sleeping. You tell him to get out of bed, and he mumbles that he will in a minute. When you return 30 minutes later, he’s still snoozing away but bolts up in a panic when you inform him that the bus is leaving in five minutes.

Sound familiar?

If your child is struggling to get out of bed when the alarm rings, there are several things you can do to help him feel more in control. First, establish a routine. While it’s difficult to predict the amount of homework a student gets on a given night, aim to have a “light’s out” time so that he knows it’s time to unwind and go to sleep at a reasonable time. If your child struggles to stick to this light’s out time at first, that’s okay! It’ll take time to adjust, so in the meantime, try to get him into bed within a half hour of the light’s out time. By doing so, this will increase his chances of not only getting enough sleep, but feeling rested enough to wake up in the morning with no fuss. This routine can encompass other elements as well, such as picking out an outfit the night before and placing a packed backpack near the front door to reduce stress in the morning.

Another method your child can try is to manage his academics effectively. Part of the reason that students stay up so late is they misjudge how long an assignment will take them, or they lose focus. Have your child set a timer for 25 minutes; he must work continuously during this time, and when the 25 minutes are up, your child earns a 5-minute break. He then returns for another 25-minute block of work, and so on and so forth. By scheduling blocks of work and breaks, your child will be able to remain more focused and complete his work efficiently. It’s also helpful to teach your child how to gauge how long he believes an assignment will take him so he can judge how many 25-minute blocks he should devote to it and how he should prioritize his assignments. 

School mornings have a bad rap, but they don’t have to if you plan accordingly! If your child goes to sleep at about the same time every night and learns to manage his time while attending to his homework, waking up in the morning and heading off to school will be a breeze.  

Erica MechlinskiSchool Mornings

#FunFriday: Solitaire

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If you’ve ever owned a computer (or, if you’re old-fashioned, a deck of cards), there’s a good chance you’ve played Solitaire. While this game is a great way to pass the time, did you know that it also helps strengthen executive function skills? The game teaches you to expand your flexible thinking skills as you consider all your options. It also encourages you to analyze the steps you took and to learn from your mistakes. #FunFriday

Get more fun tips on our FaceBook page!

Erica Mechlinski#FunFriday: Solitaire

You Never Know When You Need Excellent Executive Functions!

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By Rhona Gordon

I am hoping that all of you are relaxing and enjoying the pool, ocean, or air conditioning! Even with summer schedules, I hope it feels less hectic than the pace during the school year. However, this is NOT what I am experiencing this summer. In the first week of June, I tripped on a carpet and broke my right wrist; I knew it the second I landed on the floor! One positive is that I’m a lefty, so I had no trouble writing and working! I had never had a cast before, so I had no idea what I was in for. Right away, my brain started saying that I needed to find compensatory strategies to get me through the 6-8 weeks of being in a cast, which by the way, feels like a vice on your arm and fingers! So, I called upon my executive functioning skills to help me out!

I needed cognitive flexibility to set myself up to manage with this cast on. 

  1.  My vitamins and all bottles, like shampoo and face wash had to be opened and left with the cap loosely fitted around the bottle – okay, I asked for help on this one and the task was accomplished!
  2. I was having trouble in and out of the shower, so what did I do? What we all do – searched Amazon and got what I needed – a long handle with a sponge on the end to help one-handed washing!
  3. Typing on the computer was very painful, so I used what I tell my students to use: speech to text. It transcribed about 80% of what I said correctly, so I used my left hand to make the changes. 

The last thing is time management. My speed of accomplishing any task was WAY slower with a broken wrist. How could I NOT be on time? That would be terrible. So, I started planning every move with forward thinking and working backwards from the deadline, which is exactly what we tell all out wonderful clients to do! I looked at all my appointments and added anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour for on time arrivals. Actually, I think I should train the airlines to use the same strategy! This was not an easy task, and it meant less sleep, but hey, who can sleep with a broken wrist, anyway??

I’m happy to report that seven weeks have passed, and my cast is now off. I thought I would be totally fine once the bone was healed, but no, now I have to counteract the side effects of having an immobile arm for 6 ½ weeks. Oh well, I will need to continue to use my Excellent Executive Functions to help me navigate all the physical therapy I now have to endure. But I am grateful to have these skills in place, and I ask all of you to remember the organization strategies that you learn while working with Thinking Organized. You need them every day, and sometimes when you least expect it. Finally, if you ever find yourself in a cast (and I truly hope you don’t), call me. I’ll give you the specific executive functioning skills for broken bones!

Erica MechlinskiYou Never Know When You Need Excellent Executive Functions!

Keeping Up with Academics in Summer

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By Jennifer Sax

After ten months of working hard in school, many parents want to give their children a break over the summer. While summer fun and relaxing are extremely important, it is also essential that students maintain their skills so they are ready for the upcoming school year.  Research shows that taking an extended break from academic work can “un-do” some of the skills that students gained during the school year, and this is especially true for our students with learning disabilities, ADHD, and executive functioning challenges. To prevent summer learning loss, it’s essential that your children find a way to balance fun and academics. Here are some great ideas!

  • Set up tutoring sessions. The Educational Mentors and Speech-Language Pathologists at Thinking Organized are available throughout the summer for individual sessions to work on summer packets, summer reading, and to reinforce executive functioning skills. 
  • Enroll in a learning-based program. When your children are home from sleep-away camp and/or vacation, enroll them in one of the intensive academic or group programs at Thinking Organized. Master Math, Ready Reader, and Just Write programs can be scheduled to fit your summer plan while targeting crucial academic skills.
  • Write daily. A summer journal can keep your children writing over the summer, which will help reinforce their ability to craft clear and descriptive prose. You can have them write about their day, or give them funny or interesting prompts to write about. If you would like a list of these, feel free to contact us!
  • Start a family book club.Read the same book as your children and discuss it chapter by chapter. This can help improve and support reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. Have your child make predictions, connections between events, and look up unknown vocabulary. 

It is important to cherish the enjoyable, relaxing, and care-free aspects of summer, but don’t let that come at the cost of skill regression. Thinking Organized is here to help your children maintain and build skills at a time that is convenient for you! 

Erica MechlinskiKeeping Up with Academics in Summer

Procrastination and Laziness: Two Sides of Two Different Coins

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By Colette Hapi

As parents of children who have ADHD or those who have the proclivity to procrastinate, it can be easy to assume that this avoidance stems from laziness. In fact, there’s a good chance that your children’s teachers have told you that they could do so much better if they would just apply themselves and stop being so lazy. 

However, it turns out that procrastination is rarely a symptom of laziness. So the question becomes, if your children’s procrastination habits are not a result of laziness, then what are they a result of?’ According to Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a doctor of psychology, “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.” It is likely that your children avoid doing certain tasks because those tasks elicit certain moods, and procrastination serves as a coping mechanism for the challenging emotions and negative moods (including boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, and self-doubt) induced by said tasks. Children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, where focusing on tasks is already difficult, tend to procrastinate more due to feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, or insecurity, as opposed to laziness. They worry that they won’t be able to accomplish a task correctly, and so they figure it’s better to not even try.

As parents and educators, we try to help these students by encouraging them to break a task down into smaller pieces, make a plan to tackle each piece, and then execute their plan. While this sounds good on paper, students’ feelings of anxiety, fear, and inadequacy impedes them from making thoughtful decisions on how to attack the task at hand, which makes them more prone to procrastination, thereby creating a vicious cycle.  So how do we help our children? The most important thing is to realize that their procrastination is not about productivity but about emotions. If we are able to help them manage their emotions properly by talking about them openly and acknowledging their value, then that will help them procrastinate less. 

Erica MechlinskiProcrastination and Laziness: Two Sides of Two Different Coins