Latest news

A Memory Palace

No comments

One of the key executive functioning skills that Thinking Organized stresses is memory. We all know that many courses in school require that students memorize vast amounts of information in order to do well. The challenge is how to keep all of that information in one’s mind without looking at notes or calling up our smartest friend, Google. Thinking Organized teaches its students a number of memory enhancement strategies such as visualizing, chunking, mnemonic devices and the method of loci, more commonly known as building a memory palace.

Alex Mullen, a “memory athlete” and Johns Hopkins graduate who became the first American to win the World Memory Championship in 2015, uses this method to help himself succeed in medical school and to win memory competitions. Mullen, who currently attends the University of Mississippi School of Medicine, focuses on the method of loci for memorizing long lists of terms in his med school classes. It’s a technique used at least as far back as the Roman Empire. The method of loci, or the memory palace, is based on the fact that we all know our immediate environments very well, such as our rooms, our homes, schools, streets in our neighborhood or our favorite hiking routes. Associate the very-well known with new information, and your brain will make a link between the two that is hard to forget.

Take a look at this video as Mullen demonstrates how to easily memorize a list of 20 random words by building a Memory Palace.

Mullen’s website,, has a plethora of videos, questions and answers and in-depth looks at other memory enhancement techniques.

Next time you need to memorize a long list of names, places or formulas—remember this!

Erica MechlinskiA Memory Palace

The Power of Music

No comments

Learning how to play a musical instrument provides a multitude of benefits for a person of any age. For school-age students in particular, however, the power of music is tremendous. Not only does playing a musical instrument teach persistence and discipline, but it also increases students’ abilities to process sounds. This links to the ability to read and understand language, as well as focus in the classroom. For example, making sense of a variety of complicated sounds in band practice is similar to being able to focus on what a teacher is saying in a noisy classroom.

In a study conducted by Sylvain Moreno, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, musical training enhanced executive function in 90 percent of students. This includes their ability to “plan, organize, strategize, and solve problems.” Think about all of the skills required to play an instrument in a musical ensemble. You have to be able to coordinate the appropriate motor movements to produce the correct sound, simultaneously pay attention to the music around you and read your sheet music to know what to play when, plan ahead to properly execute what the composer is asking, manage your time to maintain a practice schedule, and much more. It sounds like this would be a lot of tedious, hard work, but for many students learning to play an instrument is an enjoyable, welcome challenge that can last a lifetime.

Given the boost to your brain that music provides, why not try picking up a musical instrument this summer?


Erica MechlinskiThe Power of Music

The Meaning Behind Motivation

No comments

Thinking Organized recently welcomed Rebecca Kullback, Licensed Certified Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-C) and co-founder of Metropolitan Counseling Services in Bethesda, to speak at our staff development meeting and give us a new perspective on the topic of motivation. We all know what it is like to dread getting started on certain tasks, procrastinate, and feel a lack of motivation. One interesting point that Ms. Kullback brought up is that we have to be mindful of why this might be the case. In any given situation, who is the person that wants a certain behavior to be executed? If a child’s room is messy, for instance, a parent might tell him to clean his room. The child may not see any purpose in doing so and is just fine with the mess, appearing unmotivated to complete the task. Instead of saying, “You need to clean your room,” a parent might say, “I need you to clean your room.” Why? Because it is the parent’s need that has to be fulfilled, not necessarily the child’s. Ms. Kullback made an important distinction between motivation and behavior, saying that if a child can do the behavior but just won’t, it is a behavioral issue and not a motivation issue.

When it comes to shaping behaviors, many people have differing views on the practice of using external motivation, such as rewards, to encourage behavior. Every person’s brain develops connections based on experience and environment. In the case of students with ADHD, Ms. Kullback explained that sometimes their brain needs time to catch up and make the necessary connections in order to associate the presentation of a demand with follow-through. White matter found in the brain may be at the core of this issue. According to Trends in Neurosciences Research Journal, “White matter is the brain region underlying the gray matter cortex, composed of neuronal fibers coated with electrical insulation called myelin.” Myelin determines how quickly and efficiently brain impulses can travel. As a result, it can be worthwhile to use external motivators as a short-term intervention if implemented thoughtfully until habits are developed and imprinted in the brain. More simply put, students with ADHD have different brain chemistry that often requires them to need more time in developing and consistently using desired routines. Until that time comes, external rewards can be an effective way to encourage the brain to form certain habits.  One way Ms. Kullback described it is that for kids with ADHD, it can be like they have a Mazda Miata engine in a 40-year-old clunker with 100,000 miles on it, and external motivation can go a long way in encouraging them to reach their full potential.

We learned a lot and gained some wonderful new insight from all of the meaningful topics that Ms. Kullback discussed, and above are just a couple that we found particularly beneficial and wanted to share with you! If you are interested, you can learn more about the great work that Ms. Kullback and her team are doing at Metropolitan Counseling Services here:



Erica MechlinskiThe Meaning Behind Motivation

A European Adventure: The Thinking Organized Way

No comments

By Anna McAloon

We’ve had a few recent days in the DC area that have been a welcome reminder that summer is on its way. Blue skies, temperatures in the mid-70’s, and the sweet scent of cherry blossoms blooming urge everyone to get outside and often inspire excitement for upcoming travel plans. As a full time educational mentor on the Thinking Organized team, when I travel, of course I take into account the full range of executive functioning skills involved in the process.

Recently, I had Picture1the opportunity to go on a European adventure completely planned and funded by myself and a friend that we had been dreaming of since middle school! As I am sure you can imagine, time management was key and there was a lot of planning that took place before we boarded the plane. As I so often do with my students, I used a monthly calendar to plan backward in order to calculate how many weeks I had until takeoff and how much I could save each month to be able to pay for expenses. My friend and I collaborated on a Google Doc to brainstorm all of the places we wanted to see (a long list!) and prioritized until we narrowed the itinerary down to France (Paris), Spain (Barcelona), and Italy (Siena, Florence, Venice). From there, we chunked the workload over a period of about 6 months. How would we get from one place to another? Where would we stay? What attractions did we definitely want to see? Picture2What did we need to pack? How would we understand French? I ended up making many checklists. Finally, after months of planning and getting to our first stop in France, one day we got lost and missed our shuttle to the airport. Needless to
say, we had to be flexible in revising our plan and hopped on a bus instead! The need to come up with a plan, implement it, and use cognitive flexibility to revise it when needed are all executive functioning skills we used to make our dream trip a reality. In the end, we had an unforgettable experience, and I cannot wait to go back again some day.

As you get excited for the summer months and any travel plans ahead, remember that you don’t have to do all of the work! It is a great opportunity to have students practice using those executive functioning skills in a fun and meaningful way.


Erica MechlinskiA European Adventure: The Thinking Organized Way

[Book Review] Ungifted: Redefining Intelligence

No comments

Here at Thinking Organized, we know that intelligence manifests itself in many different ways. Some of our students are amazing artists, gifted athletes, current events aficionados, fabulous bakers, or experts on specific topics such as Formula I Racing. When they enter our office, they are not solely defined by a neuropsychological report, but also by their passions and character. Many people view academic achievement and IQ as the best indicator of intelligence and future success, and this can have a harmful effect on students’ self-concept and ability to realize their potential.

In Scott Barry Kaufman’s fascinating book, Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, he shares his own story about going through life labeled with an auditory learning disability and combines this with relevant research regarding various aspects of intelligence. Kaufman proposes his own definition of intelligence: “Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.” The book is filled with studies proving that a person’s success and fulfillment in life are dependent on so much more than an hours-long decontextualized test administered on one single day of a person’s life. Traits such as openness to experience, maintaining a growth mindset, self-control, and meaningful engagement in pursuit of a goal all play important roles in defining a person. Kaufman also weaves elements of his own personal narrative into the book that gives the reader a real-life sense of why the information is significant while adding engaging humor. If you are looking for an interesting, scientific non-fiction read that doesn’t feel like you are going through a textbook, we highly recommend this book. It will alter your perspective of the true potential inherent in each and every individual and help you reconsider what it means to be labeled as having a “learning disability” in today’s world.

Erica Mechlinski[Book Review] Ungifted: Redefining Intelligence

The Changing Tide of the College Admissions Process

No comments

A recent report entitled Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions released by the Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education highlights meaningful changes that could be coming to the college admissions process. Many students and parents today realize that the pressure associated with getting accepted into college has been mounting over the years. It seems as though students are expected to achieve high levels of personal success as students, athletes, and community leaders across a wide variety of activities and advanced courses in order to have a decent shot at receiving an acceptance letter in the mail. In a survey given to 10,000 middle and high-school students asking what mattered most: high individual achievement, happiness, or caring for others, only 22% said caring for others. This raised some red flags for the researchers and inspired the creation of the Making Caring Common project, which in turn produced the Turning the Tide report.

It offers several suggestions to change the way that college admissions offices evaluate incoming applicants and allows them to show their true character. Overall, it emphasizes more quality over quantity. Instead of students submitting a “brag list” of extracurricular activities and community involvement, it calls for listing no more than 2-3 activities with which the student has had meaningful participation. It promotes sustained community involvement in an activity that students care about versus a long list of one-time resume-building experiences. In addition, it provides opportunity for students from less advantaged backgrounds to include commitments to family, such as working a part-time job after school to contribute to family income, as significant contributions to their applications. The report suggests students get involved in activities that allow them to collaborate with a diverse group of people who are different from them and urges recommendations from teachers to comment less on academic success and leadership and more on personal growth. As far as academics, it asks college admissions processes to place less value on a transcript overloaded with AP, honors, or college-level courses and instead evaluate how the course load has allowed the student to authentically engage in other activities and how appropriate it was for a student’s academic development. Writers of the report state that SAT and ACT testing should be optional and the tests’ importance in determining admissions decisions clearly explained to students and parents. Furthermore, it emphasizes the importance of expanding students’ ideas about “good” colleges and demystifying the fact that there are only a handful of worthy colleges to attend.

So far, 80 key stakeholders in college admissions have endorsed the report. This is an exciting time, as contributions like this may expand opportunities and redefine the message that universities send to high school students about what is valued for success in higher education and in life.

To read the full report, click here.

Erica MechlinskiThe Changing Tide of the College Admissions Process

Lessons Learned from Dr. Dan Shapiro

No comments

Professional development is a key component of every mentor’s career at Thinking Organized. At our December staff meeting we were joined by Dr. Dan Shapiro, who discussed with us some of the issues present in our students’ lives and how to effectively guide them toward success. Dr. Shapiro is a highly regarded pediatrician in the DC metro area who focuses on developmental and behavioral pediatrics. The topics that he discussed with us are useful for anyone who is looking to learn more about supporting students with executive functioning weaknesses, and we wanted to share some of his wisdom with you here!

First, Dr. Shapiro reminded us that executive functions take decades to develop. Often, students are expected to perform when they really cannot. Parents can look at actual photos (the New York Times has an awesome webpage for this here) to help explain what is occurring in a developing child’s brain. It helps to demystify what is going on since it is very clear that the prefrontal cortex, where executive functions reside, continues to develop and mature well into early adulthood. Once this understanding is in place, it becomes much easier to meet the child where he is and provide reasonable expectations. Of course, students do need to experience gradual release of responsibility, but it is important to be aware of what is occurring internally that is out of a child’s control.

Another key takeaway from the meeting was Dr. Shapiro’s explanation of the complexity that underlies any difficulty that students are experiencing. Factors such as executive functioning skills, learned avoidance behaviors, and the family environment all play a role in determining how a student is performing in school and daily life. Dr. Shapiro talked about how change comes about with a mutually respectful, collaborative process. He explained that the student needs to be involved in evaluating the situation and brainstorming possible solutions in order to find a strategy that works best. Once students recognize an area where they want to improve and they are in the brainstorming phase, it is important to leave judgment at the door. No possible solution is unacceptable and every idea deserves to be seriously considered. Once brainstorming is complete, rank each possible solution on a scale from 1 (terrible) to 5 (excellent) and look at the results. Ask the child to choose a course of action and try it using a time-limited trial. Make sure to evaluate the results and revise the plan if needed.

We certainly learned a lot from speaking to Dr. Shapiro, and we appreciate his willingness to speak with our group! He currently runs a variety of courses along with Dr. Sarah Wayland dedicated to helping parents navigate raising a child with a difficult temperament and/or developmental differences. To sign up for any of the courses and receive more information, check here:

Erica MechlinskiLessons Learned from Dr. Dan Shapiro

Getting Rid of Boredom with Board Games

No comments

As the days turn darker earlier and the temperature plummets, many families are starting to spend more time inside instead of going out to brave the chilly weather. Boredom can set in quickly when children are stuck in the house without their bikes, sidewalk chalk, or sports equipment to keep them occupied. Luckily, there are plenty of equally as fun board games to add some excitement to indoor playtime. As a bonus, the games suggested below all help build executive functioning skills!


Skills required: sequential searching, working memory, mental speed, visual-spatial processing, concentration, processing speed

The object of this game is to create a set of three cards from twelve cards that are face-up on the table. Each card has four features to pay attention to— shape, color, number, and shading. A set consists of three cards in which each of the cards’ features, looked at one-by-one, are the same on each card, or, are different on each card. This is a fun game for kids ages six and up and it can be played with one or more people.


Skills required: organization, flexible thinking, planning, prioritizing

To play Quiddler, participants receive a stack of letter cards. They must try to create as many short words as possible using the cards, and as the game goes on players get more cards so that they can build multiple short words or single longer words. Players test their flexible thinking skills as they try to come up with as many different letter combinations as possible to create words. This game is good for ages 8 and up and can be played with up to seven other players. It also comes in a Junior version for younger students.


Skills required: reasoning, planning, problem solving

In this game, players have to be flexible in switching between a defensive and offensive mindset to outwit their opponent. The object of the game is to navigate through “corridors” that your opponent creates in order to advance to the opposite side of the board. With each move, a player either moves his or her token or places a piece of barrier that will foil the opponent. Each player is only allowed 10 barriers, which requires careful planning and problem solving.

Give some of these games a try and feel free to comment and let us know what you think!

Check out the articles from The Atlantic and listed below for more on these and other suggestions:

Erica MechlinskiGetting Rid of Boredom with Board Games

Out with the Old, In with the New

No comments

Starting in March 2016, college bound students everywhere will be signing up to take the new SAT.

What exactly is so different about this new version of the test?

  • One of the biggest changes is that there will be two sections scored on a 200-800 point scale- reading and math.
  • Writing an essay, which is required on the current exam, will be optional.
  • In addition, there will be no penalty for guessing and the amount of choices for each question will be narrowed to four instead of five.
  • The test will be adapted to better align with the Common Core standards. This means that instead of testing a wide breadth of knowledge, it will delve deeper into a student’s knowledge of using foundational skills such as interpreting evidence from a text or solving a real-world math word problem. A task on the new SAT might require students to decipher the best meaning of a widely used word given its context in a reading passage, versus choosing the definition of an obscure vocabulary word that a student memorized along with hundreds of others.
  • The writing section will require students to present a critical response to an argument versus writing about personal experience. Math topics will include a few newcomers such as trigonometry and statistics and will prohibit the use of a calculator.

While some of these changes may seem daunting, the good news is that most students have been preparing for an assessment like this every day in school with the new Common Core aligned curriculums in place. The higher level thinking skills required are also ones that students use in real life. Reading often, being a critical consumer of information, and working hard in school will all help prepare students to take this version of the test. It is not as important whether a student can memorize a bunch of information, rather it matters how he or she uses the information given by analyzing and interpreting it. And in case you were wondering, yes, the test is still a whopping three hours and fifty minutes long.



Erica MechlinskiOut with the Old, In with the New

Switch Up Your Study Habits

No comments

As a student, how often did you sit down at the same desk to study? For many people, studying becomes a habit that doesn’t take on many different forms. Finding a go-to quiet spot that is free of distractions or a coffee shop table with just enough hustle and bustle to help you focus can easily become the norm. While it probably does not seem like there is anything wrong with your favorite study routine, scientific evidence suggests you switch it up a bit in order to get the best results.

One way to help your brain form a stronger neural connection with the information that you are learning is to study the material in a variety of settings. You don’t even notice it, but your brain constantly absorbs all kinds of background information about your environment. If you study your vocabulary words in the kitchen one day and then the backyard the next day, for instance, your brain associates the different background sensations that it perceives with the words to promote better retention. In essence, you are providing more “neural scaffolding” to help your mind latch on to whatever concept you are trying to learn by making multiple associations. Just like you remember the lyrics to your favorite song as you sing a long in your car, bedroom, and office, you are less likely to forget something that you experienced more than once in a variety of settings.

But that’s not all. Remember that time you crammed for a test the night before and then forgot everything as soon as it was over? Changing your study place is one important factor contributing to retention of information, but so is the frequency, duration, and diversity of your study time. As most of us know, it is important to review information consistently over a long period of time in order to best digest it. It is also better to vary the type of material studied in a single sitting. In one experiment published in the Journal of Psychology and Aging, both college-age students and adults of retirement age were better able to recognize the style of 12 unfamiliar artists when they viewed the paintings among mixed collections versus viewing a dozen works of one particular painter, then moving on to the next.

Take a second to re-examine your study habits or those of people around you. Something as simple as studying in different places could make a significant difference in the quality of your study time!


Erica MechlinskiSwitch Up Your Study Habits