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The Meaning Behind Motivation

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

Three Cheers for Chores

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A typical week for an elementary through high school student likely includes tasks such as completing homework, studying for upcoming tests, attending multiple club meetings and sports practices, hanging out with friends, and meeting with teachers. In the hustle and bustle of the everyday routine, one important thing often gets lost: chores. Many parents may feel as though their child has no time for chores amidst their busy schedule, or that it is easier to just do everything themselves. Decades of studies have shown, however, that children who regularly engage in activities to help keep the household running smoothly have a greater sense of self-regulation, reliance, responsibility, and mastery. They also have a greater awareness of the importance of caring for others in relationships. Referring to your child as a helper when he walks the dog or empties the dishwasher, for example, helps him to realize the importance of helping others and doing his part for the benefit of the group.

For children with ADHD, chores can be especially beneficial. They can serve as recognition of the child’s value that she adds to the household and make her feel as though she makes a positive contribution when often she experiences more frustrations and failures as compared to the average child. Keep in mind that it is important to model the steps that children need to take in order to complete the chore successfully and provide some guided practice before they are expected to do it independently, especially for younger children. If the child is doing laundry, for instance, this might mean showing him how to separate darks and lights, measure out the correct amount of soap, load the washer without overstuffing, put it on the correct settings, and set a timer as a reminder for when the clothes will be ready to switch to the dryer. Providing some sort of written or visual cues illustrating the steps is also helpful until the chore becomes routine. Establishing a timeframe is another useful strategy to employ when assigning chores. Instead of asking your child to set the table, you could ask her to set the table by 6:00 pm in order to provide greater motivation to complete the task.

So, have your children roll up their sleeves and start washing the dishes, feeding the dog, doing the laundry, setting the table, dusting the furniture, making the beds, and taking out the trash. They may not thank you now, but they will be much better off in the future having learned the value of chores.


If you’re looking for some extra motivation to help get a child to buy into the idea of chores, take a look at these engaging apps:

  • You Rule Chores ($3.99)
    • An app where the child chooses an avatar and completes approved chores for digital coins that can be redeemed for rewards
  • ChoreMonster ($4.99/month)
    • Gives points and rewards for completed chores, a long with passes to a Monster Carnival where kids play to win fun digital prizes
  • Epic Win, iReward Chart, Chore Pad
    • Digital replacements for chore charts with stickers or stars




Erica MechlinskiThree Cheers for Chores

There’s No Such Thing as “Normal”

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Have you ever heard of the term “neurodiversity?” If you’re like me, the word is new, but the concept behind it makes a lot of sense and feels like it should have existed in your vocabulary for a long time now. The Washington Post recently published an article entitled, “In autism, a sense of comfort and identity, not dread” by Sandhya Somashekhar. It talks about how various neurological differences, in particular autism, are just that—inborn wirings of the brain that cause a person to function in unique ways. More and more, people are speaking out about neurodiversity and are advocating for increased awareness of all of the exceptional abilities and challenges that come with a diagnosis such as autism. The overarching goal is for people with autism to be better understood and accepted, not seen as in need of a “cure” or changing who they really are in order to become more “normal.” The neurodiversity movement likens itself to those of gay rights or improving police treatment of African Americans, considering people with autism “a minority group, albeit one with extra challenges that might need accommodating.”

At Thinking Organized, we notice the same trend among our students and parents over the past several years . The lines of communication are open much wider regarding diagnoses such as autism, in which clients are more readily able to embrace themselves for who they are and act as their own self-advocates. Understanding the strengths and challenges of our clients and helping them to find strategies to make difficult tasks a better fit for their distinct learning style is what we’re all about here and is what makes our job so fulfilling. When awareness increases, so can acceptance. It is a wonderful thing when people can acknowledge their individuality and be accepted by others, and knowledge is the first step toward understanding. The “neurodiversity movement” will hopefully continue to spread as more people gain confidence in what makes them special and are unashamed about sharing it with the world. Recognizing that there is no such thing as “normal” and broadening our perspectives as to the endless variety of people living here on earth will help everyone feel important, accepted, and respected.

smortoThere’s No Such Thing as “Normal”