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The Summer Brain Drain

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I was pleased to see the article, The Cure for Summer Brain Drain, run in the On Parenting section of The Washington Post. The article focused on the importance of summer learning and area teachers provided activities for parents to consider.

My response to the article below offers a few additional suggestions to help make summer learning fun and feel less like summer school.


Thank you for covering this topic. The statistics around the “summer brain drain” are troubling, with most students losing more than 2.5 months of math and more than a month of reading skills over their summer vacation. As a certified speech and language pathologist and an organizational specialist, I have seen firsthand how summer learning loss affects children when they begin their new school year in September, as well as the effects playing catch-up has on their self esteem.

I enjoyed reading the suggestions offered by the area teachers helping parents discover fun and easy ways to keep their child learning throughout the summer. I wanted to offer a few additional activities the parents and students I work with enjoy that help make learning fun and not feel like “summer school.”

– Start a store: Use math skills and organization to plan the store and “sell” goods.

– Explore “Going Green,” your carbon footprint and whether recycling is all it’s cracked up to be: These activities involve not only math skills, but applying research to higher level critical thinking and analysis.

– Visit a different country every week: Use a globe/atlas to discover a new country, then hit the library for a collection of age appropriate books about the new country, learn a basic assortment of vocabulary (how to say “hello” and “thank you”) and prepare a meal that children in that country would enjoy.

– Be the editor of your family newsletter: Practice journalistic and writing skills, including interviews, news, pictures, advertisements and even cartoons.

– Grow your own food: Children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as gaining knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating.

I hope that parents reading this article heed your advice in order to avoid the repercussions that falling behind over the summer may have on their child, both emotionally and mentally.


I was alarmed by many of the responses that accompanied mine. I thought I’d see more parents on board with the topic. Instead, there was a bitter tone of summer learning vs. summer vacation.

There shouldn’t be such animosity towards the thought of continued learning. I’m not advocating 12 months of school or a structured learning environment throughout the summer – and either was the reporter. Enjoy summer and everything that goes along with it! But please do your child and yourself a favor and incorporate learning into your summer fun so you aren’t playing the not-so-fun game of catch-up in September.

smortoThe Summer Brain Drain

Summer Reading Is Not Optional

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It’s the most wonderful time of year for students – summer vacation!  Summer vacation makes me a bit uneasy though because I know it’s also the time of year that the skills in math and reading children have worked so hard to learn in school can slide.  Unfortunately, this “summer slide” can leave them struggling to catch up when September rolls around in a few months.

Reading, in my opinion, is the cornerstone of education and arguably one of the most important skills to master in order to succeed at school and in life. Research shows that individuals who read avidly demonstrate improved cognitive abilities. They become creative thinkers and problem solvers.

Parents: I know it’s like pulling teeth to get your child to read when they would rather be swimming or catching lighting bugs.  But now, more than ever, it is important to find ways to make reading more enjoyable this summer and less of a chore.  Last September, I bookmarked a startling Washington Post article stating:

“Reading scores on the SAT for the high school class of 2012 reached a four-decade low, putting a punctuation mark on a gradual decline in the ability of college-bound teens to read passages and answer questions about sentence structure, vocabulary and meaning on the college entrance exam.”

For parents with elementary age students, you may feel like the SATs are light-years away.  I wish they were for you!  But this record low in reading scores should set off your alarm bells and be a reminder that the foundation for these skills must be set now.  This means your child cannot take a “summer vacation” from reading.

I encourage you to look into a summer book club program for your child that allows him/her to enjoy reading with peers but also hones skills like comprehension, time management and problem solving.   Thinking Organized’s summer program, A Summer Read Book Club, is currently accepting registration and will begin meeting the week of June 24.  Your local library is another great resource. For example, check out D.C. Public Library’s summer reading program or Montgomery County Public Library’s summer reading program.

Welcome summer and happy reading!

smortoSummer Reading Is Not Optional

Regroup for the Final Weeks

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One of my high school students rushed into the office last week, breathlessly excited about the wonderful happenings in the life of a teenager: prom, summer and more. Meanwhile, when asked about her upcoming research paper, she opened her backpack, dumped most of the materials out and couldn’t locate the assignment. We’re coming into the home stretch before final exams and none of her work is organized. I know her parents are wondering the same thing I am, “When will she take ownership of material organization and help herself start researching from a position of strength?” Her anxiety built as she ran to the computer to see if she could access the information from her school’s website. Before she got too upset, I asked her to stop, take a deep breath and have an M&M (or two).

This young lady is not alone. Many students begin the year with an excellent structure of material organization in place and diligently maintain it for most of the year. By spring, often these systems dim in importance, overshadowed by busy schedules and enticing social opportunities. However, this is the perfect time to re-emphasize the benefits of keeping things organized. It should be gently pointed out that it is always important to be able to locate everything the student needs to prepare for tests and final exams. Additionally, time and energy (and peace of mind) are saved in the long run when the student takes an extra minute to file each document in the appropriate notebook or folder.

If thorough backpack reorganization is needed, take the time to do this now. Parents may need to check systems of material organization on a weekly basis during these last few busy months. If so, don’t beat yourself up. Everyone needs a reminder of the importance of keeping things in order and your consistency and persistence will eventually help your student to independently recognize when her systems of organization need attention. Our bubbly teenager will become independent in her material organization . . . we’re just not sure when!


smortoRegroup for the Final Weeks

“Helicopter” Is Not A Dirty Word

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I recently read an article in The Washington Post with the headline: Overinvolved parents can make college-aged children depressed, a new study says. To summarize, this study found “so-called helicopter parenting negatively affected college students by undermining their need to feel autonomous and competent. Students with over controlling parents also were more likely to be depressed and less satisfied with their lives.”

With a pool of less than 300 college-aged children, I find there to be a very fine line in publishing a study that claims “overinvolved parenting” will harm your child’s independence and overall emotional state.

The author of this study comments, “To find parents so closely involved with their college lives, contacting their tutors and running their schedules, is something new and on the increase. It does not allow independence and the chance to learn from mistakes.”

I take a different approach that some may consider a bit more controversial today. As a parent, I believe, you know your child the best. The ultimate goal is to raise your child to be self-sufficient. Yet, for some children, self-sufficiency may not come before college – and it may not come before or even after college. Some children will struggle and will still need help with schedules and advocacy, even from a distance.

Parents also need to be aware of their “helicoptering” and be sure it is for their child’s best interest versus their own peace of mind.  There are repercussions, some listed in the study, to being heavily involved if your child is capable of handling the stresses of college on their own.

Bottom-line: trust your parenting gut. This subject is not black or white and there needs to be a softer middle ground. You do need to let your children take risks, make mistakes and learn the value of independence, but just because your child is ready to leave the nest, doesn’t necessarily mean you become a bystander.


[If you are interested in learning more about how you can prepare to send your child off to college – I am hosting a parent session in our “Next Stop: College” seminar series.  Topics like understanding signs of struggle and knowing when to reach out to professors will be covered.  Find out more and register here.]



smorto“Helicopter” Is Not A Dirty Word

Hang in there, Mom and Dad!

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Being a parent has never been an easy job, but helping a child with executive functioning weaknesses can be even more stressful. Mothers and fathers set up systems to organize folders, binders and backpacks and then see their student getting in the car with crumbled papers everywhere. Careful structures are set in place for accomplishing homework and long term projects and then hours can be wasted on a teenage meltdown, an “important” phone call or a shopping emergency. Many of the parents I see complain that they hate feeling like they’re constantly nagging, especially when they can’t be with their child every hour of the day. When work schedules and other family members need attention as well, it can seem like most interactions with the disorganized child become a litany of “Did you do…?” It can be very frustrating for both parties.

However, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back. Continual, consistent reinforcement is the only way to make permanent improvements in executive functions. No system is perfect and there will always be challenges to the daily schedule, but setting plans in place and trying to stick with them teaches your child that organizing time, material and thoughts are key to achieving objectives, whether personal, academic or career goals.

So when you feel like a harassing harridan, remember, you are doing what you are supposed to be doing to keep your student on track. Calm, persistent insistence on taking the necessary steps towards success will lead to times that you can take a break and celebrate accomplishment. And one day, surely your child will thank you for your gentle guidance in helping him reach his goals.

smortoHang in there, Mom and Dad!

Coping with Organization Challenges at Home

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I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday and start to the New Year.

Often, when I meet with students and/or their parents, I am reminded just how challenging executive function weaknesses can be. At the end of December, I met with a lovely young man and his mother to discuss his organization challenges.  The student had a very hard time knowing what assignments he needed to do, where he put his completed homework once he did it, what he had coming up next week and how much time he had to actually do the work on any given day.  Yes, we all know students who have similar struggles.  But, this young man was particularly challenged because not only was he struggling to keep his materials for school in one place, he also struggled with finding the articles of clothing that he needed to get dressed in the morning.  He took his shoes off when he got home the day before, but they “disappeared” by the next morning.  Try as she might, his mother designated particular places for shoes, but to no avail.  The morning was always frantic and the student was exhausted before he left the house.

This made me think that we all need to remember that children do not choose to be disorganized.  They are really not trying to make their lives more complicated, rather they are trying to “survive” with all of their belongings from day to day.  So, next time you get frustrated with your child, and believe me, there is reason to get exasperated,  remember that we have to keep reinforcing the structure set in place until the child had learned it.  This, of course, is not an easy task, but keep the faith, it WILL get better!

smortoCoping with Organization Challenges at Home

Easing into the Essay

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Many times throughout your child’s educational career, he will be required to write on a topic that is not of his choosing. Add in the pressures of not knowing the prompt ahead of time, having to write within a specific time period and being graded on multiple aspects of the essay and you can end up with a very stressed out student.

However, writing is an essential tool for your child to master in order to be successful in school. Many states have a writing assessment as part of their annual standardized testing. Additionally, in order to score well on the SATs, your child will need to write an organized, sophisticated, relatively error-free essay in 25 minutes.

The biggest problem I hear in my practice with writing is that students do not know where to begin. Sometimes they just start putting their ideas on paper and end up with a disorganized, unfocused jumble of thoughts that are difficult for a reader to follow. Other students are minimalists, afraid to write anything for fear of making mistakes. I have found that the best tool to teach struggling writers is prewriting. Once a child has a structure in place, writing the essay is much easier.

The first step is brainstorming. When teaching your child to brainstorm, let him talk while you write down his ideas. Encourage him to give you as many thoughts as possible, both good and bad. When he seems to be running out of ideas, ask a lot of questions. If the child can explain, “Why?” or give you examples, he will have more material to include. Another suggestion is to ask the child to pretend he is teaching his subject to a class. He can imagine what questions the students would ask and what information would be pertinent to help them understand his topic.

Next, have the student group his ideas into categories. Each of these groupings can then become body paragraphs. Using a graphic organizer, such as a map, web or outline will help your student develop a visual “big picture” before writing. If drawing a chart is too difficult or annoying, then just group ideas by topic on a piece of unlined paper.

Sometimes children balk at being required to do what they might consider “an extra step” before writing. However, when a student takes the time to prepare a prewriting structure, he usually finds that his ideas flow much more freely, resulting in a well-organized, clearly focused essay and a much happier writer.

smortoEasing into the Essay

From F’s to A’s


Today I was working with a new student who is quite bright, but struggling in school.  Have you ever heard that before?  We started at the beginning and reviewed all of his systems of organization.  He did not use his planner, but his binders were organized with 65% of the material where it should be.  He and I reviewed his latest reports from his online grading system at school to discover that in most of his classes, he received either A’s or F’s on his work.  Why?

Well, 90% of the F’s were due to not turning in his homework.  He either forgot to do it, or forgot to turn it in.

In this young man’s math class, he received A’s on all of his homework assignments and turned everything in.  It made me stop for just a moment to remember why this student was successful in this class.  He is handed a new sheet that must be completed each day.  The sheet is something tangible that he can locate, complete and return the next day.

The work is consistent and reliable.  This makes organization struggles much easier to manage.

So, how can we do this with the other subjects?  It’s not that easy, because if it were, we would have already instituted the plan.  I do think that today’s session made me think about how consistency is the key to staying organized.  Here’s my advice; if your son or daughter does not get a sheet to be handed in the next day, make sure that you substitute that “sheet” with a specific task for each class.  It may be reading, working on a long-term project, studying for a test, or just reviewing notes.  But, if your child can engage with each subject, even if it is only for ten minutes, he or she will remember to think about all of the subjects each day.

smortoFrom F’s to A’s

Is it time to panic?

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Oh, those summer reading lists languishing on the refrigerator, now obscured by camp schedules and pizza coupons. Many students hate these well-intentioned lists, the required books, thoughtfully chosen by librarians and teachers. Even children who love to read are often wildly resistant to being told what they HAVE to read during summer vacation. Sure, some children rip right through their summer reading lists, encouraged by library programs that offer prizes and recognition to prolific readers. Other students just read the required books because they are supposed to. And then there are the “rebels,” children who object to the intrusion of anything with the whiff of formal education during the summer months. What’s a parent to do?

Now that summer is coming to a close, try some of these tips to help your child’s required reading go a little more smoothly.

Create a reading plan with your child. Using a calendar, look at how many days there are left until school begins, and then make a schedule for finishing summer reading. The calendar will help you both visually see how few days are left, and put the responsibility for dividing and completing the requirement on your child.

Set aside a consistent time each day for reading. Depending on your family’s schedule, reading time might be in the morning, afternoon or before bed. Whatever time you choose, stick to it as much as possible.

Alternate required reading with a reward. Your child will be more motivated to read if the task is followed by something fun.

Read books together and discuss them. You can read aloud together by taking turns by page, or you can get two copies of the book and each read silently. In either case, tell your child what you are thinking as you read and ask your child questions. By reading and discussing books together, you are modeling various ways for children to look at literature. For example, “What do you think this chapter says about the main character’s personality?”; “What will happen next?”; “Do you think the main character was right in what he did?” etc…

Consider an E-Reader. We all know that children love electronics. With an e-reader, your students can customize colors and fonts, and conveniently carry his/her summer reading in a pocket or purse. Anything that makes reading fun and easy is worth a try.

If your child is struggling with reading, try audio books. When reading is hard, using the audio version while reading along in the book is a good way to get through the text.

Studies show that students who read over their summer break perform better on academic testing in the fall, and their first quarter grades see a huge boost. It’s not too late to make up for lost time. Make a plan, commit to summer reading and get it done!

smortoIs it time to panic?

Random Acts of Kindness

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Although summertime is known for lazy days of freedom, many students begin to get bored midway through their break from school. Using extra time to volunteer helps children learn to count their blessings, experience a possible career choice and feel good about themselves. Teenagers have the added benefit of community service experience to list on college and job applications. Depending on their age, volunteer opportunities abound:

Help a child: Teenagers can become a Big Brother or Big Sister or volunteer to host a mini-camp at a local church, temple, hospital or daycare. Coach a sports camp, or find a local Special Olympics group and work towards a valuable cause.

Lift the Less Fortunate: Work in a soup kitchen or cook for one. Gather blankets, clothes, and food to donate to a shelter or charity group. Volunteer in a thrift shop that benefits a good cause.

Encourage Literacy: Read to a child, a visually impaired individual or a senior citizen. Hold a book drive to help a local school, daycare or library.

Promote Pets: Offer to walk a dog for neighbors going out of town, or a nearby dog shelter or veterinary office. Alternatively, hold a pet food drive for an animal rescue group.

Get Political: Even if your children aren’t old enough to vote, state and local candidates are usually grateful for volunteers in all kinds of jobs.

Save the Earth: Participate in a local clean-up day, or contact a nearby park for environmental community service. Plant trees, reclaim a vacant lot or start a neighborhood garden.

These are just a few of the many volunteer opportunities in which children can participate. Some of the greatest community gifts are unique, when kids see a need and work alone or with a group to fill it. When giving up their time, remind your children of these important tips:

  • Be sensitive to the different needs, backgrounds and personalities of the individuals you encounter.
  • Treat your community service like a paid job. Don’t skip a day, and work hard to do your best.
  • Learn as much as you can.

Volunteering can be an eye-opening experience for young men and women, and a rewarding way to spend some free time. The benefits of helping others provide life lessons that will reinforce the values and ethics that form a generous, aware generation.

Your children and your community will thank you.

smortoRandom Acts of Kindness