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Having Fun with Executive Functioning Skills!

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By Aileen Choi

Summer is almost over, so I’m sure that you and your family are eager to travel in this last month before the new school year starts! Traveling is a great way for your children to practice their executive functioning skills (and yours, as well!).

Before we jump into how to involve your kids with planning a trip, it’s important to consider the benefits of planning ahead:

  • Booking tickets and hotels ahead of time makes it much more affordable to go away. Waiting until the last minute might mean switching to a less-desired option, or not going at all! One tip is to book flights more than a month in advance. Once it hits that one-month point, flight tickets tend to go up.
  • You can book all aspects of a trip without activities being sold out or full, including hotels and car rentals. Everyone can participate and select activities if you plan ahead of time, which is especially important if your traveling party has people of all different ages in it.
  • The best way for children to learn a skill is to have someone model what the process looks like. Involving teenagers in family trips is also a great way to pique their interest!

Feel ready to involve your children in planning? Great! Here’s some advice on how they can have fun thinking through how to create a memorable trip:

  • Let them choose an attraction or destination to visit. They can pick one small part of the trip or a larger part, depending on their age. Have them do the research and write notes about their plan. Before they begin, brainstorm together some of the things they’ll need to figure out, such as days/hours of operation, cost, tickets, directions, where to eat nearby, etc. 
  • Similarly, build an itinerary for each day. Together, choose a few places/sights/etc., that you want to see. Ask your children to figure out in what order you should travel to each location, how long you might spend at each place, restaurants in the area, and transportation if needed. Personally, I like using Google Sheets or an Excel document for my itineraries; I put the dates on the top and the time of day on the left-hand side. Here’s an example:
  • Create a packing list. Packing lists can be overwhelming, so this should be a structured process. Ask your children to visualize their day from waking up to going to bed. Then, brainstorm categories of items they’ll need, such as clothes, shoes, toiletries, and special activities (e.g., the beach). After making this list, they should then count the number of days of the trip, check the weather, and decide how many of each article of clothing they’ll need. 
  • If you’re going on a road trip, build your route together! Research attractions along the way and find the most reasonable route. Have your children estimate how long it’ll take to drive there and compare it to how long it actually takes. Plus, this allows them to enjoy the ride, rather than napping or zoning out the whole way through! 
  • One way to up the ante is to impose a budget. Ask your children to find a hotel or restaurant that doesn’t go over a budget. Or, give them a budget and ask them to plan an activity that will fit within the limits.

These are just some small ways to motivate your kids to get involved in trips while using their executive functioning skills. No matter where you travel to, make sure you start planning early. Save your family the stress of throwing a trip together at the last minute by planning ahead!

Erica MechlinskiHaving Fun with Executive Functioning Skills!

In Defense of Graphic Novels

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By Stephan Nazarian

The term “graphic novel” was coined in 1964, and these texts have grown in popularity ever since. Beloved by readers of all ages, graphic novels have inspired a great deal of debate amongst parents and educators. Certainly no one will deny that any reading is better than no reading, but many parents would prefer that their children read the kind of chapter books that they grew up with. I’ve never been a huge graphic novel fan, with the exception of some of the works that transcend genre like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but having spent much of my life encouraging children to read, I’ll happily take any tool available to me. I completely understand the concern that since graphic novels replace so much of the text with images, they appear to require substantially less “reading.” But for any parent on the fence about the value of graphic novels, let me offer some advice on how this medium can play an important role in developing the emerging reading skills of young readers. 

Reading Abilities 

When evaluating your children’s reading abilities, there are two broad skills that are important: reading fluency and reading comprehension. Reading fluency is built by learning the basics of phonics and sound blending and then practicing those skills, with appropriate corrections where needed, until they are automatic. Traditional novels have substantially more words and thus more opportunities to practice reading fluency. Reading comprehension, however, is a much more nebulous skill, the most important component of which is reader engagement. A child with absolutely flawless reading fluency could read every single word of the most punishing Dostoevsky novel without having any idea what the book is actually about. Graphic novels present a wonderful opportunity to help your children build their reading comprehension skills precisely because these stories contain far fewer words. For children whose reading fluency is still emerging, it can be incredibly difficult to simultaneously worry about comprehension. Graphic novels can be a great tool to help your children develop their ability to understand what they are reading without the stress that reading fluency can often bring.

Adopt The Child’s Mindset 

My brother’s oldest son has reached the age where he’s venturing out into the world and is delighted by much of what he sees. There’s no switch that he doesn’t want to flip, and there’s no greater joy in life than identifying which chain controls the light and which controls the fan. When you tell him something, he’s never satisfied; he always wants to know why? This kind of rampant curiosity sometimes fades as children grow a little bit older and a little bit wiser. But it is exactly this kind of inquisitiveness that we should be encouraging in kids whenever they read anything, whether it be a graphic novel or a weighty, pictureless tome. When you’re asking your children about the graphic novel that they’re reading, adopt their mindset: constantly ask why. This superhero is the most powerful. Why? That character is really mean. Why? I’m scared that something bad is going to happen to this person. Why? Asking open-ended questions encourages children to think critically. What is it exactly that makes one character stronger/meaner/more likable than another? 

Make Predictions

One of the most important things children can do to help build their ability to read and understand is to make predictions. When your children are reading a graphic novel, ask them what’s happening in the story and then challenge them to make a prediction about what they think will happen next. Once they’ve hazarded a guess, ask them why? So many of the skills important to reading require a myriad of deductions that most adults make subconsciously. We observe or read about a person taking a series of steps, and through a combination of simple deductions, familiarity with archetypal plots, and countless other factors, we’re able to predict what will happen next. Like all skills, that skill must be practiced. So, challenge your children to predict what will happen in the next few pages, and even more importantly, try to identify what allowed them to make that prediction. If they think that the main character is nervous for an upcoming event, can they identify the clues that indicated that the protagonist was nervous? Were there sweat beads drawn on the character’s face? Did his facial expression suggest something about his tone? By challenging your children to identify these clues, you’re helping them build the ability to recognize evidence and make deductions. And perhaps more importantly, you’re subtly reinforcing to them that they should be reading actively. 

Reading all of the words in War and Peace and understanding nothing will do much less for the reading comprehension of a 7-year-old than throwing themselves completely into reading the graphic novel series that they love. If your children love graphic novels, consider encouraging them to use these texts as an opportunity to learn to read actively.  

Erica MechlinskiIn Defense of Graphic Novels

Let’s Listen this Summer!

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By Jennifer Sax

Everyone knows that reading over the summer is an essential part of helping students to maintain their comprehension, vocabulary, and reading fluency skills. However, there’s another great way to keep your children engaged and learning while they’re out of school: podcasts! There’s no limit to what these audio recordings can teach students. They range in topics from current events, science, and technology to learning about emotional and social skills. Podcasts are great to follow on a weekly basis as they are updated, or to indulge in on a rainy summer afternoon. Here are some ideas for educational, interesting, and fun podcasts for elementary or middle school children.

Podcast NameSiteDescription
Brains On!  www.brainson.orgIn this podcast, a different kid cohosts each week to discuss a variety of fascinating science questions sent in by listeners across the United States.
The Imagine Neighborhood Children explore social-emotional skills through outrageous stories, songs, and activities. This helps to begin conversations about big feelings.
The Past and the Curious   https://thepastandthecurious.comKids and families can learn about shocking, inspirational, and often humorous historical events and people through short stories and music.
Wow in the World listenersThis podcast is centered around STEM topics. Funny facts about science and technology are discussed, which is sure to keep any kid engaged. 
But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids This podcasts answers questions on a wide variety of topics. Some examples include, “How do you whistle?” and “Why are mammoths extinct?” Additionally, learning guides to accompany episodes can be accessed on their website.

Finding novel ways to engage with learning is something that all kids (and adults!) can benefit from. Let us know which podcasts you and your family will be listening to this summer! 

Erica MechlinskiLet’s Listen this Summer!

Using Hobbies to Develop Executive Functioning Skills

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By Kristin Backert-Evans

We’re now over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and like many of you, all of these hours spent indoors compelled me to find hobbies to occupy my time. While my husband perfected the art of baking Earl Grey pound cake (which you should totally try), I started collecting Pokémon cards! Well, “started” isn’t really the right word. Like many children of the 90s, I begged my parents to buy me cards all throughout my childhood. When the pandemic started, I found myself drawn to this important, nostalgic part of my life again. Little did I know that something so seemingly simple would involve a host of executive functioning skills. 

Material Organization 

Whether you collect Pokémon cards, autographs, or stamps, organizing those items is a key part of any collector’s life. Everyone has their own system — maybe you organize items by the year they were released in, maybe you organize them by design, or maybe you organize them by their rarity. At the end of the day, it’s important to find a system that makes sense and works specifically for you. For example, when I organize my Pokémon cards, I first divide the cards into nine piles depending on a Pokémon’s number (e.g., 1-99, 100-199, 200-299, etc.). Afterwards, I go through the cards in each pile and put them in numerical order and place doubles together. That way, all of my Charizard cards from throughout the years appear next to each other when they’re eventually placed in one of my binders, which lets me look at the changing artwork over the last two decades. I’ve organized my cards this way since I was a kid, so that sense of familiarity was a welcome return to when I restarted my collection.

Time Management 

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of time to organize cards. Typically, I set aside time each weekend to go through any new cards I may have obtained. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours, depending on how many cards I’m sorting through. Placing cards in a binder is a once-a-month (or maybe even once every two months) process because it usually takes me upwards of four hours. Spending that much time on any one task can be challenging, so I make sure to take breaks. I usually work on the floor, so standing up and stretching lets me look at the progress I’ve made so far and plan out what work I still want to accomplish for the day. During these breaks, I’ll walk around my apartment, look out the window for evil doers, or grab a snack. By doing so, I can better gauge my energy levels and readjust my goals. While I would love to place all cards in a binder in one sitting, sometimes that’s just not feasible — and that’s okay! If I were to sit there and force myself to do so, I think my enjoyment of the hobby would fade. I’ve found that it’s important to see what my limits are and alter my goals as needed, and practicing these skills with something I love makes it easier to use them for less-enjoyable tasks. 

Social Skills

When I started collecting cards again, I found myself wanting to talk to other people about it. My husband knows the franchise but doesn’t really know it (can I name the first 150 Pokémon from memory? Maybe. Can he? Absolutely not), so I found myself seeking out like-minded communities. However, I tend to feel anxious and shy around others, especially new people, which makes it difficult for me to participate in conversations. But collecting Pokémon cards was becoming such a important part of my life that I wanted to share in it with people who felt the same way. While challenging, I reached out to others on social media. Before doing so, I rehearsed what I wanted to say and used positive self-talk to motivate myself to Tweet at someone or share a card on Instagram. To my pleasant surprise, I was able to form a community, one where we trade tips for locations that recently restocked cards, where we exult in others’ successes in getting a rare card, where we lament our failures at not finding cards in the “wild” (aka a store). Becoming a part of a community is always difficult, but I found that encouraging myself to do so was a wonderful thing.

Card collecting isn’t for everyone, but finding a hobby that you’re passionate about can be a great way to help you strengthen your executive functioning skills. From organization to time management to social skills, hobbies can help you in more ways than one!

Erica MechlinskiUsing Hobbies to Develop Executive Functioning Skills

Spring Break Has Officially Come and Gone. Now What?

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By Colette Hapi

Whether your children are in their first year of middle school or their last year of high school, the end of spring break is always a bummer. That short week free from academics flies by, and students tend to feel unmotivated as they return to school. You might even say that they contract “summer fever” as the end of the school year approaches and they begin to slack off and lose interest in school work. Now that spring break has come and gone, it’s time to saddle up for the last stretch! Here are a few things you and your children can do to finish out the year strong.

Reflect and Set Goals

As the saying goes, “it’s not about how you start, but how you finish.” In regards to academics, truer words have never been spoken. Now that spring break is over, this is the optimal time for recalibration and reassessment. Your children can take stock of where they stand in all their classes and make a game plan to finish the year strong by reflecting and setting some goals. Here’s a simple three-step process they can follow:

  1. Step back and examine their academic performance. Did they pass all of their Chemistry tests? Did they take notes in all of their classes? By gauging what they did well and not so well, they can set goals for the remainder of the school year to address these weaknesses. 
  2. Update their planner by reviewing each class and making note of any upcoming project deadlines and exam dates. If they add this information to their planner now, it gives them a sense of what’s coming down the pipe in each class.
  3. If they’re behind in a class, they can assess how much coursework needs to be done over the next few days in order for them to catch up and to feel confident and prepared. If they’re struggling to understand the content, this is a good time to reach out to teachers for help. 

Pencil in Time to Unwind

Although there aren’t any school-appointed breaks between now and the end of the school year, it doesn’t mean your children can’t take charge and pencil in mini-breaks along the way. As you are creating your calendar for the remainder of the year, make sure to incorporate a couple of weekend activities to help keep your children engaged and give them something to look forward to. Whether it’s a sleepover, a hike, or a socially distanced trip to the zoo, taking a break is a great way for students to feel energized and keep their motivation levels high. 

If you’re looking for some additional guidance on how to help your children navigate their way through the remainder of the academic year, the Thinking Organized team can point you in the right direction!

Erica MechlinskiSpring Break Has Officially Come and Gone. Now What?

Pawsome Time-Saving Tips

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By Aileen Choi

In 2020, I jumped on the bandwagon: I got a puppy! Since I expected to be at home more often due to the pandemic, I thought it would be the perfect time to take care of a growing puppy. Little did I know that taking care of a cuddly, furry friend would be a lot more work than I expected. However, I quickly adapted and came up with some strategies to help me better handle these exciting new times. Here are some tips to help new dog owners retain some of their sanity and save time throughout the day. 

  • Be consistent with waking up and feeding times. Have a designated section in your pantry/fridge for dog food and measure out the meals in advance (if you plan to use wet dog food or add in meat/veggies). Having a routine helps me remember if I and when I gave each. meal to my pup and it helps her feel at ease. Measuring out meals in advance saves me so much time as well, especially on days when I’m busy with work. 
  • Look ahead in your week and plan out when you can go on walks, when you need someone else to watch your pup, and the best days to go to vet visits (you’ll be doing this a lot in the beginning!). My schedule changes daily, so I always make sure I know when I have breaks so I can take my dog out.
  • On that note, use Google Calendar or a similar app to schedule all your pup-related tasks to take advantage of every minute. I have reminders for meals, walks, snack times, and monthly flea prevention meds. 
  • Estimate how long your daily puppy activities will take. In the beginning, everything took longer than I expected; from feeding her to taking baths to getting ready for walks, I quickly learned to budget more time than I initially planned for. 
  • Set timers. In the beginning, these adorable babies will need to go outside for potty breaks about 30 minutes after they eat. I found that setting timers to remind myself when I needed to step outside was a lifesaver. 
  • Create a running checklist of items you need to buy (e.g., more dog food, a new harness, a new toy) and a to-do list for non-repeating activities, like a vet appointment or grooming session.
  • Keep all your vet papers in one folder in case you need to submit them for puppy insurance and/or future examinations.

Looking back on these past few months, I’ve realized that executive functioning skills are crucial for all sorts of tasks in all sorts of situations. Many of these tips can apply in your everyday life, such as using Google Calendar to plan out your week with calls and grocery runs, creating a running checklist of necessities, estimating how long it would take to cook a meal, and keeping a folder for your own important documents. I’m constantly adjusting and being flexible with my plans. I hope these tips will help you be more efficient and organized with your new routines—puppy or not! 

Erica MechlinskiPawsome Time-Saving Tips

The Screen Fatigue is Real

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By Stephan Nazarian

One of the questions that I often get from friends and family when they learn about my work with Thinking Organized is what to do about screens. Many parents struggle with handling the constant, unrelenting draw that screens have for their children. Like most things, COVID-19 has turned that problem on its head. Millions of children around the country, and their parents, now dread the hours and hours a day they’re required to spend in front of their computer. Days spent glued to a screen can make anyone start to feel disconnected from the world. As we all set to making our New Year’s resolutions, I can’t think of any more appropriate than helping to break the dread hold that Zoom has on all of us.

As you look to break the spell in 2021, consider these options:

  • Get Outside. While it may be obvious, looking for ways to get outdoors in a safe manner is a great idea. Most state and federal parks remain open, sometimes with restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. If you’d rather stay within the DMV area, there are dozens of opportunities to get outside:
    • The National Arboretum (check out the Bonsais, which are my favorite) 
    • Your local park or community garden (mine just got bees for fresh honey in the spring!)
    • Boats, bikes, standup paddleboards, and the like – fun for the whole family and easy to socially distance
    • We’re blessed in the DC area with an abundance of gardens open to the public, from famous destinations like Dumbarton Oaks to the grounds of monasteries
  • Make Time for Analogue. Since we’re all cooped up at home, now is a great time to rediscover the analogue versions of the things that we’ve come to rely on screens to do: board games, paperback novels, letters written by hand, just to name a few. Digital conveniences have made our lives easier, but rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) the smell of a well-worn novel or the freedom of writing in your own hand can be a wonderful experience.
  • Go for a Walk. Even without the specter of screens, walks have been shown to have a positive impact on both mental health and mental performance. And that doesn’t even consider the desperately needed dose of Vitamin D, which most Americans don’t get enough of.
  • Dinner Time. Every family is busy, and finding a time for everyone to gather around the dinner table can be hard no matter what. But with extracurricular activities reduced, you can try to find a time for the whole family to come together without the distraction of screens.

However you choose to do it, finding ways to spend time away from screens has never been more important. Times where we are forced to alter our daily routines can be perfect opportunities to invest in trying new activities that can build wonderful new habits in the future. 

Erica MechlinskiThe Screen Fatigue is Real

Life Hacks

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By Jennifer Sax

Change is definitely a theme of 2020. For me, those changes were not just COVID-related: I had a baby! People warned me that motherhood would change my life, but I didn’t truly understand it until I experienced it. Having a baby, returning from maternity leave, and working from home has forced me to alter my routines, and then alter them again and again. I’ve found that what works for me one week doesn’t always work the next as my baby gains skills, becomes more mobile, and adjusts his sleep patterns. 

My morning routine is definitely one that I’ve had to streamline. I’ve had to figure out how to get my morning coffee fix, feed my baby, catch up on the daily news, and read through emails before my workday begins. To do this efficiently, I use creative problem solving to find new strategies to better manage my time. In case any other new parents are wondering, here are some “life hacks” that I’ve recently developed: 

  • Set the timer on the coffee machine the night before to save a few minutes in the morning.
  • Re-evaluate your schedule every night to plan for the next day. Plans change, so you should always make sure your calendar is updated.
  • Along the same lines…schedule time on your calendar to read an article, make dinner, workout, or even shower. When you have a designated time to do tasks, you’re more likely to accomplish them. 
  • Put a box or laundry basket in your child’s closet for clothes that he outgrows. It’s easier to put clothing in the box as it becomes too small rather than spend a large chunk of time cleaning out his drawers at the end of the season.
  • Precut all of your vegetables on the weekend to cut down on weekday cooking time. Also, have pre-made frozen meals ready for when you don’t feel like cooking.
  • Create two grocery lists. Keep one recurring shopping list on your phone, especially if you buy the same groceries every week. Also, keep a paper list in your kitchen on/next to the refrigerator. Add items that you only buy once in a while when you run out of them (think condiments and spices). 
  • Create more lists. Use packing lists that are pre-made on your phone for school, vacation, or a trip to grandma’s house. This helps cut down on time and lessens the chance you’ll forget something by recreating the wheel each time you leave your home.

I know 2020 has been a year of change for most people and that it sometimes felt difficult to adjust to. As December comes to an end, you may want to create new strategies for the new year so that you’ll be better prepared to deal with anything 2021 throws at you. I hope some of these tips can help you get started with becoming more efficient and organized with your everyday routines!

Erica MechlinskiLife Hacks

App Spotlight: Ambient-Mixer

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By Kristin Backert-Evans

One of the great things about technology is that if you’re looking for something, the internet probably has it. Recently, one of my students introduced me to Ambient-Mixer, a website where you can listen to “relaxing music, ambient atmospheres, and astonishing sound effects.” I was a little skeptical at first because there are tons of sites out there that play classical music to help stimulate the brain and tune out distractions, but Ambient-Mixer takes it several steps further by allowing YOU to create the perfect soundscape that will enable you to focus.

Are you a huge Harry Potter fan? Well, take a look at the Ravenclaw Common Room template. You can set the volume for individual sounds, such as pages flipping, the wind blowing, and a fire burning. Or maybe you’re more of a Disney fan? Check out Belle’s Library, where you can adjust the volume on a grandfather clock, a chair creaking, and footsteps. There are templates for everything! From ‘Autumn Forest’ to ‘Victorian London’ to ‘Inside the TARDIS,’ you’re guaranteed to find a mix of sounds that works best for you. And these are just the templates – you have the freedom to upload your own audio files if there are certain sounds that you know relax you, or you can choose from existing ones on the site and create your own perfect ambient mix. 

Background noises can increase productivity and reduce stress, which makes them ideal for students who are struggling to tackle workloads in this age of virtual learning. And even though I’m not currently a student, I’ve found that this website works great for me too! I never would have thought that listening to sounds like “milk and honey ambient pad” and “pre-thunderstorm” would help me better focus on my work. So the next time you’re having a hard time concentrating on a task, try perusing the options on Ambient-Mixer until you find your ideal sounds! 

Erica MechlinskiApp Spotlight: Ambient-Mixer