By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach, NESCA
When working with young adults and adolescents to build up executive function skills, my main goal is to find systems and strategies that are truly helpful, easily accessed and that will eventually be used independently. While there are many fabulous apps that have been developed to target specific organizational skills, such as medication management, creating to-do lists and taking notes, I would argue that the number one, most important tool is an accurate, up-to-date calendar. The format of a digital calendar provides three hugely important supports.
- Visual Map of Time – Time management is tricky, and for many of our students, the concept of time itself is quite abstract. A calendar that has chunks of time visually blocked out helps to concretize an abstract concept. Additionally, having a calendar can help students plan their work. If a student has five different assignments to work on in a given week, looking at a calendar to find available segments of time will often help them realize that leaving everything until the last minute will not be possible. Notably, this requires guidance at first. Asking students questions, such as, “how long does an assignment like this generally take you?” or “would that available hour on Tuesday give you enough time for your problem set?” will help them start to internally ask themselves the right questions.
- Built-in Notification Systems – Some students use the alarms on their phone as reminders that they need to complete academic or daily living tasks. For example, they may have an alarm at 7:00pm every evening as a prompt to take their medication. Digital calendar apps allow for notifications to be linked to an event or task. Sometimes a simple reminder 10 minutes before a meeting or class is plenty, and our students can arrive on time with that quick prompt. For other appointments, I have students set two separate notifications, one in the morning and one at the time they would need to start getting ready or prepared for an appointment. For example, if a student has a doctor’s appointment two months in the future, a student could benefit from setting a notification eight hours and 1 hour before the appointment. This way, they start their morning with an acute awareness of their responsibility that afternoon and are reminded again when they need to start getting ready to leave.
- Constant Access when Synced across Devices – Calendars, such as the Google Calendar, sync seamlessly across digital devices. The same calendar can be accessed from a phone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop quickly and easily. Students can refer to their phone when they are out and about or their computer if they are focused in class.
Research shows us that building executive function skills requires direct instruction and the opportunity to practice (Semenov & Zelazo, 2019). While using a calendar may seem like a simple skill, many of the systems provided in high schools take away the opportunity for students to practice setting up and maintaining their own calendar. Online portals have calendars that are immediately synced to the teacher’s schedule with assignments and due dates already entered. Additionally, many of our students rely on their parents to keep track of any and all appointments (medical or otherwise), meetings and other scheduled activities. This means that when starting a more independent schedule – whether at a university, vocational program or first job – these students often find themselves overwhelmed by the deadlines and the number of responsibilities that they must track. I urge parents to slowly increase the number of appointment and activities that students are in charge of remembering on their own. Helping a student enter doctor or dentist appointments, vacation details, such as flight or bus times, and deadlines into their personal calendar helps them start to build this habit and provides opportunity for practice. We have the tools to help students make this transition more easily, and with small, intentional changes to expectations of responsibility and independence, we can provide students with tools in their back pockets so they are ready to support (and schedule) themselves!
Semenov A, D, Zelazo P, D: Mindful Family Routines and the Cultivation of Executive Function Skills in Childhood. Human Development 2019;63:112-131. doi: 10.1159/000503822
About the Author
Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services. She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.