Executive Function Tools: The Calendar

By | NESCA Notes 2021

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


To book an appointment or to learn more about NESCA’s Occupational Therapy Services, please fill out our online Intake Form, email info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


There’s an App for That!

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By Dot Lucci, M.Ed., CAGS

Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services, NESCA

In this time of “telehealth” and “remote learning” adults, teens and children are being bombarded with virtual platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts/Meets and more.  Some teachers and students are being asked to use Google Classroom, Blackboard and other classroom-based platforms for the first time. I am of the mindset that this virtual learning and health management approach will be with us even when this pandemic subsides and we “go back to normal.” I’m also afraid that the normal we knew won’t be the normal of the future.

With this in mind I began to think that with all the time some of us have on our hands, wouldn’t it be interesting to “assess” or evaluate the variety of apps that are out there now (and there are tons!)? A middle schooler could do the research with some guidance from parents, teachers, IT professionals or others from their schools. In many middle schools, students are being taught how to critically analyze social media and news reports; why not extend this critical eye to apps? For instance, have your middle schooler research apps that address a variety of topics, such as executive functioning areas (i.e. time management, distraction, organization, etc.), social-emotional well-being and so on. With some guiding questions, help from adults and a way to tally or track data, they could decide which app they think would help them best and why. A sample list of questions may include:

  • What problem am I trying to solve?
  • What need am I trying to fill?
  • When was the app created?
  • Who created it?
  • Who was it created for?
  • How many positive reviews?
  • How many negative reviews?
  • What platform does it use?
  • How much does it cost?
  • What features does it have? Do they solve my problem?
  • How easy is it to operate initially and once I get it set up?
  • Will it work with the other programs I have running?

There are many other questions that one could ask to “evaluate” an app to help solve a specific problem. Your child and you can generate your own questions to add to this list then download and try your top choice. Try it for at least a couple of weeks and create a rating scale to evaluate its helpfulness in solving the problem. If you are satisfied, then no need to try another one. If not, download another one and repeat the procedure.

Here’s a list of various apps that address EF needs. There are many more, and these are in no particular order.


Scheduling/Calendar/To Do/Reminders

Pocket Informant


Built-in Calendar App on your smartphone

MemoCal Lite

Visual Schedule Planner

Choice Works

Pocket Picture Planner

Can Plan



Jot Free

My Homework



Time Timer

Giant Timer

Time Meter Time Tracker






Smiling Mind

The Social Express

Stop. Breathe. Think

Hidden Curriculum

Middle School Confidential

Model Me

Take A Chill



About the Author

NESCA’s Director of Consultation and Psychoeducational Services Dot Lucci has been active in the fields of education, psychology, research and academia for over 30 years. She is a national consultant and speaker on program design and the inclusion of children and adolescents with special needs, especially those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Prior to joining NESCA, Ms. Lucci was the Principal of the Partners Program/EDCO Collaborative and previously the Program Director and Director of Consultation at MGH/Aspire for 13 years, where she built child, teen and young adult programs and established the 3-Ss (self-awareness, social competency and stress management) as the programming backbone. She also served as director of the Autism Support Center. Ms. Lucci was previously an elementary classroom teacher, special educator, researcher, school psychologist, college professor and director of public schools, a private special education school and an education collaborative.

Ms. Lucci directs NESCA’s consultation services to public and private schools, colleges and universities, businesses and community agencies. She also provides psychoeducational counseling directly to students and parents. Ms. Lucci’s clinical interests include mind-body practices, positive psychology, and the use of technology and biofeedback devices in the instruction of social and emotional learning, especially as they apply to neurodiverse individuals.


To book a consultation with Ms. Lucci or one of our many expert neuropsychologists, complete NESCA’s online intake form. Indicate whether you are seeking an “evaluation” or “consultation” and your preferred clinician/consultant in the referral line.


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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.


Life Skills for College to Work on Now – Part 2

By | NESCA Notes 2020

By: Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS
Director of Transition Services; Transition Specialist

In Massachusetts, we are more than five weeks into home-based learning and looking toward another two months (or more) of schools and childcare facilities being closed. Unfortunately, this is taking a particularly large social and emotional toll on our teenagers and young adults. One strategy for coping with current conditions is to focus on concrete ways that we can control our daily lives and to set short-term tangible goals. With that in mind, I am writing a second blog focusing on the opportunity teenagers are being given to build daily living and executive functioning skills that will ultimately help them live away from home and self-direct their lives. Last week, I discussed four important skills that are critical for attending residential colleges: getting up on time each morning, doing laundry, having basic kitchen skills, and using basic tools for assembling and fixing things around home. This week, I am offering another four skills. For any young person, I always suggest letting the student pick the skill(s) they want to work on first. When you have a lot to work on, you may as well pick the starting point that feels most important and motivating!

  • Medications: For students who have been on medication during high school, keeping that medication regimen stable is typically a must during the transition to college. Students need to have the knowledge, preparation and organizational skills needed to maintain their own medication regimen. Often a good way to start this process is to purchase a 7-day pill organizer and have teens be responsible for dispensing their own medication for the week. Certainly, a smartphone or smartwatch with several alarms can be useful for remembering medications at needed times. For more information about medication management expectations in college, check out this article by Rae Jacobson. He makes some useful recommendations, such as using a unique alarm tone for medication reminders and putting pills in highly or frequently visible locations (e.g., next to your toothbrush that you routinely use).
  • Money: Students in early stages of high school may be too young for their own bank accounts and credit cards. However, some banks do offer accounts that are specially tailored for minors. Students can open a joint bank account as a minor with a parent or legal guardian. Teens can also practice managing plastic through use of traditional prepaid debit cards, Amazon.com or store gift cards, or a debit card made especially for minors like Greenlight. From home, teens can practice making necessary online purchases, tracking payments and shipping, checking account balances, and using a software like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets to keep a record of purchases. There are also plenty of great free web-based financial literacy resources that teens can use to learn about banking and consumer skills from home; a few resources that my colleague Becki Lauzon, M.A., CRC, and I like include:
  • Building an Exercise Routine: Believe it or not, basic fundamentals like healthy eating, sleep hygiene and regular vigorous exercise are strong predictors of college success and satisfaction. As we are living in a period of time where team sports are not accessible, this may be exactly the right time for teenagers to build their own individual exercise routine that can be carried out at home and in one’s local neighborhood. A good baseline to strive for is a routine that includes exercise sessions at least three days per week. With decreased time factors in our lives, students can play around with morning, afternoon or evening exercise to see what feels best for their bodies and brains. If brisk dog-walking, jogging/running or biking activities are not appealing, there are plenty of great YouTube exercise videos (e.g., dance, yoga, strength training, cardio training, etc.) that require no equipment and are calibrated for all kinds of bodies and levels of fitness. Setting a schedule for weekly workouts will help to ensure that exercise becomes more routine and tracking progress with that schedule (e.g., journaling, marking a calendar, using an app like Strava or Aaptiv, etc.) helps to build and sustain motivation. Some teens (and adults) also find that they are more able to stick to an exercise routine if they use a smartwatch to help track, celebrate and prompt their progress.
  • Using a Calendar System for Scheduling: The alarm clock mentioned in last week’s blog is certainly an important time management tool that is vital to master prior to attending college. Another critical time management tool for college (and life beyond) is a calendar system for managing one’s schedule. When starting to build time management skills, simply asking your teen to write down their schedule can be a good place to start. What do they know they have to do each day of the week? What appointments or activities are missing? Teens may have a calendar system that they are already accustomed to using for checking the date, but may not be using that tool to manage their entire schedule. Some common calendar app tools include iCal, Google Calendar and Outlook, but some teens may do better with paper-based systems. If a teen benefits from a paper copy of their schedule, I would still recommend that they learn to use something electronic, then just print off their daily, weekly or monthly schedule based on preference and need. Practice inputting activities that are happening right now, such as assignments, remote classes, meals, therapy, etc. Teens can also play around with reminder settings to see what feels best for prompting participation in activities. Sometimes 15 minutes is too much time, but 5 or 10 is just right. Other times, more than one reminder is needed.

To read more about the Life Skills recommendations from last week’s Transition Thursday blog, click here!


If you are interested in working with a transition specialist at NESCA for consultation, coaching, planning or evaluation, please complete our online intake form: https://nesca-newton.com/intake-form/.


About the Author:

Kelley Challen, Ed.M., CAS, is NESCA’s Director of Transition Services, overseeing planning, consultation, evaluation, coaching, case management, training and program development services. She is also the Assistant Director of NESCA, working under Dr. Ann Helmus to support day-to-day operations of the practice. Ms. Challen began facilitating programs for children and adolescents with special needs in 2004. After receiving her Master’s Degree and Certificate of Advanced Study in Risk and Prevention Counseling from Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ms. Challen spent several years at the MGH Aspire Program where she founded an array of social, life and career skill development programs for teens and young adults with Asperger’s Syndrome and related profiles. She additionally worked at the Northeast Arc as Program Director for the Spotlight Program, a drama-based social pragmatics program, serving youth with a wide range of diagnoses and collaborating with several school districts to design in-house social skills and transition programs. Ms. Challen is co-author of the chapter “Technologies to Support Interventions for Social- Emotional Intelligence, Self-Awareness, Personality Style, and Self-Regulation” for the book Technology Tools for Students with Autism. She is also a proud mother of two energetic boys, ages six and three. While Ms. Challen has special expertise in supporting students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, she provides support to individuals with a wide range of developmental and learning abilities, including students with complex medical needs.

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 info@nesca-newton.com or call 617-658-9800.