January 11, 2013

Supporting students with long-term projects (Part 1 of 4)

Now that Winter Break is in your rearview mirror and you are “getting back in the swing of things” (see Monday’s post), it’s time to think about what lies ahead. Students have had several months to learn what is expected of them academically, and with an eye towards encouraging greater independence and autonomy, many teachers will use this time of year to assign longer-term projects and assignments. For some students, this can be a tremendous boon and motivation: they get to explore their own areas of greater interest or work with a buddy on something a bit more creative or individual than they might have had the chance to do up to this point. But for other students, and particularly those for whom organization is a challenge, the positive, creative aspects of the project can be outweighed by the daunting, multifaceted characteristics of many of these sorts of assignments.

The very first way you can help your child with a long-term assignment is to know that it exists! Frequent verbal check-ins and regular peeks at the homework notebook can avoid that surprise conversation that can occur the night before a two-week-old project is due but has yet to be started. Once you know about the assignment, help/encourage your child to put it on his/her calendars – the homework notebook, the mobile or virtual calendar on his/her phone/tablet/computer, and the “master,” family calendar (see our earlier blog on calendaring). How exactly to accomplish this step is worth examining more closely.

Many teachers will provide step-by-step, carefully dated guidelines for their students when assigning a long-term project. If that is the case, then it’s fairly easy to put these dates into the aforementioned calendars – but often that isn’t enough. For students with executive function issues and who find organization difficult, even this sort of “chunking” may not break things down into small-enough, manageable tasks. You – and your child’s Engaging Minds tutor – can work with your child to look at these deadlines more carefully and define what each step entails. For example, if the first landmark deadline is a week out and is to “list six research resources,” discuss where those resources can be found (library or internet) and then actually look at them. Too often students come up with impressive-looking lists of materials only to discover further down the line that they are incomprehensible or too sophisticated (or just plain irrelevant). We will discuss this in greater detail in next week’s blog about helping your child with the actual research for a long-term project or report.


If the long-term project has been assigned to a younger child, it might be something as seemingly straightforward as a book report or a “book talk.” For this, the obvious first step is to read the book. But that in and of itself can require some planning and organization. You – or your tutor – can sit down with your child and break the book into sections (sometimes these will fall along the natural breaks by chapter; sometimes it will require creating bigger or smaller chunks of reading), then place these landmarks on the calendar(s). While doing this, it is important to note what else is going on in your child’s life: s/he might not have time to finish two chapters of the book on a night when there is also hockey practice or dance. Just make sure that you are cognizant of the deadlines that your child’s teacher has set, if s/he has handled this step.

But what if your child’s teacher has not already broken things down by date? Then this is the first step, and your child’s Engaging Mind tutor can help with this as well. By looking at the end date and listing all of the interim steps involved in a long-term assignment (deciding on a topic, getting books and materials, doing the reading, taking notes, creating a bibliography, creating visual aids, practicing a presentation, handing in a rough draft, editing said rough draft and writing the final draft), you can help your child see the big picture (something that is often a challenge for kids with executive function challenges). If you and your child’s teacher have already established that s/he needs individuated assignments, it is important for your child to touch base with his/her teacher to find out exactly what the expectations will be for this assignment. It is far better to address this at the beginning of the assignment period than halfway through when your child may already feel overwhelmed and unsuccessful.

The final step in helping your child with a long-term project or assignment is frequent check-ins – particularly if this is his/her first long-term assignment of the year. For some students, the frequency of check-ins will necessarily diminish as s/he becomes more confident and independent; for others, regular check-ins will always be an important part of their long-term project routine. And, of course, part of what Engaging Minds tutors do is check in with our students weekly, so regardless of his/her level of independence your student will be well supported here.

It is important to recognize that long-term projects and assignments have great potential for a wonderful learning opportunity while also presenting a challenging format for completion. Planning ahead and working with your child and his/her tutor can help the entire process be more positive and the final product be something on which your child will look back with pride and pleasure.