January 2, 2024

From overwhelmed to organized

By Jess Holman, Instructor

Many students are focused on the here and now. This is developmentally appropriate as adolescents are working to develop their capacity to plan for the future (Nurmi, 1991). This means that students often focus on tasks due tomorrow. Moving beyond urgent, newly assigned tasks is challenging, but possible with the right executive function resources, strategies, and support. At Engaging Minds, we help students move beyond the “due tomorrow” mindset and consider their assignments in 3 buckets: past, present and future. 

Past: First, it is important to consider old assignments. Reflecting on past assignments may require checking a grade portal to identify missing or incomplete work.  Some guiding questions students can use in this process are included below: 

  • Are there any missing assignments that I can still complete or submit?
  • Are there opportunities to revise and resubmit past assignments?
  • Are there opportunities for test corrections or quiz corrections? 

It’s important to remember that reflecting on past assignments will likely require tapping into several executive function skills, including the ability to self-advocate with teachers and/or advisors. This task will also leverage students’ cognitive flexibility and problem-solving skills, as students will need to be willing to look back at work that may feel done and exercise a problem-solving approach. 

Present: Students often have the greatest knowledge of work is urgently due. It can be helpful to use a checklist that goes class-by-class to identify upcoming assignments. Students may benefit from checking both online platforms and in their physical materials (like folders and binders). Questions to help understand urgent tasks may include: 

  • What short-term tasks are on my radar? 
  • How /where do teachers share their homework assignments? 

This type of thinking involves another executive function skill: organization. To locate current homework assignments, students need to utilize both their physical and digital organizational abilities. 

Future: It is developmentally appropriate for students to find planning for the future challenging, which might result in procrastination, stress, and uncertainty about where to begin. This can make it particularly tough when planning for longer-term assignments, such as papers, readings, exams, or projects (we call these PREP tasks). To help with this process, consider:

  • Where should I go to learn about upcoming PREP assignments? (class syllabi, portals, etc.) 
  • How can I initiate these PREP tasks now? (even if they haven’t been formally assigned yet)
  • What might it look like to break the PREP task into smaller pieces, so that I do a little each day? 

For this type of thinking, students need to use their task initiation skills to proactively get started on large tasks. Students also need to exercise their planning acumen to help map out an achievable daily roadmap for reaching a larger goal.

Despite students often claiming to have no homework, the reality is that there is usually something to do: revise a previous assignment, study for an upcoming assessment, initiate a bigger project, etc. By considering past, present and future assignments, students can effectively leverage their executive function skills towards helping them achieve academic success.