Category Archives: Organization

Teachers working with students at desks

3 EF Strategies to Start the School Year

With back-to-school season in full swing, it is more important than ever for students to adopt executive function strategies and tools. Students of all ages can set themselves up for success by implementing these three practices during their first weeks in the classroom.

1. Create an assignment monitoring system 

In elementary grades, pencil-and-paper agenda books can help young students develop both time management and self-monitoring skills. The simple practice of writing down an assignment in an agenda book can help children take ownership of their learning and conceptualize the connection between school and homework.

Many students in older grades continue to benefit from paper-and-pencil agenda books. In addition, pre-teens and older children can begin to strategically incorporate task management systems that include more than a list of tasks to complete. Our SMARTS team recommends the Prioritize→Break down tasks→ Estimate approach, which requires students to plan when and in what order they will complete tasks.

2. Set goals

The beginning of the school year is the perfect time for students to set goals for what they hope to accomplish both academically and outside of school. It is critical, though, for students of all ages to avoid vague and unrealistic goals. Unit 2 of SMARTS teaches students how to utilize the CANDO acronym to create meaningful and enriching goals.

3. Organize materials

Once students know their class load, they should create a place for organizing their class materials, assignments, and notes. Having a central location for all of these resources saves time and makes it easier to gather study materials. Unit 4 of SMARTS teaches students easy-to-remember strategies for organizing their belongings.

Whether students are entering kindergarten or graduate school, creating personalized assignment monitoring systems, setting goals and organizing materials are worthwhile practices to get the school year started on the right foot. For teachers and caregivers looking to support children in developing these skills, the SMARTS curriculum is an invaluable tool.

  • Taylor McKenna, M.A., M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development:

August calendar with blank to do list

Hack Your To-Do Lists with EF Strategies

Do you create to-do lists with the intention of organizing your tasks and relieving stress? According to research and interviews(link opens in new tab/window) , it turns out that to-do lists can actually make us more stressed because they don’t account for how long tasks take. There are tips for making the lists in planners more effective–as Michael Greschler, director of SMARTS, says, we should use planners as planners and not just as due daters

While brain dumps or listing out all our tasks are good first steps in organizing ourselves and our schedules, it is important to take time to prioritize tasks, break down tasks into steps, and estimate how long they will take.

Step 1: Prioritize

After a brain dump, take time to categorize your list into obligations (have to’s), aspirations (want to’s), and negotiations. Sorting tasks and activities in this way helps make it clear where to begin. Once you know your starting point, you can move on to step 2.

Step 2: Break Down Tasks

It is easy to create to-do lists without considering that each task could contain multiple sub-tasks. When tasks go unfinished, it can create unneeded stress and pressure. According to the Zeigarnik Effect(link opens in new tab/window) , unfinished tasks tend to linger in our minds and interfere with our ability to move forward. One way to counteract the Zeigarnik Effect is to break down each task into parts and schedule each sub-task into a planner or calendar.

Step 3: Estimate

When scheduling sub-tasks into a planner, remember to estimate how long they will take. This is a step that is often missed when using a planner as a due dater. Estimating the time pays off—we are more likely to complete a task if we know exactly when we will start and how long it will take. 

While setting up to-do lists with executive function strategies may take time upfront, you will reduce stress and save time in the long run. For more information about these lessons, check out the SMARTS Curriculum

  • Caitlin Vanderberg, M.Ed., SMARTS Associate

SMARTS Executive Function Curriculum:

Research Institute for Learning and Development:

The Institute for Learning and Development: