Personal Project Planners

Whether it’s writing a paper or cleaning up your desk, some projects are just hard to get to and even harder to finish. You simply consider organizing the mound of papers and junk on your kitchen table and a wave of fatigue sweeps over you, causing you to run suddenly for the couch in front of the television or your comfortable bed. Or, you mention the dreaded task like writing that college essay and your daughter suddenly has field hockey practice and hastily leaves the house. Starting a task that seems unpleasant or problematic, creating steps to move it along, and then completing it can be challenging for EVERYONE, especially people with ADHD. The project, the chore, and the paper all seem insurmountable because they appear overwhelming. The key to to success is breaking them into manageable parts.

Copy filesWhen you, your child or student create a customized plan that creates these , then you are already on the road to completion. Although there are many how-to forms for homework, chores and long-term projects, many of them are complicated and labor intensive. The goal of using any form is to provide structure for the planning, prioritizing and sequencing aspects of executive functioning skills that get you from the beginning to the end of a task.

Here’s how you can create your own forms that suit you (and your child’s) specific management skills which will take some effort in the beginning but will definitely yield results. You will need a pen and a piece of paper.

  1. Choose the topic or task and write that on the top of the paper.
  2. Make a grid with 3 vertical columns and several horizontal ones. Label the columns “Possibilities, Pros, Cons.” It should look like this:
Possibilities Pros Cons
  1. Put any ideas about the project in the possibilities column, followed by what is good and bad about that idea. For example, if the task is organizing the stuff in the basement, the possibilities list might range from “taking everything to the dump” to “getting rid of anything that I haven’t used in 5 years.”
  2. Create the sequential steps needed to accomplish the task using another grid with 5 vertical columns and several horizontal ones. Use the labels suggested below OR create your own. Make as many numbered rows as required to finish the project. Make the actions as specific as possible. Estimating the time it takes to do a step and then comparing that guess with the actual time the passed improves those all-important time management skills as well!
Action Materials needed Time Estimate Actual Time Finished!

Although many kids and adults with ADHD often reject the structure and practice of this process, I have found that my clients ultimately embrace such programs and find them extremely helpful. These “roadmaps” reduce anxiety, clarify goals and build confidence as activities are completed. So, swallow any resistance and try one today!



The Benefits of Working Backwards

As the days grow shorter and we face turning our clocks back an hour, it seems like a great ‘time’ to talk about the benefits of working backwards in the service of moving forwards. Alarm ClockBackwards design means planning in reverse so that you can get to where you want to be in the future. Most people with ADHD have a great deal of trouble managing their time: they are often late, lose track of time or can’t estimate how long a task will take. These problems can be very frustrating to them and to the other people in their lives. The following tips for backwards design can improve time management painlessly and successfully!

1. Stop trying to plan your time from the front end. What this means is that you can’t begin thinking about how to arrive at an event from your current starting point. If it is 6:45 a.m. and you have to leave for school or work until 7:45 a.m., don’t think about how much you can do from now until then. “Oh, I have 30 minutes to get dressed, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, feed the cat and get my backpack (or briefcase) together. I have plenty of time to watch some tv first.” When you think about time in a forward manner, inevitably you underestimate how long things take and then run late.

2. In a calm moment, not in the midst of rushing around but likely afterwards, think about your targeted time for arriving at or departing from an event or completing a task. Then, starting with THAT time, work backwards, assigning increments of time to the various steps that you have to do. If we use the example from Step 1, this would look like: “Ok, I need to leave by 7:45 and before that I have to pack my backpack (or briefcase) which takes about 5 minutes, feed the cat which takes about 5 minutes, brush my teeth which takes about 5 minutes, make and eat breakfast which takes about 15 minutes, get dressed which takes 20 minutes (including my hair and make-up) so that totals 50 minutes. That means that I have 10 extra minutes if I wake up at 6:45. Is that enough? If so, what should I do with those 10 minutes? Do I need those 10 minutes for unpredictable things or returning phone calls or checking my email or Facebook or twitter?” Using backwards design requires an honest assessment of how long tasks actually take, not how long you think they should take.

3. Create a list or chart to remind you to use the steps that you have created. checklist paper with pen on clipboard isolate on white Once you have tried this plan, you can alter it in any way that would make it more effective for you. You can also set an alarm on your phone to remind you when you have 5, 10 or 15 minutes to keep you on track. Remember, things often take longer than we anticipate so leave yourself some ‘just in case’ time to deal with the unexpected. When you have succeeded at doing this with one thing in your life, then you can apply it to others such as getting to the dentist’s office on time, arriving at a concert before it starts or showing up for soccer practice when you are supposed to arrive.

Being on time (or close to it) can be hard work and yet quite rewarding. Be sure to take pride in your accomplishment or to praise the success of a loved one with ADHD who is trying this. Next week, when you lose an hour to Daylight Saving Time, you can really ‘fall back to spring forward’ as the adage commands by using backwards design!!


Talking About the Teenage Brain at Versan Conference in Montego Bay and Kingston, Jamaica

Versan Seminar-Dr Sharon SalineLast month, I had the great privilege to travel to Jamaica to present my talk, “What were you thinking? Understanding the Teen Brain,”at the “Recession-Proofing Your Education” Conferences in Kingston and Montego Bay sponsored by Versan Educational Services. Versan is an international educational organization that advises, places and trains students for boarding schools and colleges around the world. Ms. Sandra Bramwell, the founder and director, is one of the most energetic, eloquent and kind-hearted women whom I have ever met. She is also a visionary. The conferences were attended by over 175 parents, teens and guidance counselors as well as radio stations. 

Versan Seminar-Mrs Bramwell
Dr. Saline with Ms. Sandra Bramwell, founder and director of Versan Educational Services.

Each time I give this talk, I am always curious what the audience members will find most interesting and relevant to their lives. Sometimes people are curious about the recent findings in brain research that the pre-frontal cortex continues to develop until the mid-twenties. Sometimes people are interested in learning more about teens and sleep. And sometimes, people would just like to what is ‘normal’ teen behavior and what is not.

Versan Seminar-Dr Sharon Saline Lecture







At both of my talks in Jamaica, the attendees were especially interested by two issues that are related to executive functioning skills.

1. A 2011 NIMH-funded study about emotional recognition found that adolescents showed a 50% accuracy of correctly naming emotions versus the adults in the study who showed 100% accuracy. This finding means that adolescents misinterpreted the facial expressions that they were shown in half the cases. When I emphasized that this result implies that teens are reading situations incorrectly about half of the time and then responding to that misreading, people were amused but also concerned. We talked about how understanding facial expressions correctly relies on executive functioning skills which are still developing. Teens wondered if they could speed up the course of development. “Miss,” on young man asked, “Is there any way to speed up the development process if I work really hard? I would like it to be finished by the time I am 20, not 25.” “Well,” I said, “You can work hard on strengthening your executive functioning skills like planning, organizing, judgment and self-awareness but your brain will grow at its own rate and you can’t really make that go any faster.”  He was visibly disappointed.

2.Time management: I talked about backwards design, which seemed to be a new concept. We looked at how challenging it can be to get ready and out of the house on time for school in the morning. With the eager participation of one mother and daughter, we traced their morning routine as it unfolds now with all of its bumps and then rearranged it by going backwards from the time of arrival at school. The audience found this technique very useful.

Versan Seminar StudentsI really appreciated the frank feedback that the Jamaicans gave right after my talk—“I liked the part about learning how to make better decisions but not so much about the brain cells”—and their warmth and humor. It was refreshing (and a bit comforting) to see that parents and teens in the Caribbean have many of the same questions and concerns that we have here in the USA.

Effective Communication – The Rule of Three

Parents and teachers often complain to me that kids with ADHD don’t remember things they are told. This forgetfulness happens for a number of reasons—poor working memory, internal or external distractions, limited ability to sequence information into steps, anxiety about forgetting—and changing how you talk to a child or teen with ADHD can improve memory. When you are asking someone with ADHD to do something, that request should only have one component. The chances of him or her remembering more than one thing at a time are very slim, even with the aide of medication. So, keep your task SIMPLE.Mother and daughter smiling at each other

The rule of three is critical to successfully making these changes. 1. Say the youngster’s name. 2. Look directly at him/her AT EYE LEVEL, making sure your gaze is returned and held. 3. State your task clearly and calmly. Ask the child or teen to repeat your request EXACTLY and then, ask for a second repetition. These three steps have to be followed in this sequence in order for them to work most effectively. They activate several ways for connecting—sight, sound, repetition–that trigger different and simultaneous neural pathways.

When the single task is completed, then you can give another one in exactly the same manner. Communicating in this easy, direct manner improves the likelihood that the task is remembered and completed. Everyone will be less frustrated and feel more confident that things actually get done!

Using Technology as Friend Not Foe

Everybody needs reminders sometimes. Children and teens with ADHD seem to need more reminders than other youngsters and often feel like they are being nagged. Technology, although a frequent source of distraction, can be extremely helpful in providing kids with ADHD the cues they need and reduce the “nagging” factor. Parents and educators can use cell phones, iPods to help kids improve their organization, reduce forgetfulness and learn to be more independent.Boy in headphones looking tablet computer on the nature

If someone has a phone or an iPod, then s/he has an aide that they carry around constantly. I rarely come across a teen who doesn’t know where the phone is at all times. A child with an iPod is equally attached to his/her electronic device. Use the phone or iPod as the reminder machine so you don’t have to do this. Set alarms for chores, homework times, work breaks, appointments and even turning in assignments. Pick ONE and only one task that your teen or child forgets to do and set the alarm for that event. Watch him/her set it up so that the alarm has a label related to the task. Make sure all adults who interact with the youngster throughout the day understand the reminder program that you are starting. This alarm will then cue the teen to do the expected task.

When you have success with this one thing, then you can add in another, but NO MORE than three per day. By having the technology do the cuing, then you are teaching self-reliance and building self-esteem simultaneously. You will support changes in behaviors without running them.

Spring Cleaning: Moving Stuff OUT

As the trees and flowers begin to bloom, many parents take a look around their homes and long to clean out the family nest. Sometimes, the task seems just too overwhelming and you don’t get any further than a big sigh. Garage Sale BoxAt other times, you start with the best intentions but can’t get past the battles about what to keep and what to get rid of. Here are some simple steps that you can use to organize the belongings of your children or teens this spring (and maybe even your own)!

The path to organizing success involves the 3 P’s: patience, perseverance and practice. It requires a sense of humor and the ability to keep focused on your goal. Improve collaboration with your son or daughter and avoid power struggles by using the following steps:

1. Choose your target carefully. Make it manageable and give it a specific period of time. For example, go for cleaning out JUST the closet and give yourself a limit of around an hour. Or, concentrate on picking things off the floor and do the closet on a different day. Keep track of the time so you don’t run out!

2. Engage your child or teen in the process, using incentives. This means offering your child or teen something s/he may want to do as a reward for working with you on this project. Examples may include extra screen time (tv or computer or gaming systems), fun activity (biking, board games, playing sports), time with friends or a special food treat.

3. Get 4 bags and label each one: “keep”, “trash”, “give away”, “unsure”. Divide the STUFF into these bags. If your child or teen has trouble with letting go of belongings, help him or her make choices by talking about what is really being used and how someone else might want what your son or daughter does not.Cleaning my room

When you have your 4 bags, go through the “unsure” bag carefully one more time, putting its contents in the other 3 bags. Then put away the “keep” items immediately and deal with the “trash” and “give away” bags. Remember it is critical to value what you have done together. Look at your accomplishment and congratulate yourselves on the success of your efforts!!