Mainstreamed child having problems completing school work

My 12 year old son is mainstreamed at middle school (which he started this year). However, he is having significant problems in completing and turning in his work. We have separate folders for each class with two pockets (one side for completed assignments to be turned in and one side for works in progress), but this system is not working - he just throws everything in the front of the binder. He does not want a check list on his binder as he doesn't want to be different from the other kids. As with most Aspies = he already gets picked on for being "different." Any suggestions for getting him better organized? Thanks!

Things change in middle school, don’t they?

The organizational strategies (separate folders, checklists) you created make perfect sense and in theory should work.  But… 

A couple things might be coming into play here

  • Not wanting to be different
  • Not wanting to be told what to do
  • Not seeing the need to use organizational strategies
  • Not feeling that the methods suggested suit him
  • Complications due to “Theory of Mind”

Let’s look at why you’re worried about organizing him in the first place. This isn’t something we do as intensively for all 12 year olds.  Part of how we recognize a child has Asperger’s is because despite obvious cognitive ability, he is not picking up skills that other children intuitively learn and demonstrate without being explicitly taught. 

Sometimes in our eagerness to help we offer props and useful ways of doing things without giving sufficient background information. Does your son know why you want him to organize his work in this way? Has the reasoning behind it been explained to him?  Or better yet, demonstrated to him?  Can he tell you why you’re making these suggestions?

It’s possible that he has not noticed how other students organize themselves.  A class demonstration of such strategies might help and your son is likely not the only student in the room who is having similar difficulties.  Perhaps once he sees that he is not the only person using the two pockets, he would be more cooperative.  In some Middle Years classrooms, every student is required to have an agenda book, taught systematically how to use the book and its use is compulsory.

Your son may have to see concrete examples of what happens when he does and doesn’t use such organizational methods. For two weeks, he organizes himself in whatever manner he chooses. His teacher will keep concise written records of the amount of work handed in, when it’s on time or late and his marks.  Then for the next two weeks he must agree to cooperate with an organizational system suggested by you or his teacher.  If he can see that using a system improves his marks and gets the adults off his back, he may be more willing to continue with the strategies.

Sometimes students don’t care about marks. If this is the case, you may get him to buy in to your system by showing that it’s the path of least resistance. You and the teachers will leave him alone once he’s completing the work and handing it in.

If he does not want a checklist on his binder, would he agree to an inconspicuous one taped to the inside of his binder? Taped to the back of his ruler? Laminated and stored inside his pencil case?

Is there a teacher or teacher associate with whom he feels comfortable? Could he meet with this person first thing in the morning to go over what he needs to hand it, what materials he must gather for his first classes, what his day’s schedule looks like, and before leaving school in the afternoon to review what he has for homework, which materials he needs to take home, etc.

Does he like gadgets?  Rather than a written checklist, would he prefer to receive the same information in electronic form? If he uses a computer, many software programs come with calendars where you can list your deadlines, plan out your work and have the program beep at you to remind you when to begin that scheduled bout of work, as well as when to allow yourself a break.

More portable than a computer is a PDA, although the cost may be prohibitive. Data entry programs are more affordable. About the size of a pocket calculator, some cost as little as $15, hold information on many assignments in memory, will alert you when deadlines are approaching, have address books and built-in alarms. Kids often find them “cooler” than Student Agenda books or day timers.  Some come with built-in games so you need to be careful which one you buy if your child might become too distracted with the game features.

Do rewards work for your son?  If his teacher communicates to you that he’s turned all his work in on time that day or week, would he appreciate receiving the reward he’s earned that weekend?  Or earning a privilege at school?

Is he able to explain to you why he did not hand in his work?  Does he actually do the work then not hand it in? This is where “Theory of Mind” or (Universal Mind as Temple Grandin calls it) may come into play. Perhaps in his mind, if he’s done the work, he has complied.  He was assigned homework and he did it.

Most people with autism spectrum disorders assume that whatever is in their minds is shared by others. If your son completed his work, he might think that everyone else would know that he did.  Showing it to someone can then seem like a redundant step. It may take many repetitions and clear explanations before he understands that doing the work is but the first step – next he needs to hand it in for his teacher to see.

Even if he has Asperger’s, he’s still an adolescent and most adolescents want to blend in with the crowd and value independence. 

If both he and his teacher have access to computers, could he do his work on computer then email his assignment to his teacher? Before email was common, my son would work on our home computer then use the computer’s fax program to send his work to his teacher as he finished it, eliminating the need to print it off, stick the pages in a binder, place the binder in a book bag, take it to school, dig through the bag and binder for the work, then hand it in.  Think of all the places where this process could break down, especially if you are distracted, anxious, easily overwhelmed and loaded down with the demands of the next day.

Many students with Asperger’s and autism have weak fine motor coordination, making writing with a pencil difficult.  If your son has poor penmanship, his hand may actually tire more quickly than would be expected for his age. For him to write a paragraph may require as much effort as it would for someone else to write a page. Perhaps the volume of work discourages him and he could benefit from having the volume adapted.

Pencil grips help some students; you may need to experiment with several types before finding one comfortable for him.  Writing on a horizontal surface is tiring for some people.  He may do better with a slant board, writing on an inclined surface. Or lying on his stomach on the floor while doing his homework. An Occupational Therapist may be able to offer some suggestions if fine motor difficulties are hindering your son’s production of work.

Again, this is where computers can be a help.  If doing general school work at a computer is not convenient, a laptop computer is more portable, although expensive. A less costly alternative is a dedicated word processor or “smart keyboard” such as an Alpha Smart or Dana http://www3.alphasmart.com.

I hope things work out for you and your son.                                                                                         Sharon A. Mitchell


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