I fell down on my morning run today, like all the way on the ground, in an ungraceful, slow, dorky trip over a rock I didn’t see. And this wasn’t the first time. When I told my husband the story, he unkindly pointed out to me that he hasn’t fallen down like that since he was about 8. I don’t really think of myself as uncoordinated, but really I think the issue is my head is just way too full of ideas about places I want to go, things I want to write about, conversations I want to have. Just like many of my students, it’s really busy and crowded in there. So, I don’t always see the occasional slippery spot, the rock, or the dip in the road that causes me to stumble.
Luckily, I stumble a lot less when it comes to getting stuff done in life and teaching my students how to do the same. I have a wide array of external tools I can use to clear the internal clutter that tries to get in the way.
As an academic well-being coach, I teach teenagers what I too need the most to learn to get over procrastination, chronic disorganization, and overwhelm. To transform that into action, engagement, and focus. Sometimes just a new tool to play with makes a big difference. Sure, deep conversations to unravel limiting beliefs, strategic habit practice, and self-regulation skills matter, but sometimes a new, colorful, and handy tool can change perspective, make things more interesting, lighter, and easier. Since I’m usually coaching neurodivergent kids through systems and school work that hand out plenty of challenge as is, I’m all for grabbing some ease where we can find it.
Here are 4 of my favorite tools that help lift the cognitive load and allow for more ease with motivation and learning.
- Go Analog
In one of my favorite short and sweet reads by artist Austin Kleon, he gives a glimpse into his digital work space AND his analog work space. The analog work space is filled with hands-on tools for working with ideas. Using our hands to plot out ideas, take notes by hand, highlight material, draw pictures of concepts taps into neural circuits that makes learning easier. It does take a little more effort and is slower to do things by hand. But, that is where the magic happens. By slowing things down a bit, your brain gets the message that the information is worth paying attention to and remember. Not to mention that the extra sensory stimulation in the more creative act of going analog engages the brain more so that it encodes the information more easily.
One of my favorite analog tools is the time timer. It’s a big ol’ colorful hands-on timer. You slide a a bright red circle to show the amount of time you want to set it for and then you can literally see time passing. Beyond just being satisfying to slide around, it also helps to develop a more accurate sense of time perception. A huge bonus for teenagers whose executive functioning system responsible for time sense is still under construction. I recommend my clients use it to structure Pomodoro sessions while working on homework, but I use it around my house for myself and my kids when we need a little clarity and structure with time.
- For the perfectionists (I am coming to think this is just about all of us in this culture, by the way).
So, the more I work with students who struggle to get things done for school, the more I see perfectionism and procrastination as two sides of the same coin. Perfectionists don’t always look perfect. It’s the fear of not nailing it every time, of being found out as totally imperfect that defines perfectionism, not whether or not that fear drives the student to straight A’s or chronic patterns of avoidance and distraction.
Neat, tidy, and stressed perfectionists as well as late, unprepared, and distracted perfectionists all seem to take quite well to the tool I use the most in my coaching practice: the whiteboard. A small whiteboard with a few colorful markers can do wonders for tackling nerve-inducing math problems, getting the ball rolling on a dreaded essay process, or prioritizing time and tasks. The impermanent nature of the whiteboard helps with brainstorming a quick list of ideas. Writing out solutions in that bigger white space feels a lot less constraining than on paper, especially for dsygraphia types, and is much easier to erase quickly and start again when you notice a mistake. And don’t get me started on the satisfying glide of the marker against the board, the colors you can bring into the mix and the smell of the ink. Whiteboards make a whole sensory experience out of making a traditional checklist of tasks before starting homework.
- Old School, but life changing
A good old fashioned declutter is proven to be good for mental health. Most of my students will tell me that they struggle with 1) stress; and 2) focus. Of course they are related, but many of my students think of these as feeling states they just have to get through (and most likely avoid) until some time that a new feeling state visits upon them. Decluttering is one of those really simple, hands on activities that can prove to students how we can create the way we wish to feel through small, deliberate actions. Not to mention that sorting through past material helps your brain hang on to information it needs and let go of what it does not. Here’s a simple tool and system I teach my clients that isn’t new and innovative, but sure does work.
All in one binder system.
- Get a 1-2 inch binder with pockets with 1 plastic folder sleeve with tabs per class.
- Use the front pocket of the binder for papers you receive that you need to do something with. Use the back pocket of the binder for misclennaeous papers that don’t belong to any one class. Field trip forms, club announcement, etc..
- Label the plastic folder sleeves with each class name and put some loose leaf paper behind them.
- When your teacher hands back a paper without holes in it, stick it in the sleeve of the plastic divider for that class. When you take notes for the class, use the loose leaf paper. Just put a date and title on the top and don’t worry about where it belongs in the binder. Just make sure it’s in the binder.
- Schedule regular overhauls (once a week to twice a month usually is good enough) to sort the papers into the areas they belong and throw out what you don’t need. Things that you don’t need now, but might for the final at the end of the term, put a binder clip on them and stick them in a shoe box or designated drawer in your room at home.
- Because learning is a whole body exercise
Most of my clients (and our culture, in my opinion) rely on cortisol and adrenaline for the push they need to get things done. The reliable rush of waiting until the last minute or using punishing negative self talk to berate themselves into action might work in the short term, but I like to teach them to introduce some other brain chemicals into the mix that will keep motivation going for longer and are better for overall happiness and resilience. I have an acronym for them: DOES: dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin. It really DOES work. Like with the whiteboard, decluttering, and the time timer, there are simple and effective actions you can take to generate these chemicals associated with higher levels of performance, happiness, and focus. One of them is exercise and this last tool makes it easier to move while you learn.
Speechify is an app created by a student with dyslexia at Brown that was first made to help him to read and review notes in the way that was best for his learning difference, but soon caught on with neurotypical students as well. Among other benefits, it allows students to use to review notes and read new information without having to sit still while doing it. This is important because there are so many studies now that show the relationship between physical movement and the regulation of our nervous system to improve focus, decrease anxiety and make learning more efficient. For example, In The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain, Annie Murphy Paul explains how physical gesture can be used when learning something abstract and new to make it clearer and create stronger memories. In addition, many students fidget naturally to compensate for underarousal in the areas of the brain needed for sustained attention, especially if they have ADHD. Neurotypical students as well have been shown to improve executive functions when physical activity and movement is integrated into the school day. By using speechify, students bodies are freed up to gesture, walk, shoot baskets, or roller skate while they learn.
A few simple tools to play around with can shake up the internal story students repeat to themselves about how boring or confusing school work is and clear some of that mind clutter to make motivation easier to come by. At Rare Bird Learning, I am all about helping teenagers find ways to get unstuck without heavy intervention from the adults in their lives, but instead by using the power of their own creativity and action. By introducing a little more color, texture, and movement into the mix, homework feels less like doing school and more like creating learning.
Tricia Underwood is a former high school teacher and learning specialist turned academic well-being coach and writer. She founded Rare Bird Learning out of a desire to help students grow their internal capacity for joy, purpose, motivation, and happiness as the pathway to greater success in school and beyond. If that sounds like something you’d like to have more of for the teenagers in your life, you can join her weekly newsletter here and check out her website for all the other good stuff she creates including a new book and online course titled Happy Grades. She raises her own children including one teenager in Atlanta, GA where she does her best to practice what she teaches.