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Visual Strategies for Organization and Planning

Visual Strategies for Organization and Planning


Students who have learning disabilities and
difficulties in executive functioning skill frequently struggle to keep track of the things
they need for schoolwork. For many of these students, explicit teaching
of strategies for organization and planning especially VISUAL strategies is essential
to the learning process. This online professional learning video is
a joint venture between the Ottawa Carleton District School Board and the Learning Disabilities
Association of Ontario’s [email protected] Project. Our goal is to teach educators and parents
how using visual structure and supports can improve organization and planning in our students. In this video, you will learn the answers
to the following questions: Why should I invest time in teaching organizational skills? How do I explicitly teach organizational skills
to students with learning disabilities? And how can we help students with LDs transfer
strategies from one situation to another? Students with learning disabilities, including
those diagnosed with ADHD, often struggle with organization. Since organization is a key element of both
learning skills and executive functioning skills, there can be a widespread impact for
students who demonstrate lagging skills in this area. For example, a student struggling with organization
may also have time management issues. There are two main types of organization that
are important for student success, both in school, and in students’ lives outside of
school: cognitive, or thought organization, which is required when students are asked
to generate ideas, tell events in a logical sequence, or write sentences, paragraphs or
longer compositions; and, physical organization, that is, organization of person, materials
and space. Organization is the foundation of all of the
learning skills and work habits on the provincial report card. If a student is able to manage their belongings
and space around them, they are more likely to be able to set goals, formulate a plan,
and use the plan to reach their goal. As Amanda Morin describes on the website Understood.org,
the signs of organization and time management issues vary with age. What you see in preschoolers or grade-schoolers
may not be the same symptoms you see in middle-schoolers or high-schoolers. But at any age, kids commonly have difficulty
keeping track of time, things, and information. For example, you may notice that a student
struggles to start and finish tasks on time. Or that she never has the items she needs,
including basics like her textbook, notes, or phone. Students with organization issues may also
struggle with: remembering when school assignments are due; keeping track of materials needed
to do a project or task; remembering to take necessary materials between school and home;
or designating and using a specific place to store things. They may struggle with: setting goals and
making decisions; getting to school or other activities on time; estimating how much time
is needed to do something; or going back to something after they’ve been interrupted. Fortunately, there are some effective strategies
that can be used to address the organization, planning, and problem-solving issues our students
with learning disabilities have, and they will help develop the foundational skills
needed for time management too. The strategies presented here are based on
the work of Sarah Ward and Kristen Jacobsen of
Cognitive Connections Therapy. This video will focus on 2 visual support
strategies for getting organized, staying organized, initiating tasks, following through,
and managing time. These are Match the Picture, and Block and
Box. The third strategy, which we are calling Same
but Different, is both verbal and visual. It is used to help students make connections,
and transfer the use of strategies to new situations. All of these strategies can be used as accommodations
that we implement for students, but over time, students can be taught to use and implement
the strategies themselves in new situations. The importance of gradually transferring responsibility
from adult to child or student will also be highlighted. When students have difficulty remembering
the materials they need to bring to class, or steps of instructions they need to follow,
teachers often try to support them by orally repeating these items. This will prompt some students, but the responsibility
for remembering and organizing remains with the teacher. This graphic from educator, author, and speaker
Richard Wells, represents responses from 2200 students as to which category they felt they
were in when their teachers were explaining things to them orally. As this graphic shows, in any given class,
50 % of students are actively or passively disengaged, another 35 % are trying to keep
up and listen, but are only understanding part of what is being said, and may be afraid
to ask for clarification. A further 5% of students feel they already
know what is being presented. Only 10 % are confidently processing and understanding
everything being presented. This is why even though everyone has been
told what to bring to class, many still arrive without needed items. Both students and teachers end up frustrated. Other teachers create lists and checklists
as reminders for students. Sometimes these lists have pictures of the
items to be remembered. This is a great first step, and will be sufficient
for some of our students. Others, however, need to see themselves and/or
their environment in the picture. This leads us to our first strategy: MATCH
THE PICTURE. Match the picture uses a photograph of the
student to support organization of body and materials, or a photo of an environment, to
support organization of space and materials. Using a picture of the student doing the task
helps them see the future picture; they visualize themselves arriving completely prepared with
everything they need for class. By using visual language and teaching our
students to think, “What will I look like if…?” or “What will I look like when…?”
we encourage future picture thinking which is necessary for independence in organization
and planning. This strategy helps them to mentally rehearse
what they need to do in one setting so they can do it in another. It makes what they have to remember and organize
concrete and more personally relevant. They see one whole picture, rather than a
list of discrete items, because all the items they have to remember are now anchored to
them. Some students may be able to start with mental
imagery; others may require a concrete picture to start, and then work toward using mental
imagery. The idea is to take a picture of the student
with everything they need for a particular activity. For example, if the student has hockey or
soccer practice, you would take a picture of them wearing all of their equipment. If the student needs help getting ready to
leave for school, or getting to class with needed materials, you would take a picture
of them with all these materials. These pictures can be stored on smart phones
and other devices, printed and posted where they do the activity, or inserted into luggage
tags and attached to backpacks. The student uses the picture to match him
or herself to it, item by item. When the student has all the items that they
have in the picture, they know they are ready to go, prepared with everything they need. Initially students are likely to need prompting
or guidance to notice everything in the picture, or develop a systematic way to scan the picture. The Match the Picture strategy can also be
used to help students organize their workspaces and materials. In these cases, students may not be physically
in the picture, but their desks, or lockers and personal belongings are. In this way, the picture is still anchored
to the student. Encouraging students to think in pictures
has the benefit of reducing demand on auditory and working memory. It does this by reducing the load on verbal
memory and processing. When we show students a picture of the things
they should have on their desks to do a graphing activity, and ask them “Does your desk match
the picture? Are you ready?” We are prompting students to notice what is
going on in their surroundings, and to use this information to solve a problem. Responsibility for organizing and planning
is shifting from teacher to student. And because the picture is permanent, allowing
students to refer to it as often as they need, the demand on working memory is reduced. When we tell students “Get out some graph
paper, your ruler, a pencil, your compass and a protractor. You may also want to get out your eraser”,
we use a lot of spoken words to accomplish the same thing a picture does. In contrast to the picture, spoken words disappear
immediately. For students to be able carry out the instructions,
they have to be able to hold onto all of these words in memory and assemble the materials
at the same time. Many students struggle to do this, and feel
an increasing amount of stress. When we find ourselves repeating the list,
again and again, this added verbal input just adds to the student’s stress. Or, they simply tune out because they can’t
process all this verbal information. “Match the Picture” is a strategy that is
useful in many settings and situations. Taking a picture of the finished product or
the desired setting can provide students with a visual representation of the goal, thereby
reducing the directions needed to complete a task. In addition, it encourages the student to
“see the big picture” and see the space as a whole rather than focusing on details in
the space. For instance, a picture of a clean kitchen
or bathroom at home can give a child the future picture of how the space — or the big picture
— should look when it’s tidy. This will help them to organize their thinking
and help them plan what needs to be done when they are asked to clean up. As part of shared practice, teachers can also
have students help them label a picture or concrete visual to draw attention to important
expectations, or as shown here, steps in a series of instructions. This helps move toward mental rehearsal. To help students transfer the use of Match
the Picture to new situations, consider using a familiar example of a Match the Picture
visual, and working with students to develop an annotated graphic that explains both the
purpose of the Match the Picture strategy, and how to use it. For example, if you have used a picture of
a student’s desk to show what it will look like when they are ready for Math, ask students
to write a caption for the picture that explains how they use it. This student explains “First, I look at the
picture to see what my desk will look like when I am ready for Math. Then I put everything else out of sight.” In the beginning, teachers can model the process
for generating the caption using a think aloud. Over time, students can partner with the teacher
to generate captions for pictures, then progress to generating captions for selected pictures
with their peers, and finally, generate captions independently, or verbally explain how they
use the visual support. We are applying the concept of gradual release
of responsibility to this activity. The student is gradually taking on a greater
degree of responsibility for explaining how they use the strategy until they are able
to carry it out independently. Some students will be able to move through
the progression of modelled, shared, guided, and independent activity more quickly than
others, or may not need to go through all of the stages to achieve independence. Gradual release of responsibility supports
differentiated instruction by providing multiple access points for students, and allowing them
to proceed at their own pace. The concept of “Same but different” is used
to help make connections in order to transfer the use of a strategy to other settings, situations,
and people. In this case, it is used with the Match the
Picture strategy in order to generalize or transfer the thinking process from a familiar
task to a novel or problematic one. By teaching our students to think, “I’ve done
this before…how is THIS task the same as THAT task?”, “How is it different from THAT
task?” we are tapping into their nonverbal working memory and the use of mental imagery
to organize, initiate, persevere and self-monitor the completion of a task. At the same time, making these connections
helps to reduce stress, increase motivation and boost self-confidence. When students remember that they were successful
with something similar on another occasion, they gain the confidence that they can successfully
apply what they already know to this new or challenging situation. For example, if a student knows how to scan
a picture to know what they need to be prepared for school or class, they can use the same
process to scan a different picture to ensure they are prepared for swim team practice. Having students make explicit connections
between similar situations or settings may help them use the strategy independently in
a shorter time frame, the connections may serve the same purpose as modelled or shared
implementation, allowing for guided or independent use in the new setting. The “match the picture” strategy encourages
the growth of independence, planning, and problem-solving by teaching students to see
the big picture of a space or task. However, it’s important for students to move
quickly from seeing the whole, to identifying the features or categories of a space before
focusing on the smaller details. Hidden within the smaller parts of the space,
is meaning that gives us clues for how to organize, plan, set goals, act, and self-monitor. Extracting the meaning hidden in a space leads
to a greater ability to initiate and adapt to changing, dynamic situations. The “Block and Box” strategy focuses on identifying
the features of the big picture and supports the development of both cognitive and physical
organization skills. Block and Box can be used as a tool for organization
of space, materials and body. It simply involves superimposing an organizer
over a picture of a main topic or big picture in order to identify the features and details
in that picture. For example, if this purple box represents
the gestalt, or big picture, of a space, that space can be further broken down into smaller
components or features. You could think of these features as categories,
or parts of the whole. Every space and task can be broken down into
smaller features. Features of a space are composed of details,
as represented here. The details of a space are the items you might
include in a checklist. But what does this look like in the real world? Looking at space from a big picture point
of view helps students to process what is in that space more quickly. Do you have a space that needs to be tidied
but the task is overwhelming for your student? Sometimes it can be hard to know how to even
start to clean up a messy space. Block and Box can help to break down a space
into smaller, more manageable parts. First, take a picture of the finished product. This is the future picture, how will it look
when it’s done? Remember that we want to use visual language. Next, block off — or identify — the categories
or features within the space by drawing a box around each area in this case, each of
the areas that need attention. Blocking off each category helps to zoom in
on the parts of the whole space. Finally, look at the details within each feature
or category to focus in on the tasks that need to be completed. Adding a checklist to a picture helps to break
down a space into smaller features and details. The student can refer to the checklist to
ensure that all elements have been completed. By actively involving the student in creating
the checklist you can help to optimize understanding and facilitate moving toward independence
in task completion. Here is another example using the same process
applied to a different space. Encourage future picture thinking by breaking
the space down from whole…to parts or features…to details. Here, Block and Box is applied to a kindergarten
student’s cubby… Whole to parts… to details. When we use Block and Box, we are applying
the concept of chunking. It gives the student a structure to focus
on one category, or manageable piece, at a time. Always keep in mind the importance of transferring
responsibility and ownership from adult to child. In the early years, the adult may model what
block and box looks like in a student’s space but share in the process of maintaining the
organization. The student must understand what features
need to be included in the organization of the space, and then understand which individual
details must be included, and which ones can be omitted. What is necessary? What is not necessary? As kids get older, responsibility and ownership
continues to transfer by sharing and guiding the development and implementation of the
organizational strategy. This can be achieved by involving the student
in the sorting of the items to determine the categories in the space. For example, crayons, markers, pencils and
erasers might go in the “Writing Tools” category. Textbooks, reference books and novels belong
in the ‘books’ category. And notebooks, agendas, and binders (if they
have them), belong in the ‘notes’ category. If scissors, tape, rulers and other miscellaneous
school supplies are to be kept in the student’s desk, a category called ‘Tools’ could be added
as well. As kids get older, the storage system for
the items they need on a day-to-day basis evolves from a desk to a locker. However, keeping a vertical locker organized
is a different task from keeping a horizontal desk organized. To help a student move from a locker that
looks like this, to one that looks like this. They need to be prompted to develop a system
for organizing their locker so that it will work for them. If someone does the organization for them,
they will not be able to maintain it because they haven’t been involved in the development
of the plan. Once the plan has been developed, the space
can be blocked into categories that are functional for the student such as: lunch, materials,
footwear and personal. As students get older, the materials they
need for school will vary, so the home that they need to create to store these materials
will also vary. For example, in high school, the features
or categories of items may remain the same from one semester to the next, but the details,
or individual items within each feature will change. For example, the student won’t need some of
the items in the materials box such as books for specific courses, but may need materials
for gym instead. The student’s locker can be organized in such
a way as to reflect the features that will remain features while allowing for the changing
details. It’s the visual picture of the blocked space
in the locker that will allow the student to figure out what details (or individual
items) must be included in which feature. Block and Box is also a valuable strategy
to help students organize their body and how they should look if they are ready for a task
or activity. For example, for students who require more
visual structure and support for organization for getting ready for school, block and box
can be used to visually categorize materials and clothing required, as shown here. While memorizing a list of items required
places a heavy demand on memory, teach students instead to organize items into categories
such as materials, body and clothes. Having students do a consolidation activity,
such as creating an annotated graphic that explains the purpose of Block and Box and
how they use it will help them to develop an explicit awareness of how the strategy
helps them, and possibly increase motivation to use it again in the future. This student has described the purpose of
Block and Box by saying “The boxes reduce the number of things I have to hold in my
memory from 10 items to 3 categories,” and has gone on to describe how looking at each
box or category draws her attention to the things she needs to have within that category. While teaching this strategy, it’s important
to emphasize how it can be transferred and generalized to other activities, settings,
or challenging situations. Teach students to think about these two questions:
“What will I look like?” and “How is THIS task the same but different from THAT task?” Then ask students to think about, “How can
the process of blocking and boxing categories be used in the new situation? Will the categories be the same? Or will they be different?” Which is easier? Remembering 3 categories of items? Or memorizing a list of 11 items? Why should you use match the picture and block
and box? What are the benefits? Have you ever heard the expression, “They
can’t see the forest for the trees?” Some of our students pay attention to minor
details, but fail to see how these details fit into a bigger picture. But it’s the ability to see the big picture
or, the forest! That allows us to process information quickly
and to see how all the parts fit together as a whole. The match the picture and block and box strategies
teach students to view space and tasks from a big picture or gestalt point of view before
focusing on categories and details. When we teach this whole-to-part thinking,
or top-down processing, we are helping to improve their speed of processing, and reduce
the load on working memory. So the take-home message in this video might
be that Match the Picture and Block and Box are versatile strategies that can be used
at home, at school and in the community. Teaching students with learning disabilities
to see the big picture and to group by feature and category helps them to organize their
thinking, plan out tasks and improve independence. And always encouraging them to think, “How
is this the same, but different?” facilitates transfer and generalization to
novel settings, people or situations.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you. SO very helpful.

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