Back to School Prep, Easy Action Items, Executive Functions Training, Great for All Ages, The Happy Student Podcast

#33 Back to School On Time

Teaching your kids to make good decisions can be really hard. Developing a family motto can make that a lot easier. Family mottos, such as “We are kind” or “We are inclusive” help kids develop a sense of self. Then, they naturally want to behave in ways that confirm that they are indeed kind or inclusive. When faced with a tough decision, parents can refer their kids to the family motto to then help them make a good decision.




Without the ability to manage our time, we may spend all afternoon playing and not have enough time to do our homework because we saved all of our homework for later. Without time management skills, we get to school late and then, even if our backpack is organized, we are not able to pay attention to the teacher as she starts her lesson because we are just running into class. 

Here are a few good ideas on how to learn to manage our time. 

Start a morning music routine. 

  • Use a morning music playlist to get up and get ready for school.
  • Start with slower music just to get out of bed. By a certain song, your child knows he needs to be out of bed and brushing his teeth. By a more energetic song, he knows he needs to be out of the shower and getting dressed. By a faster song, he knows he should be eating breakfast. As the morning goes on, the music gets faster. By a certain fast song, your child knows it’s time to be gathering materials. And by the final, very exciting song, the message is to drop everything and run to the car! 
  • Play the same playlist every morning so that your child gets used to it.
  • It also gives your child some freedom from parents yelling at him to wake up. It is 100% up to them if they want to have to rush later. 

Have a seperate music playlist for studying. 

  • Have a 30 minute (or shorter for younger kids) playlist of just classical music. When your child is studying, it should be in 30 minute increments. 
  • Play the same playlist so that your child gets used to it. 
  • Creating this music habit will help your child start working when the music comes on as well as when there is just 5 minutes left, but his mind is drifting, it will be easier for them to come back on task knowing the playlist is almost done. 

Buy an analog clock. 

  •  Analog clocks are really good at teaching children about the passage of time – way better than digital clocks. Kids need to be able to estimate how long their tasks will take them in order to plan when to start their work so that they can finish it before bedtime.
  • Start teaching your children about how long it takes them to do work with the analog clock. Put a sticker on the clock when your kid starts work. Then when 5 problems are done, see what time it is and put on a new sticker to see how long it took to do 5 math problems. The same thing can be done when your child reads a 10 pages of a book. 
  • Another thing you can do with your analog clock is to have “time robber” stickers. This idea comes from Executive Functions expert Sara Ward. Time robbers are anything that take you away from the task you are supposed to be working on. So if you go to the bathroom, get a drink, sharpen your pencil, start daydreaming, or play on your phone, your time has been robbed. Whenever that happens during your work, put a time robber sticker on the clock. This helps your kids remind themselves to do their assignment. Once it’s all done, the two of you can talk nonjudgmentally about ways to avoid the time robbers next time, such as going to the bathroom before work starts.
  • Use analog clocks is to plan out an entire hour. Use a dry erase marker to draw your plan out on the clock so that you see when you should be doing each task. You can put stickers at the halfway marks so you can look at the clock and see if you are over half way done with your time or if you are moving more quickly than expected. 
  • If your child starts late, show on the analog clock how that affects the rest of the hour. Again, nonjudgmentally, just matter of factly. If your child senses any judgment, they won’t let you help them with the analog clock anymore.
  • If your child finishes early, yay! However, they can’t go to the break because that would encourage them to finish their work as quickly as possible and not as well as possible. So instead, they can start the next task or another part of homework for the remaining minutes.
  • Finally, if the work takes more than the time allotted they can 
    • keep working if they are on a roll and you two will re-plan the hour after the work is completed or 
    • they can take a break and go back to work and find time for the other work later or 
    • take a break and go on to the other work and find time to finish later. It’s up to your child. 
  • If you don’t love the analog clock, lots of people like timers. There are some that have a red face that as time passes, the face becomes white, so you can see how much time you have left based on how much red is on the face. 

Another good idea is the octopus watch for younger children. Every time they are supposed to do something, the watch vibrates and shows you what you should be doing.


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Preparing for Classes Over the Summer
Back to School Prep, School Advice

Preparing for Classes Over the Summer

So let’s say they need help specifically in history. You have the textbook already for next year. You ask if they want to preview the chapters and they say, “No way. I’m not doing any reading this summer.”

Well, that’s tough. One thing you can try in this instance is to then ask them “When you think of ‘preview the chapters’, what do you think that means?” They give some answer that is basically, “Read all the chapters.”

That is when you get to explain, “What if we could make previewing a chapter take 3 minutes max? And in those 3 minutes you would make a study guide for each chapter for the school year, so that you are ahead of the game and ready to take on history?”

3 minutes is a pretty reasonable amount of time. It’s hard to say no to that. Plus, you offer to do all of the work for this first chapter to show what you mean.

Here are the steps you take for Preparing for Classes Over the Summer:

  1. Tell your kid to time you.
  2. Open up PowerPoint.
  3. Open up the textbook.
  4. On the first slide write: Chapter 1 and Chapter 1’s title
  5. Then, grab the big headings. Each big heading is one slide. On that slide put the subheadings and any vocabulary words. Move on to the next slide and the next big subheading.
    1. Do not spend any time on capitalization for subcategories or grammar or anything extra like that.
  6. It should only take you a couple minutes. (You can even practice a little ahead of time to make sure this goes quickly).
  7. Print out the PowerPoint presentation multiple slides to a page and there you have it: a study guide for chapter 1!
  8. Then you can explain, “I don’t want you to do more work. I don’t want you to read every chapter. I just want you to do three minutes times however many chapters. You can find that many minutes over the summer to do that, right?”

Kids love this because you are the one working and they have the stop watch. That feels good. (Of course, you’re only doing it for them this one time).

You can also explain the benefits of this strategy:

  • You’ll know more than anybody else in your class, other than your teacher, on the first day of school.
  • You don’t have to worry about actually learning anything yet, so there’s no pressure or anxiety.
  • But at the same time, your brain gets exposure to the information, so it’s already thinking about it subconsciously so when you go back to it during the school year, you’ll remember it better.
  • You have a study guide for tests ready to go!

Taking away that pressure, time commitment, and overwhelming feelings can really help kids prepare for school and feel (and be) prepared to do well come September. It can be a huge confidence boost too.

Kids want to do well in school, even if they seem to embrace not doing well. Don’t fight that part. If you can make life easy for them to do well, then they’ll embrace studying a bit more.

Back to School Prep, Difficult Topics, Executive Functions Training, Great for All Ages

Upcoming Events

Fireborn is excited to be holding two workshops next week.

PPT 101 with Andrea Alvarez

Attend your PPT meeting feeling confident while effectively advocating for your child.

Monday, January 25th at the New Canaan Library Plaut Room

9:30 am to 10:30 am

Followed by 1 hour for individual questions.


Helping Son With Homework.

Nervous about your upcoming Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting? Come learn how to read an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in order to better prepare yourself. Understand what a “good” goal is and how to interpret all the jargon. As a special Education Advocate, Andrea Alvarez focuses on empowering parents whose voices are the best tools when advocating for their children.

Andrea Alvarez is a veteran special needs teacher, director, and advocate. As the Director of Special Education at North Hills middle and high schools, Andrea led, wrote, advocated, and attended dozens of IEP’s. As a former Special Education teacher, resource specialist, and assistant director, Andrea worked closely with administrators, parents, counselors, and teachers to help create educational programs that benefit each child. 

Register Here

Be Ready! The Well-Put-Together Student

An interactive executive functions workshop for parents of children who need help with planning, organizing, managing time, and self-regulation. 

Wednesday, January 27th at the First Presbyterian Church of New Canaan Tate Youth Barn

7 pm – 9 pm (registration starts at 6:45 pm)

$100 Admission Fee


In this workshop, you will learn a wide range of strategies to help you help your child get to school on time, with hair and teeth brushed, homework ready to be turned in to the teacher inside an organized backpack, along with any other supplies needed for the day. While these skills, known as executive functions, are essential to school success, they do not come easily to every child. Students are often required and expected to use their executive functions while they are still developing, which can be frustrating for the student, parents, and teachers.

During the workshop, you will receive direct instruction and practice employing easy-to-implement strategies recommended and used by executive functions coaches, psychologists, teachers, and researchers.

For instance, during this workshop, parents will:

  • Plan how and when to effectively communicate with their child about overcoming the issues that arise from deferring work, disorganization, poor time management, and/or a lack of planning.
  • Practice modeling the desired behaviors and establishing new habits to combat procrastination and to encourage the development of executive functions skills.
  • Learn how to teach their children about the effects of procrastination and “time robbers” in a non-judgmental way that promotes a desire to get to work!
  • Practice using tools for organizing, planning, and time management, such as an analog clock, dry erase markers, and stickers, to give their children a better understanding of the passage of time.
  • Learn and practice performing a variety of additional strategies currently used by executive functions coaches and tutors to help reduce stress and improve the academic lives of their students.

The workshop will be taught by the President of Fireborn Institute and former Executive Functions Coach, Katherine Firestone. Katherine trained and worked as an Executive Functions Coach at the Southfield Center for Development in Darien. She also learned firsthand how difficult school can be, as well as how to overcome those difficulties, as a student with learning differences and trouble with executive functions. In addition to helping parents improve the academic lives of their learners as Fireborn’s founder, Katherine also writes a blog for parents and teachers, Fireborn Fireside, based on her knowledge and experience.

Katherine also worked as a teacher and athletic coach at Greenwich Country Day School. She earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Communication Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her Masters of Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. Katherine is also a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Register Here

Back to School Prep, Difficult Topics, Executive Functions Training, Middle School, Motivating the Unmotivated, The Procrastination Problem

The Procrastination Problem and Your Future Lazy Self

A common technique when training children to plan, organize, manage their time effectively, and self-regulate (all of which are executive functions skills), is to ask them to picture their future selves. What is your future self doing? How is your future self feeling? If I want my future self to be done with homework and relaxing this evening, then what do I need to do? I need to plan my time accordingly and then I need to execute my plan. If I am able to picture what “being done with homework and relaxing” means and looks like, then I am better able to plan and execute that plan to achieve my goal.

This future self is done with work, all packed up for school tomorrow, and feels great that I have the freedom to chat online to my heart's content until bedtime!
This future self is finished with homework, has an organized backpack all packed up for school tomorrow, and feels great that she has the freedom to chat online to her heart’s content until bedtime!

Without this picture of my future self, it is much harder to figure out the steps necessary to reach my goal, making it that much more difficult to motivate myself to start working. My goal is fuzzy, so I am more likely to procrastinate and do fun things.


According to psychology professor Dr. Timothy Pychyl, “The essence of procrastination is ‘we’re giving in to feel good,'” (Wang, 2015). It is tied to impulsiveness, “a tendency to act immediately on urges” (and not perfectionism as most people expect) (Wang, 2015).

Part of this impulsiveness and difficulty delaying gratification may be related to “temporal myopia” whereby a person has a hard time clearly picturing his future self and how his current decisions affect that future self. “Their vision of their future selves is often more abstract and impersonal, and they’re less connected emotionally to their future selves. Temporal myopia may be largely due to their higher levels of stress which can shift their focus to more immediate rather than distant concerns” (Wang, 2015). Because she has a vague vision of her future self and that self feels emotionally distant, a person with temporal myopia tends to give in to her impulses, seek relaxation now, and push work and stress to “later”.

How I feel about myself when I do procrastinate.
How I feel about myself when I procrastinate.

To combat this pattern, executive functions coaches work with kids on picturing that future self more clearly and creating a closer emotional connection to that future self, by asking questions like “How will it feel when…” and by pointing out that the uncomfortable feeling (dread) of having work hanging over his head will go away faster if work is done now instead of later.

Executive Functions Coach, Paige Davis, pushes that connection to her learners’ future selves even further – she asks them to “Picture your future lazy self.


I love that adjective because it is so true. Often we actually tell ourselves that our future selves will be more productive than our current selves are. I do that almost every day when I write my To Do list for the following day. But my future self is just as lazy as my current self and my future self is often mad at my current self for thinking otherwise.

How I feel about myself when I do not procrastinate and then I can be lazy later.

By calling my future self “lazy”, I am strengthening my connection to that self because it is both humorous and true and I can easily picture a lazy me in the future. If that lazy me is stress-free because I have completed all of my work, that is even better.

The problem is my current self has a much stronger connection to me than my future self and I want to relax now! However, if I am able to delay gratification, if I can self-regulate and control my impulses, if I can picture my future lazy self and plan and execute the plan, that future self will be even happier than my current self with a break. My current self with a break has anxiety over starting work and that future self has the stress of being overwhelmed by work. Without that break for my current self, I avoid a lot of stress and get to the future relaxed self faster.

Dr. Pychyl along with collaborators Dr. Piers Steel and clinical psychologist and doctoral student Alexander Rozental suggest reminding yourself (or your learner) that “Putting off the task won’t make it more enjoyable” (Wang, 2015). I would add that putting off the task will actually make it less enjoyable because you feel bad while you are procrastinating. With that knowledge plus a clear picture of your future lazy self, it is harder to put off work.


Branstetter, R. (2014). The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children with Executive Functioning Disorder. Adams Media: Massachusetts.

Davis, P. (2015) Personal communication.

Wang, S. (2015). To stop procrastinating, start by understanding the emotions involved. The Wall Street Journal. 

Ward, S. & K. Jacobsen (2013). Executive Function Skills – Practical Strategies. Cognitive Connections.

Back to School Prep, Executive Functions Training, Middle School, Parent-Child Communication

Planner Trouble

School Timetable Design

Does your child know what to do for homework tonight? When you ask him, does he say, “Umm… I don’t know…”? And despite this uncertainty and the frustrating experience that follows where you force him to call a friend, does he still insist that he “hates planners” and “will just remember”?Back To School

Even knowing I have a terrible memory, I sometimes still think, “I’ll just remember that. I don’t need to write it down.” And I am always wrong – just ask my husband.

Online student resources are often helpful, but are not a perfect replacement for a planner. Sometimes teachers forget to update the website. Or, if your child only sees homework for one subject at a time online, it is hard to tell how much homework in total she has and how to plan accordingly. And sometimes your child has long-term projects that a planner will show are due soon, while the online resource will wait to tell your child about until the night before it is due!

So, planners are a must. The trouble is figuring out the pain point for your child so that you can convince him to use it.

  • Does she forget to take out her planner? 
  • Is he embarrassed by his planner?
  • Does she need a different type of planner?
  • Does the teacher yell out the homework while students are running out the door to the next class?

Maybe what worked for you or what the school suggests will not work for your child. You need to have an open conversation with your child where you say:

  • You are great! (Plus a few other targeted and sincere compliments).
  • I’ve noticed that you have not been using your planner, which has caused some tension between us and some stress for you because you do not know what to do for homework.
  • Why do you think the current system is not working?
  • What do you think you need/want?
  • Not having a planner is not an option. Even I need to write things down so I remember them. Let’s brainstorm some options to replace what you are currently using (but really ‘not using’).

Note book in a back pocket of a jeansPerhaps, instead of the current planner, he needs to have a small spiral notebook that fits in his back pocket. Every time the teacher says the homework, he can use that, instead of rifling through his backpack (which takes time and is scary and demotivating because it is so messy).

Or maybe she needs Post-It Notes (which can also be held in a pocket or a small outer backpack pouch). She can write the homework on the Post-It Notes and either leave them on the pad or put them in a place that the two of you come up with together that she can remember at school and at home.

Maybe, he needs to take a picture of the homework on the board because the teacher erases the board before he can write it all down.

Maybe none of these are good options. Suggest she look around the classroom when the teacher announces homework to see what the other students are doing – what are her friends doing? Try that. If others are doing it, your child may feel more comfortable doing it too.

Post inspired by conversations with Executive Functions Coach Paige Davis.

Back to School Prep, Executive Functions Training, High School, Middle School

Get Your Study Space Ready

Get Your Study Space ReadyWhere does your child do homework? With you in the kitchen? On her bed? In his room at his desk?

I liked to spread all of my school stuff out on my bed and do my homework there. Apparently, that makes me a “spatial organizer” according to Dr. Martin Kutscher and psychotherapist and educational consultant Marcella Moran because I like to have everything within reach and because I like to feel comfortable (2009). I also like to move around while I work – shifting positions on the bed, lying down on the floor for a while…

I also loved to work in the dining room. Kutscher and Moran describe why younger kids like to work near others, but I moved back to the dining room my junior year of high school. Again, I could spread all of my materials out on the table (since we always ate in the kitchen during the week). I also had my mom near by to answer my questions. Plus, I love the hum of a busy house. I like company when I work. I do not want to be distracted by people talking to me, but I do want to know that people are there. Closing the doors between the kitchen and the dining room made that perfect. People forgot I was there and so would leave me alone, but I also did not feel alone.

What space would make your learner most comfortable?

Try asking your child outright. “Where do you like to do homework?” and “Are you happy with your current study space?”. If she isn’t happy and does not know what she wants, try to figure out what type of organizer she is and help create a space where she feels ready to do work. Kutscher and Moran describe three types of organizers:

  1. Visual organizers who need to see all of their items, who have a hard time remembering or finding any items if they are not within view, who respond well to the use of bright and matching colors for subjects, and who become overwhelmed if their desk is too messy.
  2. Spatial organizers (or “Comfy organizers”) who need to have all of their materials within reach, but also have a clean space to work, and who need to feel comfortable when working and like to move.
  3. Sequential/Chronological organizers who “access information chronologically… remember dates, times of events, and the order of events… can remember sequential steps in some sort of personal order… [and] keep stacks of paper on their desks that may appear messy, but there is a certain order to the piles.” (2009, 21-22).

As Kutscher and Moran explain it, “Visual organizers think of missing items in relation to the place they last saw the item… Spatial/Cozy organizers think of missing items in relation to the place they last used the item… Chronological/Sequential organizers think of missing items in relation to the time they last had the item” (2009, 21).

To help determine what kind of organizer your child is, Moran’s website has an Organizing Style Assessment. Once you know your child’s organizing style, you can help optimize his work space by asking him what he wants and making some suggestions based on his organizing style:

Get Your Study Space Ready

For Visual Organizers:

  • A desk without drawers since visual organizers forget items if they cannot see them.
  • An open-top filing cabinet so that everything is visible (as long as the top is off!).
  • Not too many distractions in view (such as posters, old books, clutter).
  • Color coded binders and folders.
  • Single-subject spiral notebooks and/or one binder per subject.
  • Vibrantly colored planner (so it is easy to find!).

For Spatial Organizers:

  • Kutscher and Moran recommend an L-shaped desk with a rolling chair, but I loved my bed and the dining room table…
  • Essential items, such as textbooks, planner, binders/notebooks, pencils, highlighters, a calculator, and a laptop, within reach.
  • 3 subject spiral notebooks (easier access to multiple subjects!) and/or one binder to hold all subjects.

For Sequential Organizers:

(She will set it up in a way she determines makes sense.)

  • Mesh trays may be helpful to hold stacks of paper.
  • Labels for those mesh trays and anything else that may need labeling.
  • 3 subject spiral notebooks and/or one binder to hold all subjects in a specific order.

But most importantly, listen to what your child says. As adults, we often think we know what will work because it worked for us. Sometimes that is true, but sometimes it is not. We have to really be open to what our kids are saying in order to be effective.


Kutscher, M.L. & M. Moran (2009). organizing the disorganized child: simple strategies to succeed in school. HarperCollins Publishers: New York.

Back to School Prep, Easy Action Items, Great for All Ages, Parent-Child Communication

Make Your Kid Feel Special with a Little Reminder

I have the cutest brother. His name is Frank. One day, my mom was just overcome with happiness because she found that some sweet child of hers had sneakily written a few little messages on random days in her calendar – a couple “I love you”s, a smilie face, and a “What’s up?” When she found them, she asked Frank and me if one of us had written the note. I was so envious that I had not thought to do that first because I wanted to make Mom that happy. (It was not the only time Frank showed me up…).Make Your Kid Feel Special with a Little Reminder

As the school year approaches and a little anxiety takes hold in your child, you can prepare to help make school a little bit brighter by making some notes to stick in your child’s lunchbox or planner randomly during the year (with more towards the start). These surprise notes help your child feel special and loved. Even if your child enjoys going to school, who doesn’t appreciate a little emotional boost during the day?

For some great suggestions on what to say in your notes, see The Chic Site’s “Lunchtime Notes”.