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Dr. Sheri's Blog


How to Map Out a Project

Posted on September 6, 2016 at 1:57 AM Comments comments (306)
As a student, a mom, and a teacher, I've experienced many late nights spent cramming to get a project completed and turned in on time. Unfortunately, for individuals with executive function deficits, planning can be an area of great weakness. This lack of planning can result in leaving things to the last minute, or not getting started with a project at all because it just seems too overwhelming.

Project mapping is a method whereby sticky notes are used to identify the different components of a project. A calendar is used to assign dates to each individual task, and that date is then written on each sticky note. The sticky notes are then placed on a planner with three columns: Not Begun, In Progress, and Completed. All sticky notes start in the far left column. As tasks are begun, they are moved to the middle column. When they are completed, they are moved to the far right column. The goal is to get all the sticky notes to the far right column before the due date.

For a video on how to complete a project map, check out our latest video on YouTube. For a template, click here.

If you're a classroom teacher and you have students completing group projects, the project map can be easily adapted by using different colored stickies for different members of the group.

One of the reasons why this process is so effective is because it provides a visual reminder of all the steps that need to be completed in order for the project to be done. It also provides a strong visual regarding how much needs to be done, relative to how much has already been finished.
If you found this information helpful, please leave a comment and share this information with others who might find it useful.

How to Make a Visual Scale

Posted on August 5, 2016 at 1:24 AM Comments comments (70)
Visual scales are terrific tools for helping young people with executive function challenges to see and understand the subtleties of everyday life. Click here for a document with instructions on how to make a visual scale. And click here for a short YouTube video showing how to make a visual scale.

Visual scales can be used in a variety of ways: to show voice or noise levels, to communicate state of mind, to indicate physical health, or to show proximity. Visual scales work by showing the current level in relation to the desired level, and by tracking progress toward the desired level.

Have you successfully used visual scales with your students or children? If so, please share in the comments so that other readers can benefit from your experiences.

Tips and Tricks for Dealing with Mental Inflexibility

Posted on May 7, 2015 at 1:50 AM Comments comments (289)
In my last blog post I wrote about the concept of mental flexibility, how it relates to executive function (EF), and gave some ideas for strategies you might use when working (or living) with someone who is not very flexible (mentally speaking).

Today I'd like to share my top three tips for a peaceful co-existence with your mentally inflexible student, child, spouse, friend, co-worker, boss, or parent. Please keep in mind that these tips come from my own personal experience, so they may or may not apply in your position. As with everything you read on the Internet - read with care, use what makes sense for you, ignore the rest!

Three Tips for Dealing with Mental Inflexibility

1. The more inflexible the person you are dealing with, the more flexible you must be.
Or, as Yoda might say, "Inflexible he is. Very flexible you must be." The biggest problems occur when a parent (or teacher, or boss) is dealing with someone who has EF deficits that are typified by inflexibility and that parent (teacher, boss, etc.) expects things to be done their way, no questions asked, no exceptions granted. This can be really tough for parents (personal experience here) who have set standards that may need to be put aside (just for awhile). For example, we have always insisted that our boys come to the dinner table properly dressed in a shirt with sleeves (no bare chests and no tank tops). After our son experienced his traumatic brain injury (TBI), we had many, many arguments (which escalated abruptly) about him wanting to wear a tank top to dinner. In retrospect, we had much bigger issues to deal with. We needed to be flexible in some of our demands, with the knowledge that we could always work on the tank top issue at a later date.

2. Keep in mind that anything you say will can, and will, be held against you
I was speaking with an educator recently who shared a story about a young lady with TBI who had been told that she could get a work permit once she attended school every day for a month. The young lady (let's call her Sally), excited to start work, attended every day for a month and then approached her teacher about the work permit. The teacher, aware of other issues in Sally's life that predicated a change in plans, explained to Sally that she would sign the work permit in a week or so, after she had a chance to meet with her transition worker. Sally responded by pointing out that she had come to school for the month, as directed. The teacher explained her reasoning again. Sally (in a significantly louder voice) repeated that she had done what she had been told to do. This went on for a few more minutes, with Sally becoming more angry and unreasonable as the conversation escalated. Finally, Sally said a few inappropriate words, threw a stack of papers on the floor, and stalked out of the classroom. In analyzing this situation, the problem started when the educator told Sally that she would sign the work permit if she attended school every day for a month. As this is a very specific time period, Sally fully expected that she would get her work permit once she kept her part of the bargain. When the teacher couldn't do what she had said she would do - even for very valid reasons - Sally felt as though she had been lied to. Sally's inflexibility in thinking resulted in a situation that quickly escalated out of control. The teacher may have avoided the unpleasant situation by originally stating that she was concerned about Sally's attendance and that they would discuss the work permit again once Sally had attended school regularly for a month. They could have then discussed the work permit and, if nothing else needed to be done, the teacher could have given Sally her permit. However, if there were other considerations, those could have been dealt with at that time.

3. Sometimes the best gift you can give someone who is mentally inflexible is the gift of reflection
Often people who are mentally inflexible will jump to a conclusion, or make a decision, without thinking through all angles, or considering all factors. When this happens, it can be very difficult for them to even consider the possibility that there might be other alternatives. In these situations, it can be helpful to reflect back on what they've decided, "OK, so you've decided that you are going to tell your boss that you're tired of having to clean the back room each Friday." Make sure that you reflect what they have said, and that you are using a respectful, approachable tone (beware of sarcasm as it will close down the conversation pretty quickly, and possibly quite unpleasantly). You might ask the person to imagine what will happen if they go with that idea (this might be a good time to talk about intended and unintended consequences). Then ask if you might help with thinking of some other ideas that could work as well. I've used the line, "That might be the best idea, but what if we try and think of three other ideas that could also work?" I've found that writing the ideas down can help in keeping things straight. A whiteboard is great for this, and can be a fun alternative to paper and pencil.

I know that it can be a challenge to remain calm and focused when you are trying to help someone else become more flexible in their thinking. What I've learned to do is to be as flexible as possible myself in as many situations as I can. I have to ask myself often, "Is this my hill to die on?" If the answer is no, then I have to let it go. Believe me, there are some situations that are not negotiable (wearing a seat belt in the car, for instance), but because those situations are few and far between, I've found that compliance is much more consistent (and less painful).

The good news is that the use of great strategies, like those you'll find in FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills, can help a person become more mentally flexible. The strategies shared in the book can minimize conflict and maximize effectiveness, when working or living with someone who struggles in the area of executive functioning. Next week, check back for some strategies for dealing with someone who tends to be overly emotional. Until then, stay flexible!

Brain Yoga: Mental Flexibility and Executive Function

Posted on May 4, 2015 at 9:25 PM Comments comments (90)
I've never considered myself to be very flexible. In fact, when I was eight years old and taking ballet classes, my Russian ballet instructor was dismayed at how my young body simply refused to bend on command. I've found that doing yoga regularly can contribute to a more flexible body, but what can one do when the problem is an inflexible brain?

Last week I discussed executive function (EF), which is a set of cognitive functions that help us to be more mentally flexible, less impulsive, able to control our emotions, and capable of planning and problem solving. I promised to discuss each of these areas more fully, and to provide some ideas for strategies that can be used to support children and adults who experience EF challenges.

In FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills, we define flexibility as, "the ability to change your mind and make changes to your plans as needed" (Wilkins & Burmeister, 2015). Perhaps you know someone who always needs to have things their way, or perhaps you've had experience with someone who gets an idea in their mind and can't seem to see any other alternatives. These individuals were exhibiting a lack of mental flexibility.

Having mental flexibility is important in that it allows us to move forward and get things done, even when things might not happen as planned. It also allows us to look at a situation from several different perspectives, enabling us to "try on" different solutions, eventually landing on one that makes the most sense. It also helps us to take the perspective of others by making it possible for us to put ourselves in the place of someone else, ultimately allowing us to show empathy and understanding. Finally, mental flexibility makes it possible for us to go into unfamiliar situations and adapt our behavior to fit in with the expectations of the particular situation.

One strategy that can be used to build mental flexibility for building contextual sensitivity (the ability to "size up" a situation and adapt behavior accordingly) is a process called SOARR. The letters in SOARR stand for:
S - Specify the specific situation (i.e., eating in a fancy restaurant)
O - Observe how others are behaving (i.e., talking quietly, using cutlery, etc.)
A - Analyze what behaviors will need to be exhibited in order to fit in with the environment 
R - Respond based on the observation and analysis
R - Reflect on your own perceptions and the responses of others

SOARR can be used as a coaching tool, with one individual taking on the coaching role and supporting the other person to walk through the steps. The coach could be a trusted adult, such as a teacher or a parent, who works with a young person who needs some help with mental flexibility. However, an individual can also use SOARR as a self-coaching tool, running through the steps mentally when in an unfamiliar situation. The goal is to build flexibility so that one can quickly analyze a situation, determine the expected behaviors, and adopt those behaviors that will enable the person to comfortably navigate the situation.

For more information on executive function, as well as 25 strategies for supporting individuals with EF deficits, check out FLIPP the Switch: Strengthen Executive Function Skills,
which is available from AAPC Publishing, as well as major booksellers (such as and Barnes and Noble).

Next week I'll discuss the link between EF and emotions, and share a strategy for reducing the emotionality that can sometimes occur when we're working with a someone with EF challenges. Until then, stay agile, both in body and mind!

Help Me!! I'm Surrounded by Chaos!!

Posted on April 27, 2015 at 4:52 PM Comments comments (56)

Do you work with a student, have a child, or live with someone who is disorganized, inflexible, impulsive, and who struggles with planning and problem solving?  Did you know that these traits fall into a category of skills called executive functions? Your student, child, or significant other may find it difficult to achieve in school, follow through with responsibilities at home, and/or interact appropriately in work and community settings – not because of a lack of effort or desire to do well but due to a lack of executive function (EF) skills.

One easy way to remember some of the major components of executive function is to think of the acronym FLIPP: Flexibility, Leveled emotionality, Impulse control, Planning/organizing, and Problem solving (Wilkins & Burmeister, 2015):
·      Flexibility:  The ability to change your mind and make changes to your plans as needed.
·      Leveled Emotionality:  The ability to emotionally self-regulate and avoid extensive mood swings
·      Impulse Control:  The ability to control your impulses, such as waiting to speak when called upon.
·      Planning/Organizing:  The ability to make plans and keep track of time and materials so that work is finished on time.
·      Problem Solving:  The ability to know when there is a problem that needs to be solved, generate solutions, select one, and evaluate the outcome.

Executive function deficits can negatively impact success at school, home, the community, and work.  Although many educators associate deficits in EF skills with students on the autism spectrum, the reality is that many young people struggle with executive functioning. In fact, it is accurate to say that all young people are learning EF as these skills are not fully developed until people are well into their twenties. In addition, several clinical conditions, such as attention deficit disorders, fetal alcohol syndrome disorder, intellectual disability, obsessive-compulsive disorders, social communication disorder, specific learning disability, Tourette syndrome, and traumatic brain injury are often understood to include a component of EF deficits. Furthermore, individuals with diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia may also exhibit deficits in the area of executive function.

The bottom line is that many of the individuals with whom we interact on a daily basis may lack fully developed executive function skills. The good news is that there are some very easy-to-use strategies that can go a long way toward minimizing conflict and maximizing success in dealing with someone who struggles with EF. Tune in tomorrow for ideas to help with mental flexibility.

Master Binder System for Individuals with EF Deficits

Posted on February 24, 2014 at 1:03 AM Comments comments (36)
“My child was not having any success as she searched for an important paper that needed to be signed by me and submitted to the school office.  I opened her backpack only to find that it looked like a bomb went off inside!  There was so much stuff in there, including paperwork that should have been shared with parents at home as well as assignments that should have been turned in at school. Comments from some of her teachers made sense now—‘She isn’t turning in any homework’.  I know she is doing the work at home, because she shows it to me after she finishes.  Oh, what is a parent/teacher/educational professional to do?” 

If this sounds familiar, and you have a child or student who has a disorganized backpack or school locker, who doesn’t take the necessary materials between home/school/classroom, who completes homework but doesn’t turn it in, has difficulty planning for and keeping track of long-term assignments so that work is finished on time, you are going to want to know about the Master Binder System strategy!

The Master Binder System can be used with students of all ages and can be adapted to meet the needs of the student and the educational environment.

If you are interested in receiving a copy of The Master Binder System, please sign our Guest Book and send us your email address so that we can send you a copy of the strategy. Simply type "Master Binder System" in the message area and we will send you a PDF of the strategy within a week. We promise that your email address is safe and will not be shared with any other person or company. Nor will it be posted on our website. 

Project Planning for people with EF deficits

Posted on February 18, 2014 at 2:37 PM Comments comments (35)
Check out this email I received from my co-author, Carol Burmeister:

Hi Dr. Sheri,
I wanted to share a personal experience I had with my grandson last week.  I was helping him with his homework, which included preparing for a presentation on Ronald Reagan that he was expected to share in school on Friday.  He did research on his topic online and synthesized the information so that he could develop a presentation that included his findings and supporting evidence.  He made strategic use of digital media and visual displays to enhance understanding of his material.  He practiced his presentation skills at home before the big day.  On the day of the presentation, he impressed his teacher and his classmates who confirmed that he did a great job sharing his knowledge on the topic.  This experience with him made me thankful for the work that we have done on Project Mapping from FLIPP the Switch:  Powerful Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function Skills—that particular strategy definitely came in handy!  Oh—by the way—did I mention that my grandson is in kindergarten?

Carol's grandson is fortunate in that he has parents and grandparents who can help him develop a project that meets the requirements of the Common Core State Standards. However, for many individuals, planning a project to ensure it will be completed in time with all required components intact, can be extremely stressful. For someone with executive function deficits, the entire process can be totally overwhelming. That's where Project Mapping can be an invaluable tool in supporting the individual with EF deficits to visualize the steps needed to complete the project. This tool can be used by parents and educators and can be taught to students so that they can use it independently in the future.

Carol and I would like to make this super-effective planning tool available to readers of this blog for free during the month of February. If you would like to receive a copy of Project Mapping for free, please sign in on our Guest Book and type in "Project Mapping" in the comment section. Your free copy of Project Mapping will be sent out within the next week. If you know of anyone else who could benefit from this free resource, please have them sign into our Guest Book and we will gladly send them a free copy as well.

Have a great week and check back next week for another free resource for supporting individuals with executive function challenges.

So, what's the big deal about Executive Function?

Posted on February 14, 2014 at 1:05 AM Comments comments (30)
When I think of Executive Function (EF) skills, I picture those movies in which a high-powered executive is followed around by an executive assistant who takes care of all the details. "Ma'am, your 9:00 is waiting in room B. You're conference call will begin at 9:45 and I'll make sure everyone is ready and waiting on the line. Tomorrow is Valentine's Day; I ordered a gift to be delivered to your husband at work and a flower arrangement to be delivered to your mother. I also wrote a thank you note to your mother-in-law for her birthday gift and sent that in the mail." Ahhh....bliss! Who wouldn't want someone taking care of all those pesky details that are so easily overwhelming!
EF skills are a little like that executive assistant in that they help us to get places on time, plan activities and a method to execute them, solve problems, and remain flexible and not overly emotional. Carol Burmeister and I have been writing a book entitled, FLIPP the Switch: Powerful Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function Skills (to be published by Autism Asperger Publishing Company in summer 2014) and we have learned a lot about EF and how EF deficits can affect many aspects of an individual's life. The book features 25 strategies that can be implemented by parents and educators to help individuals with EF deficits to be more productive.

FLIPP is an acronym that stands for Flexibility, Leveled Emotionality, Impulse Control, Planning and Problem Solving.

Next week, we'll be focusing on Project Mapping, a strategy that can support individuals in mapping out a complex project so that all parts are completed in a timely manner, leading to a finished project that is ready to turn in on time. You'll have an opportunity to have a PDF version of the Project Mapping template sent to you for free via email. This is a great opportunity to learn about one of these strategies prior to the release of the book next summer and we know that you will find Project Mapping incredibly useful. We are excited to share it with you and to hear your stories about how you have used the strategy at home and school.

You might also want to check the IES Resource page to view a presentation about Supporting Students with Executive Function Deficits.

Evidence-based Practices for Autism Spectrum Disorders

Posted on January 17, 2014 at 3:59 PM Comments comments (29)
I know I said that my next blog would focus on the second of the three principles outlined in the Guiding Principles document from the U.S. Department of Education and I promise to get back to that, but I felt it was important to highlight another new document that is hot off the presses (does that still apply when it is in PDF? - perhaps, "hot off the digitizer" is more appropriate).
A couple of years ago, Carol Burmeister and I had the incredible experience of reviewing research articles to further the work of the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders as they seek to identify evidence-based practices for working with students with ASD. Although the review work was not easy, it was extremely rewarding. Carol and I have waited patiently (well, perhaps not exactly 'patiently') for the document reporting on the findings. I'm happy to say that the new report is now published and that educators can now access the information regarding what works in educating students with ASD.
The press release can be accessed at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website. The full report in PDF format is also available for free online.