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The Science Of Getting Kids Organized

Feb 2, 2016
Originally published on February 3, 2016 3:47 pm

If you've ever gotten a glimpse inside a high schooler's backpack or locker, you know organization doesn't always come naturally to teens. Being scatterbrained in school can make make it tough to stay focused and do well.

That was the case when Lilli Stordeur was about halfway through her freshman year of high school in Northampton, Mass. She felt totally overwhelmed.

"I was being tutored for the classes I was having trouble in," she says, "but I would be having a hard time organizing my binders, and notebooks and stuff, and knowing when to hand things in."

To help Lilli get stuff done, her parents hired Melissa Power-Greene, a former tutor and special-education teacher, to work with Lilli on something called executive function.

Executive functions are categories of skills the brain uses for general organization and judgment. They include attention and focus, working memory, impulse control and self-evaluation.

"When I did tutoring, it was working on helping the student do these sets of math problems, or write this essay," says Power-Greene, who works for the academic coaching company Beyond BookSmart.

In this job, though, she helps Lilli arrange her notes, prepare for teacher meetings and prioritize assignments. On one afternoon they strategize on how to get Lilli caught up on assigned reading. They agree she'll have to sacrifice time to read after school on Friday.

Executive function coaching has emerged from a booming interest in all things neuroscience, especially in education. But no one is policing claims of the field or setting standards for what individual coaches do.

And not everyone who's tried executive function coaching is feeling the love.

"She did a lot of acronyms," says high school sophomore Peter Curran. "I don't remember most of them."

Peter got an executive function coach last year when his grades started to drop. He says his coach showed him how to download calendar software and study guides, but by the end of the year, Peter decided he'd be better off with a regular tutor.

"I felt like she didn't really help me anymore," he says. "It just felt like it was a tedious thing to do."

That was a disappointment to his family, who paid $1,800 a month to bring in his coach.

Those costs are typical for this kind of coaching. The founder of Beyond BookSmart, Michael Delman, says his company charges up to $180 an hour, including check-ins between sessions. (Note, traditional tutoring is often less expensive.)

Overall, "We tell parents to expect it's going to cost $5,000 or 6,000," says Delman.

"We're always looking for the panacea," says Robin Jacob, an education researcher at the University of Michigan who published an overview of 67 studies on executive function training. "We move from fad to fad, and I feel like executive function is sort of the fad of the day."

She says while her research showed there was a connection between executive function skills and academic achievement, the studies did not show that working on those skills leads to achievement.

"We should be cautious before we invest a lot of money in such interventions," she says, "before we really have the solid evidence base to show that it works."

Jacob says tutoring in math or English might actually improve executive functions more than the other way around.

Lilli Stordeur, now a college-bound senior, says her habits and organization have improved since working with her coach.

"I think having the routine of meeting once a week is helpful to know that I have a point where I stop what I'm doing and kind of figure out if I'm on the right track," she says.

That's something many educators and psychologists say can come from less expensive forms of help — or, in an ideal world, for free in the public schools.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

High schoolers can be scattered, which can make it hard to do well in class. So instead of traditional tutors, some parents are hiring coaches who teach executive function. Think of them as brain trainers. New England Public Radio's Karen Brown has the story.

KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: When Lilli Stordeur started high school, she felt overwhelmed and not just in the tough subjects.

LILLI STORDEUR: I was being tutored for the classes I was having trouble in, but I'd be having a hard time organizing, you know, my binders and, like, notebooks and stuff and knowing when to hand things in.

BROWN: Her parents hired Melissa Power-Greene to sit with Lilli once a week in their Western Massachusetts kitchen.

MELISSA POWER-GREENE: So we're going to outline the essay and then talk about how to read more efficiently. Does that sound good?

STORDEUR: Yeah.

BROWN: Power-Greene is an executive function coach with a company called Beyond Booksmart. What are executive functions? They're categories of skills the brain uses for organization and judgment, like working memory, impulse control, attention.

POWER-GREENE: When I did tutoring, it was really working on helping the student do these math problems or write this essay.

BROWN: But in this job, she helps Lilli arrange her notes, prepare for teacher meetings, prioritize assignments.

STORDEUR: OK, so this is 123 pages.

POWER-GREENE: Have you started it?

STORDEUR: No.

POWER-GREENE: So what's the plan with that?

STORDEUR: I want to...

BROWN: Executive function coaching has emerged from a booming interest in all things neuroscience, especially in education. But no one is policing claims of the field or setting standards for what individual coaches do. High school sophomore Peter Curran got an executive function coach last year when his grades started to drop.

PETER CURRAN: She did a lot of, like, acronyms. I don't remember most of them.

BROWN: He says the coach showed him how to download calendar software and study guides, but by the end of the year, Peter decided he'd be better off with a regular tutor.

PETER: I felt like she didn't really help me anymore, and it just felt like a tedious thing to do.

BROWN: Peter's mother says the coaching did give him confidence, but she was expecting more brain boosting benefits for the $1,800 a month she paid. That's a lot more expensive than traditional tutoring. The founder of Beyond Booksmart, Michael Delman, says his company charges up to $180 an hour, including check-ins between sessions.

MICHAEL DELMAN: Generally, we tell parents it's going to cost $5,000 or $6,000 so that their child is going to be effective in the high school, in college and so forth.

ROBIN JACOB: We should be cautious before we invest a lot of money before we really have the solid evidence base to show that it works.

BROWN: Robin Jacob is an education researcher at the University of Michigan who published an overview of 67 studies on executive function training. She says while there way a connection between executive function skills and academic achievement, the studies did not show that working on those skills leads to achievement.

JACOB: I was surprised by the findings and by the lack of evidence that was out there because it is so very intuitively appealing.

BROWN: Jacob says tutoring in math or English might actually improve executive functions more than the other way around.

JACOB: We're always looking for the panacea, and we move from sort of fad to fad, and I feel like executive function is sort of the fad of the day.

BROWN: Lilli Stordeur, now a college-bound senior, says her habits and organization have improved since working with her coach.

STORDEUR: I think having the routine of meeting once a week is helpful to know that I have a point where I stop what I'm doing and kind of figure out if I'm on the right track.

BROWN: That's something many educators and psychologists say can come from less expensive forms of help or, in an ideal world, in the public schools. For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.