Alfabet Soop (January, 2021)
Amy Traynor, OTR, M.A., ATP
A column dedicated to facilitating an understanding of the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework and Assistive Technology (AT) and what each might look like for individuals with dyslexia.
Released in the January, 2021, Issue 5 of The Dyslexia Revolution,
the quarterly newsletter by The Dyslexia Initiative
Losing assignments or forgetting them altogether. Struggling to finish an activity or long assignment. Waiting until the LAST minute to study for a test or begin a big project. Forgetting items at school/home that are needed at home/school. Messy backpack. Focusing on the tiny details and losing the ‘big picture’ concept or idea. What is ‘it’ that makes these things happen?
Can you relate? Either as a parent or in yourself, how often do you asking yourself “what is ‘it’ that makes these things happen?” The ‘it’ is formally called Executive Functioning and these are just some of the more common manifestations outwardly seen when one struggles with executive functioning.
So that’s what “it” is called-Executive Function! But what is “it”, really? These important, critical some might say, executive function skills govern goal directed behavior in school and beyond. These skills can be grouped into three core functions: cognitive flexibility-being able to consider alternatives; inhibitory control-being able to consider when to act and not to act; and working memory-the ability to hold information in mind while thinking about it ( Gordon-Pershey, 2014) that are responsible for the “thinking and doing” of our life’s activities (Dawson and Guare, 2009). “Working memory provides a basis for flexible thinking and self-regulation because working memory keeps the current situation in mind long enough for an individual to consider alternatives and inhibit overly quick reactions'' (Gordon-Pershey, 2014). This being said, given the statistics that illustrate the frequency of co-occurance of working memory deficits and learning differences, it is clear that the manifestation of working memory deficits can impact any of the three core functions of executive functioning.
According to The International Dyslexia Association’s Fact Sheet, Working Memory: The Engine for Learning, 20-50% of students with specific learning disorders such as dyslexia, display weaknesses in working memory (IDA, 2021), and subsequently, many of us who either are dyslexic or support someone who is, also are challenged to find solutions for executive functioning. Planning and organizing tasks, following directions, ‘thinking and doing’ simultaneously, focusing attention, rhyming, spelling, composing, reading comprehension, reading fluency, and math facts such as multiplication tables, are just some of the academic activities dependent on working memory. Given that The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) specifically requires every Individualized Education Program (IEP) team to consider the student's need for assistive technology at some point during the meeting, assistive technology that supports executive function skills can and should be considered during your IEP meeting. IEP teams for students with executive function weakness should consider including systematic and explicit instruction in executive function skills as accommodations for classwork and homework, both of which can be assistive technology (Temple, 2013). Additionally, those students served under 504 or adults protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, are also entitled to provisions including low and high technology solutions, to support their participation in and access to education and employment.
As in previous issues, this column, Alfabet Soop, aims to provide readers with low and high tech solutions to support individuals with dyslexia. Remember, this area is ever expanding but following low and high tech tools are some of my current favorites as an occupational therapist, assistive technology professional and mom of kiddos with dyslexia and ADHD that will help support executive function skills, goal directed behavior, the getting “it” done for you or your child!
Cozi Family Organizer (cozi.com; free with paid premium options): Cozi is a web and app based tool that, according to their website “helps coordinate and communicate everyone’s schedules and activities, track grocery lists, manage to do lists, plan ahead for dinner, and keep the whole family on the same page.” My personal favorites features in this app are the ability to schedule specific people and set multiple reminders at various intervals ranging from weeks to minutes in advance. Everyone can have the app on their mobile device and is expected/encouraged to add and maintain their activities and appointments including scheduling the parent!
Order Out of Chaos Planner (amazon.com or orderoutofchaos.com): The layout of this planner is excellent and especially fabulous for students who struggle with time management, organizing and planning. According to the website, and I agree, this planner “gives students an easy way to see time so they can learn to manage it”. The planner comes in two sizes, letter and personal, with letter size being my personal preference. The letter size planner provides sections for school course planning as well as planning for after school activities. Watch for pre-sale for 2021-22 planners on their website!
My Homework App (free with ads, nominal charges for premium): With a plethora of homework apps on the market, why this one? Well, I’ll tell you! The free version is quite robust as it allows for tracking assignments, projects, tests, and classes, and due date reminders. And at $4.99/year, the cost of the premium version is very reasonable. So the cost is great but that’s not even my top reason for loving this app so much. The biggest feature about this app that makes it my favorite homework app is the fact that it syncs across devices so you can access what you need whenever and wherever you are. The My Homework app is available on Apple app store, Google play, Mac app store, Windows store, Chrome web store AND Kindle Fire!
Time Timer (price varies, https://www.timetimer.com/): The Time Timer has come a LONG way since I first started using these timers in my therapy practice and there are so many options available now including physical timers as well as apps! The benefit of the Time Timer is that the user is able to actually SEE time as it elapse and SEE how much time remains, making the concept of time much more concrete.
Pomodoro Technique: This time management technique consists of breaking work periods into 25-minute intervals, followed by a five-minute break. After four work periods, called Pomodoros, you take a longer 15- to 20-minute break. Benefits to this technique include frequent breaks to help maintain focus and keep your mind fresh, productivity is boosted which helps get through projects quicker by forcing you to stick to the timer, breaking a task into a few Pomodoros can prevent burn out or frustration and timing your projects also helps keep you accountable and reduces the time you spend procrastinating.
Focus To Do app (https://www.focustodo.cn/): This is my favorite app that relies on the Pomodoro technique. In addition to using this technique, other features that I like about this app specifically include the ability to record and report all daily progress, sync across devices, set due dates and reminders, the ability to break larger tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces, the ability to set frequent tasks on ‘repeat’ and add notes to add explanation and detail to tasks. This app is available on Apple App store for iPhone/iPad/Apple Watch, Mac app store, Windows store, Google chrome extension and Android devices.
Amazon Alexa (amazon.com): We are an Alexa family, but I am sure whatever smart-home technology your family uses can be used similarly. The Echo Dot can be placed anywhere there is a power source and can be used to set reminders, routines, alarm, homework help, and as an intercom to other devices in the home or established contacts. The Amazon Alexa family is ever expanding and can be connected to other smart home devices such as doorbells, video cameras, lights, thermostats, etc. One caution-Alexa can become a distraction but can be used in so many productive ways, the benefit outweighs the potential “harm” at our house.
Circle by Disney Wifi Control (device and various subscription options;www.meetcircle.com or amazon.com): Circle gives parents an app on their phone that allows them to control mobile phones, tables, smart TVs, game systems, laptops, you name it to set limits and filter content across all devices. As dependent as our society has become on the internet and our devices, this gives an extra level of control to parents which can support the executive function skills of EVERYONE in your home. Personally, I love that I can grant access to specific websites, control specific devices, set internet access hours-you name it! We have been using Circle since the first generation when it was the only way to control access, but please note that some of these features may also be available through your internet provider and/or WiFI hub system controls.
Case-it Universal 2-Inch 3-Ring Zipper Binder( approx $20 on Amazon.com): I LOVE this binder for hard copy paper management! The 2” ring provides ample room for documents without causing the binder to be too bulky to manage, two inside mesh pockets, one small exterior pocket for pens/pencils/calculator/etc and an outside padded zipper pocket that is large enough to hold a 13” laptop or tablet device! I recommend carrying this binder ‘cross-body’ style with the included strap but can also be carried by the handle. The use of pocket/tabbed dividers or other binder organizational systems really round out the benefit of this binder!
Nylon Backpack Organizer Insert ( approx $22 on Amazon.com): This insert has a variety of pockets-17 in all-to store items, keep them organized and easily accessed and can make changing bags easy as all the items are contained in this organizer.
Vertical Backpack Filing Systems:
iScholar 7 Pocket Expanding Backpack Folder ($11 on Amazon.com): This is a simple, expanding file system with 7 pockets but it is specifically designed with backpack use in mind. This expanding folder opens from the ‘top’ rather than the side allowing papers to be inserted directly into the specific section when the backpack is opened. One less step to facilitate better organization and paper management! This expanding file has a flap that can close the folder.
Vertical Filing Folders ($8 on Amazon.com): An even simpler file system that takes advantage of top rather than side insertion of papers. While this file does not have a flap closure, it is made of a durable plastic that makes it easy to insert and remove from a backpack with the built-in top handle.
Electronic Resource Management:
Google Keep (keep.google.com): Free, simple task list and reminder tool that allows sharing ideas across multiple devices and collaboration. Those using Gmail, Google Drive, or Google Docs, can easily share items in Keep between platforms, from inside the Keep app or through a Google program that supports Keep. The Google Keep Widget can be added to your phone's home screen for quick and easy access to your notes and depending on the size of the widget you choose, recent notes can be viewed right on the home screen without opening the app. A cool feature for individuals with print based challenges, Google Keep on the web can transcribe text from images and lets you dictate a note into your device with the recording transcribed into a searchable, editable note. Pop up reminders can be set in Keep show up across your Google account and the user can filter/search supports categories such as reminders, lists, images, drawings, or links. The app also supports color coding of notes which can also be searched and filtered!
Notability app ($8.99, iTunes): I have been using this app for years and absolutely LOVE it. Users can literally do so much with this inexpensive app; you won’t even think twice about paying for all the features and what they allow you to do! Notability offers app based simple note-taking and PDF annotation where you can import PDF, books, textbooks, lectures, slides etc., audiorecord and pair with writing, input images, handwriting, typed text, live links, etc. into their own notes or all of them in the same note, keep yourself organized paper-free with notebooks, pages, etc. resulting in less to carry and shove into a backpack AND it works great for handwritten notes/annotation with pencil stylus! In my personal use I’ve used it during lectures where I can audiorecord, take handwritten notes and insert pictures and PDFs provided from the instructor. I even have my planner on Notability so that I can “write” with my Apple pencil but not have to carry around a paper planner. Check this out for sure-LOTS of uses across the lifespan!
Stylus Pen for Touch Screens ($16 on Amazon.com): Man, do I wish I would have discovered this BEFORE I shelled out the bucks for my Apple Pencil. When I stumbled upon this inexpensive option, I immediately bought one for my then 10 year old daughter who LOVES it. This stylus functions like my expensive original! Studies have proven that handwriting boosts memory and using this stylus facilitates that memory-boosting activity while at the same time allowing users to improve organization of materials electronically!
Cloud-Based Paper Management:
Microsoft OneNote is a digital version of a multi-subject notebook. Among other things, in it you can capture information from websites, create handwritten or typed notes, archive email, share and collaborate with others, store images, video and audio! Similar set-up to a tabbed, physical notebook it is organized into Notebooks, Sections, & Pages. It is able to be used across platforms as an app, Standalone Office product or Office365.
Google Drive & Microsoft OneDrive offer cloud-based organization systems, virtual “filing cabinets”, that allow the user to create systems of folders that can house any type of digital documentation. They are available across all computer operating systems and the use of mobile apps makes incorporating “physical” documents like handouts simple!
In offering all of these fabulous resources, some of which rely upon the internet, I would be remiss not to share with you about how to manage a challenge we all face, distractibility and on-task activity in a virtual workspace. Whether using a phone, tablet, laptop or desktop, it is flat-out H-A-R-D to stay focused when working electronically. Whether you struggle and/or your child, here are some tools that help minimize distractions in the virtual workspace we find ourselves in. Apps for mobile devices- Do Not Disturb on iOS, Keep Me Out app, Forest app, Zero Willpower, Focus Lock, Cold Turkey; Laptop/Desktop- Stay Focused (Chrome), Self Control (Chrome/Mac), JustRead removes “clutter” from websites; Across All Platforms-Freedom (freedom.to) free trial.
WHEW! I sincerely hope that sharing this list of low and higher tech options points you in the right-for-you direction as you seek to better support executive functioning skills. There are so many options, and like I said before, this is a space that is constantly growing and changing. I’m always expanding and editing my “favorites” list, and this is it for now; but I would love to hear from YOU! What are you finding most helpful to support executive functioning? Shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and let me know what I need to explore next!
Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2009). Smart but scattered. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Gordon-Pershey, Monica. “Executive Functioning and Language: A Complementary Relationship That Supports Learning .” PDF File. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Spring (2014): 23–26.
“Working Memory: The Engine for Learning - International Dyslexia Association.” Dyslexiaida.Org, 2021, https://dyslexiaida.org/working-memory-the-engine-for-learning/.
Amy Traynor, OTR, M.A., ATP: Amy is an occupational therapist, assistive technology professional, and most proud of her role as mom. She began her occupational therapy career in August 2000, committed to success and participation for ALL students in the school setting. Most of her 20 years supporting students in public schools were focused on assistive technology supports for literacy and physical access. As a parent of a child with dyslexia, she has a deep understanding and appreciation for the role technology plays for students who learn differently. Amy is also the founder of E2 Alliance, LLC, providers for educational consultation, evaluation, advocacy and training. Given her commitment as a parent advocate, the National Center for Learning Disabilities has contracted with Amy to lead their Texas Parent Advisory and Advocacy Council. Feel free to share thoughts or ask questions by emailing Amy at email@example.com