The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 61
Jennifer Gonzalez, host
GONZALEZ: It seems to me that every teacher in every school struggles with what they might call “unmotivated,” “lazy,” or “disorganized” learners. These are students who seem to have a ton of potential, whose test scores might even be pretty high, but who can’t ever seem to get it together school-wise. In my own teaching experience, I spent an inordinate amount of time on these students, giving them lists of make-up assignments to do, meeting with them at lunch or after school to help get them caught up, contacting parents, meeting with parents, helping them go through their binders and backpacks and lockers over and over again to find missing work, and coming up with lots of different ways to basically say the same thing: You just need to stay organized.
It turns out this set of skills actually has a name: executive function. The first time I heard this term in Paul Tough’s 2012 book, How Children Succeed, it was like a lightbulb going off: Kids who struggle with executive function often have perfectly strong academic abilities, but they don’t have the same ability as most students to stay on top of the little details that make life run smoothly. So when we try to get them to manage those details the same way that most other kids do, our efforts almost always fail.
If I had known that, and if I’d had someone like Seth Perler to show me what to do differently, I know I would have been able to help a lot more of these kids have a much more rewarding school experience.
Seth Perler is an Executive Function coach who works with these kids, students he refers to as “outside the box learners.” Because Seth was an outside-the-box learner himself, when he became a teacher, he knew how to reach these kids. During his years in the classroom and then as a coach, he has developed seven systems that he teaches these kids to help them meet deadlines, keep track of materials, and manage their time. What’s interesting about these systems is that although some of them may seem obvious at first, it’s the little tweaks Seth gives them that actually make them work. What most of us have tried to do with these students turns out to be counterproductive; we’ve approached them in the same way that we approach our other students. For most kids, our standard methods for keeping them organized work just fine, but these kids need something different. Once you learn about these little tweaks–like why 3-ring binders can be a nightmare for kids who struggle with executive function–you’ll be able to change your approach, share these insights with parents, and start to see some real differences in how these kids do in school.
Before I start, I’d like to thank Kiddom for sponsoring this episode. Kiddom is a free platform that helps you personalize learning for every student. A lot of teachers love the idea of ‘personalized learning,’ but without the right tools, it’s still just a buzzword. With Kiddom, teachers gain access to an unlimited library of standards-aligned content, coupled with beautiful, actionable reports to see exactly which standards need more work and which students need more help. To learn more, visit cultofpedagogy.com/kiddom.
I also want to thank you for the reviews you’ve left for this podcast on iTunes. When a podcast has a lot of positive reviews, iTunes is more likely to show it to people, so your reviews are really helping to get the ideas shared here, by me and the experts who join me, into more classrooms. If think more teachers need to be listening to this podcast, head over to iTunes, search for the Cult of Pedagogy podcast, click on Ratings and Reviews, then click Leave a Review. Then tell me what you think! Thanks so much.
Now here’s my interview with Seth Perler about the seven systems you can teach your outside-the-box learners.
GONZALEZ: Seth, tell us a little bit about what you do for a living.
PERLER: OK, well first of all I want to say thank you for what you do and how you show up in the world, because it’s really cool, and I just really want to take a moment to honor you for doing what you do and how you give. So thank you.
GONZALEZ: Thank you. Thank you so much.
PERLER: Yeah, yeah. You’re welcome. And, yeah, I also want to really thank teachers, because we need teachers so bad. Education is just the most important thing in the world, as far as I’m concerned, and we need people who are dedicated to serving these kids and helping them create the solutions for the future and just make a great community. What I do is I call myself an education coach, and I help struggling students to navigate school. So generally what I do is I work with kids who have Asperger’s, autism, dyslexia, ADHD. They may have no diagnosis whatsoever, but parents who are concerned about their kids find me. And they’ll send me an email and they’ll tell me their story and say, “Hey, Seth. My kid’s going through X, Y and Z. Can you help us?” And then generally what I do is I work with them, generally a semester at a time, but helping them to figure out how to navigate school.
GONZALEZ: Nice. And you call these kids outside-the-box learners.
PERLER: Mmhmm. I like the word “outside-the-box learner,” because it’s kind of a good blanket term for these kids that just don’t fit into the box of school. But all outside-the-box learners, all of these kids, whether they have ADHD, Asperger’s or, again, no diagnosis whatsoever, all the kids who are struggling, all the kids whose parents will say they’re not reaching their potential, “I know something’s not going right. I know that they could be doing better in school.” All of those kids struggle with executive function.
GONZALEZ: Right. And that’s pretty much what we’re going to be focusing on today is you’re going to be sharing with us some systems that parents can maybe help or teachers can help these students to learn to improve their executive function.
GONZALEZ: Right. And so what you do is you do sort of one-on-one consulting or do you do workshops or a combination?
PERLER: So what I do is I generally work with a group of students each semester, and then when I started doing my business, I really wanted to not be limited by any rules. I really wanted to just do what the students needed. So what I do, I do sort of a mix of in-office groups, where I have a tutor and an assistant help in the office with me, with the students, in terms of the direct coaching. Generally I see kids two or three times a week with the coaching. And then I do home visits as well, because we need to get the home environment particularly where the kids are doing their school work in a good place. And I’ll go to IEP, 504, RTI type meetings to support the family, and sometimes I’ll do other things like seminars or parent talks or things like that. But generally most of what I’m doing is the direct coaching with the students, and then the parents as part of that.
GONZALEZ: OK. So what is it in your own background that got you interested in this kind of work?
PERLER: Well, I really like working with these kids, because they remind me of me. So I was not a stellar student in any way. So I really struggled as a kid, and I had ADHD, inattentive type. I was not diagnosed with ADHD at the time. I was just … The message that I got is that I was lazy, and that I didn’t care, and I didn’t try hard enough. So I find that that exact same message is what a lot of my students are still hearing, even though it’s 2017: “You’re lazy. You’re not trying hard enough. You don’t care about school enough.” So I went through school, wasn’t a good student. Finally in high school I started failing classes. I went to college on probation, on academic probation, literally, because I had very high test scores, but my grades were horrible. And then I failed out of college. And then I went to another college, and then I dropped out before I failed out. So I felt like a failure, and a lot of the students that I work with feel like a failure, feel like this is a futile effort for them, feel like why should I even try.
GONZALEZ: Right. So you sort of figured out on your own then how to change, basically, your own habits?
PERLER: Yeah. I didn’t know that I was coaching myself at the time. But basically I fell in love with working with kids, completely by accident. I got a job after I dropped out of the second college, and now that I had something that was meaningful, and I’m sure you see this with kids, when they’re doing something that’s important to them, they put forth all kinds of effort. Well I was doing something meaningful, so I worked harder than I ever worked in my life to become a teacher and completely turned it around. I feel like I had to work harder than most the people in my classes at university just to do the same level of work, but I was coaching myself and coming up with strategies so that I could navigate.
GONZALEZ: Right. And so now you’re able to teach these strategies to kids, you’ve sort of figured out a way to almost package them in a way that makes them easy to understand and implement.
PERLER: Yeah. Well I was a teacher for 12 years, and my master’s is in gifted and talented education, and I taught gifted and talented for eight years, so I tended to be really good with 2E kids, and for anyone who doesn’t know that, that’s twice exceptional kids, generally kids who are gifted and talented but also have some sort of learning disability.
PERLER: And that was my favorite type of student to work with, and I was really good with them. So after I left teaching, I really wanted to focus on those kids. They’re just my favorite kids to work with.
GONZALEZ: Got it. Do you tend to work more with middle, high school kids or elementary?
PERLER: Tends to be middle and high school. I do get some elementary and college and graduate students.
GONZALEZ: OK. All right. And then I have one other question sort of about you and what you offer. A lot of the stuff that you do is in person, but is there anything you’re able to do with people that don’t live right in the area where you are? And actually, let’s just say, the area where … you’ve got some transition going, but where you are planning on offering your services in-person is where?
PERLER: Starting in August of 2017 I’ll be doing my practice in-office in Santa Monica, California.
PERLER: And right now I do some Skype coaching as well.
GONZALEZ: OK. So people can get your services from anywhere in the world, really, but it’s locally, it’s going to be in Santa Monica?
PERLER: Yeah. Generally, yeah, it’ll be in Santa Monica. I have a client in Holland, France and one on a boat who’s traveling around the world with her kids.
PERLER: So I have people, it’s really cool that we can have people anywhere.
PERLER: But I definitely find that the in-person coaching is definitely the best way.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. But you do also maintain a blog. That’s got lots of good resources, and that’s at sethperler.com, so people can learn a lot more from you there too.
GONZALEZ: Got it. OK. So we’ve sort of started to define this problem that adults believe that these kids are lazy, they don’t care, they’re not trying. So what you’re going to share with us today are some systems, and did we decide on a number? It looks like we’ve got seven.
PERLER: I was going to thin it out, and I looked at it, and I think I can keep it in the time limit.
PERLER: The one I’m going into the most is the planners.
GONZALEZ: OK. So we’ve got seven systems, and these are systems that you teach to kids and that teachers really could be working with their own students on some of these things that can help these out-of-the-box learners succeed.
PERLER: In my opinion, we tend to look at school very much from the aspect of subjects. So we look at math, science, social studies, reading, writing. You might think of speaking and listening, and then you might have subsets of each of the subjects. You might think about physical education and art and this and that. And what we don’t do is we don’t teach kids how to be students, and we don’t teach them metacognition or reflection or introspection. in other words, we don’t teach them to have an awareness about who they are as a thinker and a learner and a feeler in this world. And a lot of students do just fine with that. They pick up on systems almost through osmosis. They’re able to just sort of figure out how school works. The teacher says, “Use your folder for this and that,” “Use your planner for this and that,” and they figure it out, and they learn how to navigate it and how to manage these details. But kids who struggle with executive function struggle with these systems. They really need a lot of direct instruction, not in staying in the box of the system that they’re taught, but in creating a system that works for their own personality, learning style, whatever you want to say. But we don’t even tell them what the systems are.
PERLER: So what I’ve done is I’ve sort of really over the past seven years since I’ve been doing the coaching … So I taught for 12 years, and then I’ve been doing coaching for seven, over the past seven years I’ve really identified, “Holy cow. This is pretty simple,” in looking at the major systems, and today I’ll talk about some of them. But it’s really not rocket science, but it does take time. A lot of parents will say, “But my kid knows what to do.” Yes. They know what to do. But they have not built the habit. They have not built the muscle of doing what they are “supposed to do.”
PERLER: So how do we give them systems, how do we make them manageable and bite-size enough so that they can actually articulate, “This is what I need to do in order to manage this aspect of life or school”? So that’s kind of how I help them.
GONZALEZ: So, OK. So if we’re talking to a parent or a teacher, because we’re going to go through these seven systems, and if they’re listening and they’re thinking, “But I’ve already told them to do these things.” What’s different between telling them and actually teaching them how to do these things and helping them build those habits?
PERLER: What’s different from telling them and teaching them is the implementation of a habit. And they say that old school they used to say a habit takes 28 days. Well, to me it takes two good solid months of continuous effort with these kids to really build a habit. It’s not easy. So in order for parents and teachers to help them, they have to really have patience and compassion for this process. The brain is literally changing. The neurons in the brain are changing. They are building new networks that are helping them to execute, to use executive function to manage what are really an overwhelming amount of details we expect these kids to manage.
GONZALEZ: Got it. And so they need to teach it the way that they would teach any kind of content. If I’m a teacher, it’s something that … I mean obviously it wouldn’t hurt to teach the entire class this at the beginning of the school year, but if you find that some kids just aren’t getting it, they need sort of differentiated instruction, the way that a kid who needs extra help in math or whatever, they need executive function systems instruction. This could be handled by a guidance counselor, it could be handled by somebody who pulls the kids separately just to teach these specific skills.
PERLER: And again, this is complicated by the fact that most students, I would say 70 or 80 percent of students, and you can tell me what you think on this random statistic, but 70 or 80 percent of kids pick up on systems just fine.
GONZALEZ: Yes, right.
PERLER: So it’s baffling when adults look at these kids, and they say, “Why isn’t this kid getting it?”
PERLER: Well, it’s executive function.
PERLER: Developmentally, they’re in a different place with executive function, so they’re not just getting it. They do need direct instruction, and it’s not all kids.
GONZALEZ: Got it. OK. So, OK, if you’re ready, let’s start getting into these seven systems.
PERLER: I’ll say one more thing about that. The thing that I recommend that will keep this simple is for parents, I generally recommend Sunday night to be an overhaul night.
PERLER: So that they can sort of overhaul all the systems each week with their kid. If the child is younger, it’s a lot easier to do obviously than high schoolers who can be very resistant to any input from their parents.
PERLER: So that’s a whole other podcast in and of itself. For teachers, having a regular day of the week or maybe a biweekly day for the whole class, or at least for certain students, to help them build their systems could be tremendously helpful.
GONZALEZ: OK. So regularly building in time to review these things is key.
PERLER: Yeah. I call it tightening up the systems.
GONZALEZ: OK. All right. Good. You’re on. Let’s hear these seven systems.
1. Paper Management System
PERLER: All right. System No. 1. I called it a paper management system. Basically our kids have tons of papers that they have to manage, and I’ll tell you one of the biggest mistakes that I see parents and teachers making with paper management systems. First of all, what is a paper management system? Generally it’s either a three-ring binder, an accordion folder or a set of folders or a big backpack jammed with a bunch of stuff.
PERLER: So let’s look at that as sort of your four basic systems that people use. And one of the biggest mistakes parents and teachers make in terms of these organizational systems, is that organized adults will often recommend that kids use three-ring binders. For kids who struggle with executive function, three-ring binders are horrible. Now I’m generalizing, but I will say that in almost every case they’re horrible. If I have a student who’s working well with a three-ring binder, I’m not going to mess with that system. But for a kid who’s struggling with this, there are so many details in terms of opening a big binder, finding the right place for the paper, unclicking it, putting it in with the three holes, re-clicking it, closing it carefully. You know, these are kids who really just want to get it done. They don’t want to spend a lot of time with details. Now detail-oriented kids love three-ring binders, especially highly organized, linear thinkers love them, because they give them a sense of control. Whereas for these kids, it gives them a sense of a lack of control. They don’t want to be spending time on these details that they do not perceive as valuable. So that’s one of the biggest mistakes is saying, “You have to use the three-ring binder.” And of course adults are well intended, and these are generally very organized adults who love three-ring binders, so their idea is, “Well if it helps me stay organized, obviously it would help a disorganized kid become more organized.” No. That is not how it works.
GONZALEZ: Wow. This is going to be a huge light bulb, I think, for a lot of teachers. I mean you’re describing a situation that happens in every single classroom, everywhere in the world.
PERLER: I’ve been in schools where they’re even required.
GONZALEZ: Well, exactly.
PERLER: It’s required that kids use them.
GONZALEZ: Right. OK, so what’s better then? What’s better for kids who struggle with executive function?
PERLER: So what’s better is any of the other three systems. Well, not the stuffed backpack, that’s not good. But generally either an accordion folder or a simple paper folder system with cheap paper holders. So that’s what I’m going to mention right now. So imagine you have just a regular folder. I honestly like the 50 cent cheap paper folders. For some students I even use the folders that don’t even have pockets, those manila-type folders.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yep.
PERLER: So basically you just use a basic folder, and this may sound so simple, but let me talk about the nuance, because the devil’s in the details, and that’s where it makes a difference. So here’s what I do: Let’s say I use the regular 50 cent folders. One detail is I do not use plastic folders. Why? This is a detail, but for disorganized kids, they’re the kid who picks up the plastic folder, and the papers fly all over the place, because it’s too slick.
PERLER: And then are they going to go pick it up and reorganize it?
PERLER: Not likely.
GONZALEZ: They’re going to stuff.
PERLER: They’re going to stuff.
PERLER: I like the cheap paper folders. And then they have to be color coded, because I do not want my students having to depend on reading the label of the folder or memorizing what the folder is, because these are the kids who will jam … the teacher will say, “Get your folder out,” and they’ll pull out any folder.
PERLER: OK? The organized kid will pull out the right folder.
PERLER: This kid will pull out a folder so that the teacher doesn’t say anything to them, and they’ll just jam it in any folder.
PERLER: They have to be color coded. So let’s say you choose red for math, blue for LA, green for science or whatever. Then they have to be labeled huge. So you write really big on the front “Math,” but on the back too, you write really big, “Math,” and you put their name really big on the front and the back, because these are also the kids who leave their folders everywhere or in the school. So if the folder’s on the ground in the middle of the hallway and it says “Jack Smith” on the front of the folder and the back of the folder, A. It’s less likely to be kicked by everybody, because there’s a real human being’s name on it, and B. It’s more likely to be picked up somebody and given to a teacher. “Oh, this is Jack’s. Let’s get it back to him.”
GONZALEZ: Got it.
PERLER: So these little details are really important. So now you have, let’s say you have a math, science, social studies and language arts folder, and whatever else you need. Let’s say one’s red, blue, purple, whatever you have. They’re labeled on the front. They’re labeled on the back. The name is on the front. The name is on the back. Then we get into the whole complication of, well do you have an in and an out box in the two pockets? Ninety-nine percent of the time I do not do that with my students, because it’s just one more step that they really don’t need. I’m happy if they learn to get it in the right folder.
GONZALEZ: Right. Because they can always find it if it’s in there, they can eventually get to it.
PERLER: For these kids, yes.
PERLER: And I would not recommend that for more linear kids, but for these kids, yes.
PERLER: So then the other key to this whole thing, well two other keys. One is to do the overhauls. Every week or two weeks, overhaul the folders, meaning because even though you’re teaching, just like we said before, even though the parents are teaching their child, “Hey, this is how we’re going to do it,” doesn’t mean that they’re going to do it. So every week or two you’re going to pull everything out of the backpack, and you’re still going to find random papers, and you’re still going to find papers that are in the wrong folders and things like that. So every week or so, overhaul everything. Go through everything. Make sure the papers are in the right place. That’s Part A. Part B is go through all those folders and get rid of the clutter. So one thing that linear, organized adults tend to do is they keep all these old papers for records or in case you need it someday. I hear kids saying this to me all the time, “Well I might need it.” No. The chances are if you don’t need to turn it in, and it’s not a test prep type thing like a study guide or a rubric, you probably don’t need it. So get rid of it. And if parents are afraid of getting rid of it, then make in archive in the living room in a box. But do not make your kid have to manage a hundred papers when they really only need about five to 10. I find my kids really only need about five to 10 papers in their folders at any given time to manage what’s actually current in their life. We don’t need to make them have a 3-inch binder packed with hundreds of papers.
PERLER: It’s insane. It does not serve these kids. Kids who feel, again, more organized? Great.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. They’re going to have the urge to clean out on their own.
2. Backpack Management System
PERLER: Yeah, or organize what they do have, yeah. So next is the backpack management system. Again, just on a weekly basis you’re going to want to clean out the backpack or overhaul the backpack or tighten up the backpack. So I use the term “maintainers” versus “overhaulers.” Most kids who are organized I would call “maintainers.” They can be kids who brushed their teeth without having to be told. They might make their bed. They maintain systems. They maintain their folders. They maintain their planners. Overhaulers generally wait until everything becomes a complete mess. This can be … Let’s say you have a really disorganized kid. One day you come home, they’ve completely rearranged their bedroom, put all their furniture in different places, and completely cleaned out the whole bedroom. That’s an overhauler. They like to overhaul. The problem is that when it comes to the backpack, they don’t overhaul frequently enough. So I just tell them, “Look. You don’t have to maintain your backpack every single day, but you need to be overhauling it every week or two.”
GONZALEZ: Got it.
PERLER: So that just means pulling everything out. Like we said about the paper management system, really looking at, do you have things in your backpack where you want them? Very simple, but it does require consistency in doing it every week or so.
GONZALEZ: Got it, got it.
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3. Planner System
GONZALEZ: OK. Good. And No. 3 is the planner system.
PERLER: So this is one of the most complicated systems for kids to use. Again, highly organized kids listen to teachers give their tips about how to use planners. They sort of pick up through osmosis how to create their own system over a period of years, and by high school they generally are able to use a planner for what it’s intended to be used for, which is to get ideas out of your head and onto paper so that you can track what you need to be doing. Well, kids who struggle with executive function do not do well with planners. They often will say, “I hate them,” or “I don’t like them,” or “I don’t need them,” or “I have it in my head,” or they use scraps of paper or they rely on asking their friends, “What do we have for homework?” or they just don’t do it at all. And what happens is that schools will often buy planners for the entire school. So a lot of times elementary schools and upper elementary and middle schools and some high schools will buy planners for the entire school.
PERLER: Oftentimes they’ll have the hall pass in the back of the planner, and they’ll have the school logo on the front of the planner. Well, it turns out that these planners are awful for the kids that I work with, for kids who struggle with executive function. And I wouldn’t say 99 percent of the time, but probably 85 to 90 percent of the time, these are horrible. Why? They’re clutter-y. They have the school handbook in the front. They have the periodic table in the back, commonly misspelled words. They have little famous quotes on the papers. They have a bunch of colors often on the pages in the planner. They have a combination of monthly and weekly and various other details.
PERLER: The point is, it’s too much.
PERLER: These kids need a planner that’s just a planner. A simple planner. Black and white and that’s it. And I also recommend that my kids, again, I would not say this to a linear child who is highly organized and who likes a weekly planner. But I recommend my kids get a monthly planner, rip out every single page that has nothing to do with anything so that all they have is the planner.
PERLER: And let’s say it’s an August to August planner. Well, they can rip out, and let’s say it’s October, they can rip out August and September. I don’t want them having anything in the planner that they don’t have to worry about.
PERLER: These are kids who really want to get at the heart of the matter within seconds. They don’t want to have to flip pages and find things. So a monthly planner gives them 10 pages in a school year, whereas a weekly would have 36 weeks in a school year. So 10 pages is a lot easier to manage. And also, these kids tend to be very global thinkers, so seeing the entire month is a lot easier for their brain to learn to conceptualize time.
PERLER: Than seeing a week at a time.
GONZALEZ: Obviously you’ve sort of tested this out over time …
PERLER: Over seven years.
GONZALEZ: … and so you’re finding that that really simple whole month at a glance … And I’m guessing they can’t really write a whole lot of detail then in each cell?
PERLER: And that’s a problem that everybody mentions, and that’s a very valid point, because what you do have to do then is you have to teach them how to write shorthand.
PERLER: So for kids with messier handwriting, I make sure that they get planners that have the lines in it.
PERLER: And then if their handwriting is legible, then they can get whatever boxes they want on the monthly boxes. And then I teach them how to write shorthand. Teachers will often put a lot of detail on the board for what the assignment is, and teachers also can be too picky about saying, “No, you have to write every single detail.” No, they don’t. “M” means “math.” “P 32” means “page 32.” “1-15 odd” means “Do problems 1 through 15, the odd only.” So I do teach them to write shorthand. And then you have the other end of the spectrum where some of these kids who really want to cut corners, which is efficient, but their shorthand is too short, and they don’t even know what they wrote, so you do have to watch. I’m not saying be unrealistic. Be realistic and help them learn how to create a shorthand that works. But I do have to teach them that in order for them to be able to use the monthly calendars.
GONZALEZ: Do you have anything on your website that sort of shows people what that shorthand looks like, that maybe we could send people a link to? If not, then that’s not a big deal, because I think this does have to be individualized for each kid anyway, but I was just wondering.
PERLER: I do have a lot of resources and PDFs on my website.
GONZALEZ: OK. Maybe we can get in touch later then, and I can put links on the blog post that I’m going to put together with this.
PERLER: OK, great.
GONZALEZ: Cool. OK. Anything else on the planners?
PERLER: And I can make something for you.
GONZALEZ: Oh, that would be great.
PERLER: Yeah, if you’re like, “Seth, will you put together … ?” you know, after you digest this.
PERLER: But I do have like a system checklist that has a lot of this stuff on my site somewhere.
GONZALEZ: Awesome. OK.
PERLER: Go ahead. Planners?
GONZALEZ: Sure. Do you have anything else to add about the planners before we move on to No. 4?
PERLER: Yes. These kids do not … Like I said, they’re not maintainers. They are not going to be good at maintaining their planner. So on the one hand, you can’t count on them to trust what they’re going to say, even though they’re going to insist to you, “Mom. Leave me alone. I know. I wrote everything in my planner.” So they just do not have the executive function to manage the details that are in their head, and they are still the kid who when the teacher says, “Write this in your planner,” they are not writing it in their planner … sometimes. So remember. This is a habit that has to be built. So when you’re initially helping a student to learn these skills, you really have to patiently sit down with them to update the planner often.
GONZALEZ: Got it. So there needs to be … Now I’m seeing that theme kind of running through all of these, is that there needs to be regular check-ups on these things.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
PERLER: And you generally want to check the teacher website. You want to check the syllabus, if it’s a class that has a syllabus. And as far as speaking to teachers is concerned, I sit in a lot of IEP, 504, RtI meetings, and there is a huge, huge difference between teachers who clearly articulate online what their assignments are and teachers who don’t. So I don’t know why teachers are so resistant to this, but a lot of teachers in these meetings will say things like, “Well, I’m trying to teach the kids responsibility,” or “It’s on the board,” or whatever, “They can take a picture of it,” blah, blah, blah. Look. They don’t have the executive function to manage all this. If you, as a teacher, could please put very clearly what the expectations are online, it will actually save the teacher more time.
PERLER: And they don’t always realize this. And I don’t know where this comes from. I think it’s just old programming from our system. But to clearly articulate what is expected, then parents, and I deal with this so often with my clients, but parents who are looking for what is expected, and they say, “What do you have for homework?” and the student says, “Nothing.” And then it’s 9 o’clock, and they say, “Oh, I have a project due tomorrow,” all that. When teachers have it clearly online, it helps the parents, it helps the student, it helps the teacher, and it reduces family stress, because families don’t have to argue about this stuff. It’s in black and white right in front of them. So please clearly articulate what your expectation is so that parents don’t have to wonder.
GONZALEZ: I can attest to that as a parent. There’s sometimes my kids will come home, and we can’t figure out what the assignment is, and there’s nothing written down anywhere for me to verify. So yes, I just want to second that, for sure.
GONZALEZ: OK, so are we ready to move to No. 4?
GONZALEZ: OK. Tell me about No. 4.
4. Grade Monitoring System
PERLER: Grade monitoring system. Basically what I want teachers to know is that even though you put your grades online, parents and students are not in the habit of checking them as often as they can. I recommend to my families that they check them at least once a week, but I’m generally with my students two to three times a week in person. So I’m looking at their grades one, two or three times a week with my students in person. But teachers need to understand that they’re not aware of … they’re not looking. And I will tell you teachers, you need to understand this. What parents will do a lot of times is they’ll look at the online grades, and they’ll just look at the grades. So they’ll see, “Oh, my student has a 72 percent or an 84 percent.” They don’t click on the part of the grading program that opens up the details, and they don’t know how to look for patterns in the details like teachers would.
GONZALEZ: Got it.
PERLER: So what I see when I look at the grades is I’ll see a pattern, like I’ll see a bunch of incompletes, and that allows me to know something. Or I’ll see a bunch of missings when it comes to homework and really high test scores, but the student has a D, you know? So I can see patterns. Parents are often, not all parents, but they’re often not looking at these details or picking up on the patterns of the grades. So for you as a teacher to send a weekly email or a monthly email saying, “Make sure you’re looking at your grades on a regular basis.” And to tell parents how you approach grading would be really helpful, because I have … Look. I get all the kids, these are the students that I get, where it’s two weeks before the end of the semester. The teachers are cramming in their last-minute grades. The kid has a B. All of a sudden, the teacher puts in the rest of the grades, and the kid has an F. These are the students I get.
PERLER: OK? And parents are so frustrated because they cannot … some teachers are very reliable when it comes to updating their online grades, and some are not.
PERLER: And you just need to communicate, and they don’t get it, so you need to communicate as a teacher, “Hey this is how I grade. a lot of times at the end of the semester, I have a backlog of missing assignments and stuff that I’m catching up on. If your child goes through a lot of missing assignments, you’re going to find their grade’s going to plummet. So I’m telling you right now, I want you to be checking this regularly,” or whatever their system is, communicate it to parents please.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. It may also be … I mean, because I can sympathize, as I’m sure you can, with the teacher who just does fall behind, but maybe once you’ve identified your higher needs kids who really are going to struggle, maybe just go in and update their grades, you know? Pull their papers out of your stack, get them … because that’s where the surprises are going to be.
PERLER: Yeah, yeah.
GONZALEZ: So it might be a way …
PERLER: Whatever the system is, and I get it too. For me as a kid who had inattentive ADD, as an adult who has ADHD, and as a teacher trying to manage all of that stuff, it is so hard. I mean when I was teaching middle school, I believe I had around 90 plus students a day and monitoring grades and everything for middle school and high school teachers with tons of students, it’s a lot for a teacher to manage, but the key is communicate with your parents about how you approach it so that they’re not left in the dark, and then they find out your kid has an F two weeks before the end of the semester.
GONZALEZ: Right, yeah. OK. So we’ve got three more. No. 5 is the self advocacy system.
5. Self Advocacy System
PERLER: I’ll be as brief as I can about this, but teachers will tell students, “I have office hours, come see me at office hours. You can see me at lunch. You can see me at recess,” or whatever. Look. Teachers. What I do with my students is they have to have accountability. So if I have a student, and I say, “You need to talk to your teacher about this. Can you go into office hours tomorrow?” They say, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I do not trust that they’re going to do it. And they will often say, “I don’t want to email them, because I’m going to see them after school anyway. I’ll talk to them tomorrow.” Ninety-nine percent of the time they forget.
PERLER: Or they don’t go. It’s also an emotional thing too. These kids … It can be embarrassing for them, but ironically, the advocacy is one of the easier systems to build in, because once, as particularly a high school student, but once a student learns to go in and “ask for help,” one of the hardest things in the world to do, once they ask for help from their teacher two or three or four times, they have crossed a magical threshold that changes their whole academic experience. They realize that teachers are not mad at them. That teachers are there to support them. That teachers will give them the time they need. And that teachers will even give them secret tips and tricks for how to pass their classes or how to do well in their classes.
GONZALEZ: Nice. I think you’re completely right. They are so … maybe … do you ever role play with the kids? How do you actually teach them how to do this? Or are you just sort of encouraging them to try it?
PERLER: Depending on the kid I might role play. I will often help them right a very short simple email. Actually I have one we can link in the show notes, one that I did last week with someone before finals. Usually I’ll have them write a short email to the teacher that says, “Hey, I’d love to see you at office hours. When’s the best time for me to come in?”
GONZALEZ: Right. Good. OK. Nice.
PERLER: And what that does is it’s very simple, so it’s not overwhelming for the student, but then the teacher gets it. They can say, “Come in at 3 o’clock tomorrow,” and it puts accountability on the situation that they didn’t have before. Most of the time the student will show up, and I will tell you that I have so many kids come back to me and say, “Wow, that was so helpful. That was so easy.” And they really do. That is one of the easiest habits to build for these kids.
GONZALEZ: Great. OK. Two more. We’ve got the No. 6, the sacred study space.
6. Sacred Study Space
PERLER: As adults, Jenn, we have a work space for whatever our passion areas are, our hobbies or our work. So I’d imagine that your desk area, you’re recording this podcast right now, so you have your own little makeshift studio, is that correct?
GONZALEZ: Right. Yes.
PERLER: And you have your systems in place.
PERLER: Well, for these students, a lot of these students in their hobby areas have quite intricate systems, or if you look at their video game console areas, they actually do have a very intentional sacred space for video games or what have you. Well, we don’t teach them though how to create a sacred study space, so I really recommend that. Well I help my students do this in person, but for teachers, to really talk and teach your students about what is your study space at home like? Is it sacred, or is it where your video games are, or is it a mess? If you want to be building an incredible LEGO city, you have to devote a lot of time and energy and space to that. And you will get things out of the way that don’t have to do with that. Same thing with the sacred study space. We really need to help kids learn to create a space that has the supplies we need that is decluttered, that is free of distraction, whether it’s the dog, the siblings or laundry on your desk or whatever it is, or toys, that’s free of distractions. And that’s very hard for families, by the way.
GONZALEZ: No kidding.
PERLER: Because real life is happening. But the idea is to help them learn that this is something you need. You don’t just go sit on the couch, well you might sit on the couch, and that might actually be an effective place for some students some of the time to study. But regardless of what is the place, I want them to have a consciousness in making conscious choices about, “Yeah. Sitting on the couch is going to help me relax into this book, so that I can really get in the mode,” or “Sitting on the couch, especially with the TV on, is a ridiculous idea for me to be studying this biology stuff right now.”
GONZALEZ: Right. So by “sacred,” you really mean that it is designated for studying and only that, and not a whole bunch of other stuff that’s going to come and be distracting.
PERLER: Ideally, ideally.
GONZALEZ: OK. And then you’ve got as No. 7 listed as the weekly overhaul, which you’ve returned to a few times. So just quickly review that, and then that’ll be our seven.
7. Weekly Overhaul
PERLER: Yeah. One of the things that I talk a lot about is out of sight, out of mind. Pick a time when you’re going to do your weekly overhaul, do it for the rest of the semester, every week at the same time. If you miss a time or two, that’s fine. It’s going to happen, especially with these kids. But print up when it is and what time, so that you don’t have the argument with your child about it, and it’s concrete, and it’s on the wall, and just every week pull out the backpack, pull everything out, go through it, tidy it up. You can even do this for your child in some cases, depending on their age and their independence level. But the more involvement they have, and the more ownership they have, the better, obviously. But sometimes you’ve just got to do it for them.
PERLER: And then pull out the planner, update the planner, tear out old pages from the planner, cross everything out in the planner that is no longer relevant. Look forward to the upcoming week in the planner. Do that in the weekly overhaul. So basically tidy up the backpack, the papers and the planner. And the other thing that with some families I’ll say, “You know what,” if it’s a fifth-grader, I’ll say, “I want you to grab everything from you desk, put it in black plastic bag and bring it to me, and then I’ll overhaul everything from the desk, because generally it’s a mess.” And if it’s like a middle schooler or high schooler, then I’ll say, you know, “Bring every single thing from the locker. I don’t care if it’s a gum wrapper. Bring it all in a black bag to me, and we’re going to overhaul that.” So to get everything from the locker or desk once a month or so is a good idea to overhaul as well, because trust me. There are papers in there that needed to be turned in. There are rubrics in there with major projects that needed to be examined. And there are sandwiches that are going bad in the depths of the backpack or the locker or the desk that you don’t even want to know about, but you need to address.
GONZALEZ: All right. Well this is great. We are going to send people over to your site so that they can find out more about this stuff and everything. This has been really, really helpful. Where can people reach you and learn more about this?
PERLER: I am at sethperler.com, and you can sign up for the blog there if you like what I’m doing. I send out a free mini course where I send several videos really going into depths on a lot of these types of issues. So you can find me there, sethperler.com. Yeah.
GONZALEZ: OK. Thank you so much, Seth. I think this is going to help to really kind of unlock this mystery that so many teachers and parents are struggling with, and hopefully it will help a lot of kids.
PERLER: Thank you, and thanks so much again for what you do, and again, teachers, thank you. We need you. Hang in there. I know it gets very overwhelming, but we really need you in our communities. It’s one of the most important jobs. And finally, thank you parents for the job that you’re doing. If I can say, Jenn, I would say probably 100 percent of the parents I work with feel a sense of inadequacy. They feel like they’re not doing it right, and they work so hard to be the best parent they can. Just take it easy on yourself. Just keep pushing forward. There is no instruction book to what you’re doing, and your kids need you, and I just really appreciate how parents show up in what I see with how much they care about their kids and everything.
GONZALEZ: I could not agree more.
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