Organization, Accountability, and the Gifted Child

By Teresa Brown.


I am a 40-something-year-old gifted woman. I have two planners. One is online so that I can add appointments and meetings and due dates quickly while I’m at work, and so that others can add those things for me if needed. The other planner is a beautiful robin’s egg blue, with a coil spine and beautiful thick pages which are dated and numbered and have space for appointments, notes, and a task list. It ain’t cheap and I get a new one every quarter. Neither system was ingrained in me early on though--I learned the way a lot of kids do...by making mistakes and earning the consequences that went with them: lower grades, failed tests. It took a very long time, but I finally learned from my mistakes and found a system that is working.


Something clicked when I became a teacher and now, in my current role as Dean and a teacher coach, I can see things a bit differently, having lived through it myself.


Beginning in roughly October every school year, teachers lament about their students’ inability to keep track of their belongings, line up and walk down the hall in a reasonable manner, complete projects independently, finish assignments, keep track of papers, notebooks, and textbooks, take useful notes, as well as complete online research without getting lost in TikTok and YouTube.


Parents have similar lamentations: Where is your new coat you had when you got out of the car? Where is your lunchbox? What do you mean you forgot to put shoes on before we left for school? Do you have homework? (This is never a good question...rephrasing this is critical.)


These issues seem to be more prevalent in our gifted population than with neurotypical populations, but that’s not to say a parallel track doesn’t exist. The cognitive load for our gifted children is often greater--they’re thinking about a math problem and the book they’re reading and the piano piece they’re composing and the robotics competition and poverty and climate change and a host of other things...a writing assignment or science fair project is the last thing on their mind.


In almost twenty years of working with students in kindergarten through eighth grade, I’ve noticed that the need for support in basic executive functioning tends to disappear when a child reaches a certain age or is taking a certain class or at a certain level in school...or when the child is given formal gifted identification. It shouldn’t. It simply should morph and change over time, the same needs looking a bit different from year to year, with the explicit teaching and modeling of organizational and memory hacks continuing.


When a child is young, we often support them with chore and job charts, lists of things they need to do every day in particular places such as washing their face and brushing their teeth twice a day. We hang dirty/clean magnets on the dishwasher and have one for whether or not the dog got fed so she doesn’t starve. Parents might have a list of “do you have?” items on the door: lunchbox, coat, backpack, water bottle, homework, snack, car keys...shoes.


Primary level teachers label everything in their classrooms to help students know where to put items so that they can learn independence, with labels for everything from dull pencils to sharpened ones to white paper or colored paper. They make lists of jobs for the classroom, rotating them weekly to ensure that everyone gets to be the calendar helper and floor sweeper and learn to do those jobs.


As children grow, we gradually change these lists to include things they can do on their own that have multiple steps: hang up their coat and backpack, put lunchboxes in the basket, take down your chair, and read your book at your desk until everyone arrives. Parents initial homework, and help their child remember to put it back in the folder with pockets marked “Bring Home” and “Bring Back.”


Something happens when our gifted kids get closer to middle school. The supports disappear altogether and teachers and parents expect kids to be self-sufficient, remembering dates, being able to break down large projects into smaller pieces on their own, make lists of necessary materials, and think ahead to what is coming due and how to schedule time to make it all work. We buy children planners, provide access to online to-do lists and calendars, schedule reminder emails, and assume they will figure out how to use them. And we as educators are rarely on the same page--some seeing any supports beyond quick email reminders to students with a cc: to parents as coddling while others believe that it’s the parent’s job to be the one who forces the child to do the work and should be the one checking grades and looking for missed assignments. In many cases, both believe it’s the other’s job to teach those systems and hold the children accountable when the child fails to turn in assignments, loses papers, and forgets deadlines.


The struggle is this: it’s everyone’s job.


The teacher has a responsibility to model and teach developmentally appropriate systems for tracking missed assignments, notetaking, project planning, deadline making, and studying for tests. The parent has a responsibility to ask questions like “What homework do you have tonight?” and “When is your algebra test?” and “I’m heading out to do errands; what do you need from the craft store for that solar system project I saw in your planner?” And they also need to follow through by reinforcing the systems that the kids are learning in school, tweaking them for home a bit, and supporting their kids to ask questions to clarify assignments and procedures they don’t understand. And when either sees that the child is struggling, offer to help by walking them through thinking that will lead them to a solution.


A friend noted that one of her history teachers required that their notebooks be set up a particular way, with color-coded sections and that their notes be taken using a particular system to ensure students could quickly locate information. I recall finding my high school World History notes and being unable to make heads or tails of them, but those for Civics, Algebra, and Biology were all different, and 30 years later I could still find information because of the way the notes had been taken and the way the notebook was arranged. There was a clear system with a rationale provided for me by my teachers, and now and then, they’d check notebooks to see how we were keeping them and offer opportunities to tweak the system or go back and fix something.


Many schools require planners to be organized and have information entered a particular way across classes and subject areas to ensure that students learn how to plan for big projects and set study times for tests--and teachers model their thinking, invite commentary and opinions on due dates and steps, and provide time for students to reflect on learning, both content and new systems.


None of this is coddling our kids and none of this support is relieving them of accountability. In fact, it’s making them more accountable in the long run. We forget that kids are still kids--none of this organizational stuff came standard on ANY model--and gifted ones tend to have an awful lot going on in their heads and need more support than their neurotypical peers, all the way through high school (and beyond sometimes) to be successful in their organizational systems so that they can go on to college or join the workforce and know-how to track project progress, remember their lunch and car keys, and no