Executive functioning issues

Is the Messy Backpack Due to Executive Functioning or Motivation Issues?

By Bob Cunningham

My child has executive functioning issues, and I know that can be challenging. But sometimes I feel like she’s not trying very hard. For example, we’ll figure out a system to organize her backpack, and two days later it’s a total mess again. Is it that the system isn’t working for her? Or that she’s just not motivated to use it?

Bob Cunningham

Advisor-in-Residence, Understood

When a child doesn’t seem to be trying very hard, it’s usually for one of two reasons. Either the task isn’t rewarding enough, or the task is too difficult. Figuring out what’s going on in this situation might take a little trial and error. But here’s how you can do it.

Start by introducing a reward for your child for keeping her backpack organized for more than two days. If you already offer a reward, see what happens if you offer a bigger reward. Try to come up with rewards that are highly motivating.

Then give your child the opportunity to earn this reward every two days if her backpack stays organized. See how many of these rewards she can earn over a three-week period. If she can earn most of them, then you’ll know that motivation plays a big role.

Once you have a better idea how much of a role motivation is playing, then you can focus on how difficult the task is for your child. When it comes to executive functioning issues, clutter isn’t the only enemy. Complexity can be really tough too.

You mentioned that you have a “system” for keeping your child’s backpack organized. But the word “system” worries me a little because it sounds complicated. I recommend starting with is a simple strategy or two rather than a system.

Start small, then add more complexity as your daughter is ready for it. You’ll know she’s ready because the simpler strategies will be working smoothly. Each time she has success with a strategy, that increases her capacity for using more complex ideas for keeping her backpack organized.

About the Author

Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.

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