Lazy—Or Not?

Peg 0609Post submitted by Peg Dawson, psychologist at the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders in Portsmouth, N.H.

My article, “Lazy—Or Not?,” makes the point that many students who parents and teachers assume are lazy or unmotivated may actually lack the executive skills necessary to be effective students. I’m talking about such skills as task initiation, sustained attention, planning, organization, time management, and goal-directed persistence.

Neuroscientists have found that executive skills reside in the part of the brain that is the last to develop. In fact, it takes as much as 25 years for these skills to reach maturity. Until executive skills are fully developed, parents and teachers act as “external frontal lobes.” They provide cues, reminders, organizational schemes, and other accommodations to supplement the less-developed skills of children.

Working in and with schools for more than 30 years, I have too often found a mismatch between the expectations that schools and teachers (and sometimes parents) have for children’s ability to manage themselves and what children are actually capable of. Although I describe a youngster with ADHD in my article, typically developing students also often suffer from that mismatch.

I can point to examples across all ages, but the mismatch between expectations and student brain development seems most evident in middle school. Changing classes and having multiple teachers with diverse expectations stress their weak organizational systems. Teachers often adopt the attitude that students should learn to develop their own organizational structures so that they will be ready for high school. Unfortunately, students don’t always learn the skills they need—and end up feeling more blamed than supported.

How have you incorporated instruction in executive skills into your classroom? What routines and reminders have you used to help students learn to stay on track?


  1. I don’t typically comment on blogs that I read, but I really enjoyed yours. It is such a valid point that teachers and parents need to TEACH organizational skills. The best practice at home is to model the behavior that is desired. Teach your children to bank on-line by doing it yourself. Teachers need a reminder to remember the “simple” things.
    Thanks for sharing!
    (special education teacher
    and mom)

  2. As an elementary school teacher, I see a lot of disorganization, especially at the beginning of the school year. To combat this, I keep the schedule as consistent as possible, so that students learn to anticipate what is coming next and what materials they might need. I also teach procedures for turning in homework, turning in classwork, and keeping track of materials during the first week of school. As they learn these procedures, anticipate events, and find success in those endeavors, they are more likely to continue to try to stay organized and on top of things.

  3. Peg,
    Our superintendent share your article with the staff in our school. I agree with Missy and Mary we need to take things one step at a time and model the desired behaviors. Let’s not be too quick to label students as lazy.

  4. I have been teaching middle school for 7 years and have seen every type of organizational system there is! I, too, always used to assume that by the time the students got to me, they should already know how to be organized and put together. Then one day, in a fit of frustration, I asked one of my students, “Hasn’t anyone ever taught you how to be organized.” “Nope,” he said.
    Now organization, procedures, and study skills are an integrated part of my lessons. The first few months of 6th grade is intense, but I think my students learn a great deal about how they learn and what works for them.
    I do not think that many teachers, especially of elementary and middle school students, realize that skills are not inherent; they must be taught. Thank you for shedding some light on this subject!

  5. First off, great article! I really enjoyed reading it and can make connections with past and present students. I have been teaching in the middle school for only two years, but I know all about executive skills or organizational skills. When students come to 6th grade, it is their first year away from an elementary school setting. There is so much to learn in 6th grade. There are the annoying locker combinations, the switching of classes, the longer hallways, the hundreds of rules for each class, and the independence. Students are very overwhelmed the first few weeks of school.
    I like how you pointed out organization. All of these problems that I stated, as well as the ones you wrote about, can be solved by good organization. I spend the first few weeks just going over general rules of my classroom. We discuss how to organize binders, class rules, where to hand in homework, daily routines, writing in our agendas, and even to the school map. I feel this is very helpful and can become a smooth transition.
    These skills can continue throughout the year and be modified as needed. Teachers must take the time to work on these skills as students will need these for their entire academic career. Instead of calling a student “lazy”, teachers must also take that extra step to recognize a problem and come up with a helpful solution. This can make classroom management better, but also connections that will improve student behavior.

  6. This has shed a new light on a problem we’ve been seeing at our school. After reading the article, it makes perfect sense that some of these kids are as disorganized as they are. We plan on meeting in the next couple of days to address some of the options discussed in the article.

  7. This is my first time reading a blog as part of a class assignment, but I found this article really interesting. It seems natural and understandable that the kinds of executive skills kids need in classrooms must be taught to them (although sometimes a reminder is necessary for most teachers), but the idea that this part of the brain is the last to develop sheds new light on the situation. I will be the first to admit that I have had moments in my classroom when I become frustrated that my students have such messy spaces or can’t keep themselves organized. I’ll be sure to think twice when I pin it on laziness or lack of reiteration of these skills at home.

  8. I really enjoyed reading your article. I feel as though routine is everything for a child, no matter what grade level. I am currently a substitute teacher that works almost every day. I have my Bachelor’s Degree, but still do not have a permanent job. I try to make sure that each time I go into a teacher’s classroom that I stick to the rules and routines as closely as possible, so they will continue with what they know best. I think this makes the students function better while with a new teacher. It is already hard enough for them to have a different teacher. When the rules and expectations get changed too it sometimes seems overwhelming for some of the students.

  9. I found myself nodding my head in agreement many times while reading your article. I am currently a second grade teacher and structure, planning and time management are crucial ascpect of our day. I am known for being a structed teacher and typically have students placed in my classroom who need that aspect of learning. I sometimes wonder if I am doing them an inservice by providing so much structure that they can not succeed in an unstructured environment. I do believe that no student is “lazy” but unavailable to be motivated because of other constraints. I enjoyed this article very much! Thank you!

  10. I really liked the article “Lazy-Or Not?”, and felt like I have dealt with similar students to “Josh”. I really liked the way you told the story of knowing him when he was younger and then seeing him again to find the struggle he has endured. I agree, it is difficult sometimes to explain to other teachers and professionals that “Josh” is not lazy, he just has a difficult time accessing his cognitive process of organizing and planning. I felt just as a human, I can relate. When things are not completed sometimes, it isn’t because the task is difficult, sometimes we are just overwhelmed and could use some skills to better handle it. For myself, my structure relies in Post-it-notes, it tells me what I need to accomplish today. For “Josh” the RTI that was designed to be modeled for him, which will allow him to better handle his responsibilities in the future. He will have new skills that expose him to different ways to help himself. I am glad with the result, and felt it was realistic. “Josh” needs to continue to work at his progress. However, he has made strides, and he is more self-sufficient. He is not lazy, he is just a regular student with a need.

  11. What a great article! While reading through it, I found myself thinking of several students in my classroom that lack these executive skills. I find that younger students struggle with a different set of rules and routines each year and this can be mistaken for lack of motivation in the classroom. Without being taught such valuable skills such as sustained attention, organization, and time management,how can it be expected. Great insight behind the real meaning of “lazy”!

  12. Peg, I thought your article was great. Your Interventions for Developing Executive Skills will be very useful in my classroom. I am also going to share this with several of my other staff members who face these challenges as well.

  13. I was reading your blog and could not help but think of my own son. He is in third grade and his teacher wants them all to have more responsibility. While I find that totally reasonable I do not agree with many of the things she is doing. He is only eight and does not remember things she tells him to do. For example, she gave them an assignment to write a book about the planets. They were to write at least three facts about each planet and illustrate. They needed to include one inch margins. I found out about this assignment the day before it was due. I had no idea what the requirements were. All I knew was that he had to write a book about the planets. He did not remember anything but that. She did not give them any written instructions; she just told them what she wanted. Not many eight year olds can just remember the details on assignments like this. Children need guidance. I think her expectations are a little bit extreme for students this age.
    My son has also been having difficulty in class. Now, I am a certified teacher working on my Masters Degree. My son has never struggled with his schoolwork because I have always helped him with it. In fact, I have taught him many concepts beforehand because he enjoys learning. However, his teacher will tell me he is struggling with these same concepts that I know he knows. He can bring the same work home as homework and not miss a single problem. I have talked to his previous teachers and they have said that she lacks structure in her classroom.
    I think that all students learn best in a structured environment. I do believe that these structured environments should include guidance while also helping students to be more independent. A teacher can have centers, group work, and independent work while still having a structured environment. Like his teacher claims to be, I am a proponent of differentiated instruction. I also love to incorporate centers and collaborative work in a classroom. She enjoys doing these things but I believe she loses control of the class easily. In my limited experience I have used hands on activities and have found that these activities help students to better remember the information. These are the same concepts that I have used with my own child at home. I also think that working in collaborative groups can help students to have a better understanding of materials because they can build on each others knowledge. The key I think to using these strategies in a classroom is management, good explanations, and guidance for the students. As educators, we should have reasonable expectations for students.

  14. I really enjoyed the article as well. Even though I teach kindergarten I try to make sure I teach my students how to follow a schedule, be responsible for things, and to learn how to problem solve for themselves. I use lots of modeling and help them through the process, but hopefully this will help them in the long run.

  15. Great article! I’m not a person who blogs, but I found your article to be very informative. As an elementary teacher I see children struggle with which I post on my Smartboard when the students arrive at school and as we begin to fill in our homework planner at the end of each day.
    At the beginning of each year, I try to have parents purchase folders of certain colors and organize them by subject. eg. green is math, blue is social studies.
    Teaching of procedures begin at the start of the school year and continue throughout the year. As students become proficient with the routines they become my helpers for those still learning

  16. Similar to Renee, this is the first time I read a blog for an assignment and commented on a blog. Scrolling down the page with different blogs and so much to read, I wasn’t sure which to pick. Your blog title caught my attention. Sure enough, I made the right choice. What are executive skills? A task on my “to goggle” list. Now, you have summarized it all for me and extended my knowledge about it. “Changing classes and having multiple teachers with diverse expectations stress their weak organizational systems”. I couldn’t agree more. Last year, I witness the detrimental effect on students having four different teachers for the same subject in the same school year. The students, the teachers and even the parents struggle. After reading your article,it just reaffirmed the importance of having life/executive skills in students to help them be successful academically

  17. Great article! I am a special education teacher in a small rural community. We have a high number of students with disabilities. Many of our students lack attention skills, good behaviors, academic initiation, and organization skills. I try to develop those skills in my clasroom and school setting by creating a pride within my students to do well. I teach and show them ways to be successful students. It may take me a month to start molding some students while it may take me all year for some students. Some teachers expect the students to walk right into their room on the first day and do what they want with out every teaching them. Students with disabilities need that guidance and extra teacings to become successful students.

  18. I read the article on Lazy-Or Not? and look back on the difficulties my oldest son had in elementary school with regard to completing school work and doing homework. At home I tried always to create homework routines where he had a special place to complete homework with no distractions. Despite being a very involved parent with my children and school, he continued to have difficulty into adulthood. Years later and now having recently started my career as a Special Education teacher I can see that there was so much more that I could have done to provide positive reinforcement that addressed his organizational skill development. I have students who are not only cognitively low, but also have little to no support at home. I will have to make it a point to address this issue in a more positive way for these students by collaborating with their grade level teacher.
    One striking comment in the article was regarding children without that solid working memory and little ability to attend to tasks for long enough to complete them. These students require a great deal of structure in the classroom, visual cues to remind them of procedural order as well as accountability.
    Progression of skills can be graphed so that students have a visual representation of their growth along with external rewards that can gradually be reduced.
    I will even write specific goals in their IEPs to address this skill as it impacts all content areas.

  19. I had a class in my Elementary Education courses called “Teaching With the Brain in Mind” It was quite fascinating and deserves much more attention.


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