4 Simple Strategies for Supporting Students Who Struggle with Getting Started

Do you work with students or have a child who just can’t seem to get started on an assigned activity, task, or chore? Some students can become overwhelmed if a learning activity is something unfamiliar or seems too complicated. These students often lack the ability to cope, including an inability to start and to stay engaged until completion. Although there are many strategies that will support students in getting started and remaining engaged, this blog article describes four strategies that are universally helpful in supporting students who struggle with getting started on and/or completing work: first-then cards, chunking folders, highlighter tape, and checklists.

First-Then Cards:  For a student who just can’t seem to get started on an activity or assignment, or who has difficulty switching between activities, using a visual support in the form of a card that indicates first-then may be useful. This visual strategy can reduce anxiety and frustration by helping a student make a transition or simply get started on an activity, as well as supporting students in completing non-preferred tasks, by having the first task followed by something that is favored. Depending on the age and the developmental level of the student, the activities can be visually represented using images or text. As a visual support, a first-then card:
• Gives the student a visual representation by specifying what activity (or what part of an activity) must be completed first and what activity will follow.
• Is portable, so that it can be used in various areas of the school environment. Cards can be created ahead of time using paper or a digital format or created on the spot using sticky notes, a whiteboard, or other tool to display the information visually.
Chunking Folders:  To break assignments into small, clearly identifiable steps, you can provide a chunking folder to present material “one chunk at a time” to minimize distractions and help students focus on a chunk of content. These can be made from colored or manila-type file folders, with a series of flaps to cover content. Flaps are flipped over, one flap at a time, to reveal a chunk of content. The student completes a chunk of content and then turns the flap to reveal the next chunk of content. Another chunking strategy for students who have trouble focusing or are easily overwhelmed is to simply fold a worksheet in half so that the student attends to one half of the work at a time. Chunking folders have been used effectively with students in kindergarten through high school in all subject areas. It is a simple, inexpensive strategy that works well to reduce visual distractions and lower anxiety levels when students are overwhelmed by content that they are expected to complete or master.
Highlighter Tape:  Use highlighter tape to draw attention to any learning experience – spelling patterns, similes and metaphors, vocabulary words within a larger field of text; key phrases in math word problems; or specific information in a text. Highlight critical information on a worksheet, such as the directions, so that the student focuses on that “chunk” of content first, thereby gaining an understanding of what is expected before starting work. Assist students in chunking math assignments by having them highlight the symbol (×, ÷, +, -) in a math problem before calculating the answer.
Chunking strategies for math include grouping problems by specific operation or concept, or by providing highlighter pens and allowing students the opportunity to “chunk” a worksheet by operation prior to starting. Content can be chunked in any curricular area by highlighting important phrases, key words, or dates. Highlighter tape is easy to apply and remove, and can be reused. It can also be written on, and comes in assorted colors and multiple sizes.
Checklists:  A checklist can be an effective way to organize tasks so that a student who struggles with getting started knows exactly what needs to be done, how much work is expected to be completed, and when the work is done. A checklist becomes a to-do list of the tasks that must be completed by providing a simple a check-off list for completed tasks. The checklist can be personalized to fit any task and becomes a memory tool that supports a wide variety of learning activities and responsibilities.  A checklist is a list of steps or tasks that may be printed on a piece of paper or a whiteboard, or stored electronically on a computer, tablet, phone, or other portable device. Teachers can use these to provide a list with a check-off box that can be marked with a pencil/marker, as a manipulative on a magnetic whiteboard, or electronically using an app.

There are a variety of options that you can use to support students who struggle with getting started, remaining engaged, and following through on completing activities. Find additional strategies in FLIPP 2.0: Mastering Executive Function Skills from School to Adult Life for Students with Autism, available from Autism Asperger Publishing Company (AAPC) in the summer of 2020.


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