How to help a disorganised student: some practical ideas and resources

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Many intelligent students struggle to reach their academic potential because they are disorganised.  Disorganisation, and the resulting overwhelm and stress, affect lots of students with:

Reading comprehension, writing, note-taking, and studying all require students to:

Executive functions” (which we’ve looked at before in the context of early reading) is the umbrella term for all these complex processes. They are the foundation of academic performance, and become increasingly important from Year 3 when school tasks start to require students – often under time pressure – to integrate multiple language and other sub-skills to:

Executive function processes and abilities are also important for:

Metacognitive awareness

Many students with executive function challenges benefit from:

  • increasing their “metacognitive awareness”; and
  • structured support, including explicit teaching of strategies.  

“Metacognition” sounds like a villainous Transformer. It’s a weird word:

  • “Meta-”, of Greek origin, means “higher” or “beyond”; and
  • “Cognition”, of Latin origin, means “a getting to know, knowledge”, indirectly from “com” (meaning “together”) and “gnoscere” (“to know”). 

Metacognition is the ability to represent, monitor, and control ongoing cognitive processes (Heyes et al., 2020). In other words, it’s thinking about your own thinking.

Metacognitive awareness refers to your understanding and beliefs about how you think and learn and the strategies you can use to accomplish tasks (Flavell, 1979; Brown, 1983). 

Metacognition contributes to our ability to know ourselves, to know ourselves together, and to make decisions in groups that are more reasonable than decisions we can make alone. It’s important in education, mental health, and community life. It improves learning at school, can regulate anxiety and depression, promotes effective leadership and encourages moderation in political and other debates (Heyes et al., 2020). 

Metacognition skills may be affected by genes. But some forms of metacognition are thought to have a social origin. There is evidence that cultural selection might shape human metacognition; and that metacognitive skills can be learned (Heyes et al., 2020). 


For students, increasing metacognitive awareness – a common goal of language therapy for school-age students – helps them to learn and use strategies to get schoolwork done, improve their academic performance (Meltzer, 2018) and to feel better about themselves! 

Strategies are brief problem-solving techniques that highlight information and guide focus so you can carry out complex tasks in a structured way (Peterson & Ukrainetz, 2023). 

One of the ways teacher and speech pathologists support students who are struggling academically is through strategy interventions. Teachers and speech pathologists should teach these strategies explicitly and systematically. Examples of strategies include:

GoalExamples of strategies (to teach)
Increase metacognitive awareness
Know-Yourself Venn diagrams to identify areas of strength and challenges, e.g. understanding, speaking, handwriting, spelling, writing texts, maths, art, science, history, music, remembering things for tests, organising time, organising things (e.g. for school), working, checking work. Note-taking from books. Note-taking from classes, paying attention, getting homework done, getting assignments done, studying for tests, and sport.
Improve goal-settingDistinguishing and setting short- and long-term goals.

Setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and measurable (SMART) goals).

Breaking big projects into small, achievable parts. Identifying obstacles that could get in the way of achieving goals and creating plans to overcome them.
Using daily schedules, weekly calendars, and diaries.

Time-blocking after school time for homework and study plans, taking into account other activities like sport, other extra-curricular activities, social time, and leisure.

Using habit monitoring to set and form healthy study habits (e.g. using apps like Streaks).
Increase flexible thinkingJokes, riddles, puns and word categories.

High frequency homophones and homonyms.

Academic vocabulary, including exam verbs.
Literal and figurative language, including similes, metaphors, high frequency idioms, and analogies as well as other “book language”.

Increasing background (world) knowledge and inference skills.
Skimming techniques to read strategically.

Note-taking systems and templates, including picture writing, and pictographs (iconic sketches of ideas and events), flowcharts and non-linear mind maps, and more traditional note-taking methods.

Knowledge organisers to separate main ideas and details.
Graphic organisers for reading, writing, summarising, and studying.

Flashcard apps like Anki that assist with and automate spaced retrieval practice.
Improve organisation, and ability to prioritise tasksMind maps.
Subject folder systems.

Project timetables to break assignments into steps.

Whiteboard planning.

Structured to do lists and project management tools like Trello and Asana.

Time-blocking in calendars.
The Pomodoro technique for focused deep work”, including apps like Forest.

Evidence-based study skills.
Improve recall, (including accessing working memory)Learning to ‘chunk’.
Mnemonics (keywords, peg words, acronyms, acrostics).
Visual strategies (diagrams, cartoons, graphic organisers, templates).

Chants, rhymes, songs:

Stories and memory systems (e.g. simple peg, visualisation, Roman Room, and Major Memory systems).
Improve self-monitoringStructured editing checklists.

Personalised “most common error” lists (e.g. wh words, and “there/their/they’re”).
Reviewing to do lists.
Increase emotional awareness and regulationBreaking tasks down into manageable, sequenced steps.
Offering choices.

Advance notice of changes, transition, upcoming challenges and unexpected requests.

Emotional self-awareness tools and emotions vocabulary.

Shifting perspective cues.

Teach and use metacognitive strategies together: an example

Metacognitive strategies can – and should – be combined to help disorganised students with complex academic tasks. For an example of how we teach this in our clinic, check out our fully-scripted and scaffolded Persuasive Writing Foundations Program, in which we combine many of the strategies highlighted above.

Bottom line

Disorganisation can affect a student’s performance on academic tasks, get in the way of academic success, and contribute to anxiety and other mental health issues. We should teach students metacognitive strategies to help them get and stay organised, and to reach their potential on complex academic and life tasks.

Key sources:

Meltzer, L. Greschler, M.A., Davis, K., & Vanderberg, C. (2021). Executive Function, Metacognition, and Language Promoting Student Success with Explicit Strategy Instruction. Perspectives of the ASHA Special Interest Groups, 6, 1343-1356.

Heyes, C., Bang, D., Shea, N. Frith, C.D., & Fleming, S.M. (2020). Trends in Cognitive Science, (in Press). Cell Press Reviews.

Peterson, A.K. & Ukrainetz, T.A. (2023). Sketch and Speak Expository Intervention for Adolescents: A Single-Case Experiment via Telepractice. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 1-25.

Black and white icons sourced, with thanks, from the Noun Project.

This article also appears in a recent issue of Banter Booster, our weekly round up of the best speech pathology ideas and practice tips for busy speech pathologists, providers, speech pathology students, teachers and other interested readers.

Sign up to receive Banter Booster in your inbox each week:

Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Share This

Copy Link to Clipboard