EDF: Environmental Cues, Supports, & Strategies

EDF: Environmental Cues, Supports, & Strategies
— Leslie E. Packer, PhD


Children and teenagers with EDF need more cues, organizing assistance, and reminders. Some cues can easily be incorporated into the classroom environment. Other cues are strategies that the child or teen can learn.


For children and teens, visual cues such as writing the daily schedule on the blackboard are very helpful because they help the student literally see where they’re up to and reduce any stress associated without having to actually remember what to do next:

  • Teachers can check off each item on the blackboard throughout the day and edit the schedule to point out/highlight changes in the usual routine.
  • Parents can be asked to support training the child or teen to consult a visual list or organizer by using them in the home for the family’s activities and asking the child to consult the calendar each day, check off activities, enter notes, etc.

As students get older, their schools frequently provide them with planners or agendas. Not all planners work for students with large sloppy handwriting, so do consider whether you need to look for another type. Similarly, consider whether the planner shows one day at a time or one week at a time.

The image below is from the author’s “Good Ideas Gone Horribly Horribly Bad File.” The teacher wanted the student to be able to look ahead so that he wasn’t surprised to turn the page and find out he had a test that day, so she picked a “weekly view” planner. Look what happened:

The idea was fine, but the plan didn’t work because (1) it didn’t allow enough space for the student’s very large handwriting, and (2) the parent and teacher tried to use the page for their communications. In general, it’s usually best to keep parent-teacher communications in a separate notebook or folder.

Visual cues can also serve as reminders of events or steps we might neglect. Dornbush and Pruitt (1995) provide visual cues or editing strips that can be pasted on young students’ desks (see their book, Teaching the Tiger, published by Hope Press or their later book, Tigers Too, published by Parkaire Press). These strips contain pictorial representations of steps in the editing process such as checking punctuation, checking for capitalization, etc.

Another way in which visual organizers are particularly helpful in the area of thought or idea organization. If you have trouble getting started writing a big paper or essay or organizing your thoughts for a presentation, have you ever tried a visual organizer? Inspiration.com provides software for children and teens that you may wish to explore or download for a free trial.

Color, used properly, can also be an organizing aid. If you’re not already using this technique in the classroom, consider using color organize materials. Color code school books so that all “science” books, workbooks, and notebooks are one color, while all “social studies” books and materials are another color. At the end of the day, if the student has science homework, they just grab everything that is the science color. It saves a lot of time and increases the chances of the right workbooks and notebooks coming home. When I was in a school recently observing a student, I commented to the teacher that the use of color-coding notebooks seemed to be working well in her class. She informed me that the color-coding system was now being used building-wide. What a great idea! Once a student learns that “science is blue,” they stick with that color code throughout all of their years in the school.

Color-coding notebooks and/or textbooks works even more effectively if the classroom teacher also uses color coding for corresponding bins where the students turn in their work (e.g., all science homework would get put in the blue bin, all language arts in the green bin, etc.). [Because some children may be color blind, adding easily discriminable shapes to the bins and notebooks may be helpful in some cases.]

Color can also be used to help prioritize, another executive function. Teach the student to color highlight information as they study, and establish a different meaning for each color (e.g., yellow for definitions, green for facts, etc….).


Cognitive cues are strategies that help you remember the sequence of steps as well as the content or steps themselves. They are especially important to those who can’t seem to retain or follow multi-step or multi-element situations.

When you wanted to learn the order of the planets from the sun, did you develop a sentence (mnemonic) that preserved the order of the planets, as in “My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas” (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto)? What other mnemonics have you used over the years to help you remember the sequence of items? And what are you doing to help your student use or develop useful mnemonics?

Mnemonics are an example of a cognitive strategy or cue. And whereas young children may need or benefit from pictorial editing strips, older students might be taught mnemonics for editing such as “CLIPS” (Packer, 1999), where “CLIPS” reminds them to check for: Capitalization, Leave space between words, Ideas complete, Punctuation, Spelling. At the beginning, you can leave a few paper clips on the desk with a reminder as to what the mnemonic stands for. Later on, you can just leave a few clips on the desk.

Providing your child with mnemonics or cognitive strategies will help them retain the sequence of steps. If you can teach them a general strategy that whenever they have a multi-step task, they should try to develop a mnemonic, you will be teaching them a lifelong strategy. And the funnier or wackier the mnemonic, the more likely they will remember it.


Students with EDF are notorious for losing their belongings or necessary homework materials. All too often, however, we mistakenly attribute their behavior to lack of motivation. When you realize that they are also losing their most valued possessions, too, you may start to wonder about whether the problem is really motivational or if there is a neurocognitive problem.

As a quick diagnostic screening tool, look in the student’s backpack. Go on, I dare you! Now you, of course, being an organized teacher, may have sent notes home asking parents to clean out their young child’s book bag each week. Or if your students are older, you’ve reminded the students to do that — and to clean out their locker. But it never seems to happen, right? Take that as a diagnostic sign that your student needs major help with strategies and routines for being organized.

If your young student is always losing pencils, pens, or other supplies, don’t berate the student. Ask the parents to send in an extra stash of supplies that you can keep in the closet so the student can help himself to his own supplies when he needs them without having to go around trying to borrow supplies or interrupting the lesson. And if the parents don’t send them in, well, it may be that your note never got delivered due to disorganization — or maybe the child is a 2nd generation disorganized soul and the parents are just as disorganized as the child. In that case, you can set up the stash and let children who lose supplies know where they can go find the extras.

And finally — and no matter how much Prozac you have to take to steel yourself for this — schedule a weekly time when your young students will clean out their desks and clean out their backpacks — and lockers. Students with EDF will get quickly overwhelmed. If you let them put things off even a few days, the job may become too immense for them.

Elsewhere in this section of the web site, I provide a screening tool or survey you can use to send home with all your students to find out from the students’ parents their perceptions of their children’s organizational abilities.


Students with EDF tend to have major problems associated with homework, which is why you will also find on this site a homework hassles survey for you to send to home to parents. One of the most obvious obstacales to homework completion is the frustrating reality that despite what are often the best of intentions, the assignment or the materials do not make it home.

“But I know I put it in my (folder, backpack) before I left school” is a common report.

Somewhere, there is a huge bus terminal for yellow school buses that are filled to the roof with all of the assignments and papers that never made it home or if they made it home, never made it back to school.

That said, an informed teacher takes steps to help students obtain necessary assignments and materials if they realize they have lost them. Telling students to have the phone number of another student (or other students) may work well for the child or teen who only occasionally has a problem, but it’s not a good solution for the disorganized child who may be reluctant to become a pest to peers by calling them every day for the assignment.

Some teachers have gotten very creative about how to provide support for assignments or materials. Certainly, there is the use of the Internet for posting the homework assignments on the teacher’s web site, and students can be told that they can find daily assignments (and long-term assignments) on the web site. Some teachers, if their classroom is on the first floor of the building, have taken to taping a copy of the assignment to the window so that the student who comes back to school can stand outside and read the assignment to see what they are supposed to do.

Assuming that the student brings the necessary assignment and materials home and actually completes the assignment, there is always a good possibility that the assignment never gets turned in. The student may search and search his bookpack, where he knows he put it, but not find it. It, too, is in that fantastical school bus somewhere, with all of the other EDF students’ papers, signed parental permission forms, signed report cards, and lots of fascinating things.

If the student tends to lose important papers by the time she gets to school, think creatively about how the student can get the assignment to you on time (assuming it’s been done). In some cases, I’ve had students use email to send their teachers their assignments. In other cases, I’ve had students use their family’s personal fax machine to fax their homework back to the school when they’ve completed the assignment. I still ask the student to bring in the original homework and try to turn it in normally, but their “backup” is that they have taken responsibility for getting it to the school before class. I do not encourage the parents to take on this responsibility — what I am doing is giving the students an alternative way for them to meet their responsibilities. Yes,. sometimes it may be necessary to give students an accommodation such as “no penalty for lateness,” but if we are trying to prepare them for life after school, the reality is that there frequently is a penalty for lateness — we have to meet our work deadlines or we may lose our job, we have to pay our taxes on time or we may pay a penalty. Hence, whenever possible, I try to downplay the “no penalty for lateness” if the work is done, and focus on how to successfully turn it in so that the student gets credit for their hard work.