Environmental Cues, Supports, and Strategies

By Leslie E. Packer, PhD
Last Updated January 2009

More is better: Children and adults with EDF need more cues, organizing assistance, and reminders. They also need direct instruction in tricks and strategies that will work for them. Some cues can easily be incorporated into the environment. Enhancing motivation can help children and teens but it is usually not sufficient without direct instruction and other supports.



For children and teens, writing the daily schedule and displaying it prominently is very helpful because it helps the child or teen see where they’re up to and reduces any stress associated without having to actually remember what to do next. As example of applying this at school and in the home:

  • 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 create a visual list or organizer for and teach the child to consult it each day, check off items that are completed, look at it frequently throughout the day, etc. If you use this approach, remember to teach and reward for the child for going to look at their schedule to see what to do next and for checking off completed items. If you create a visual schedule but constantly tell your child what’s next, they do not learn the habit of an active response of checking their schedule. For young children who do not read, you can create a visual schedule by using freely available clipart.

Teach older children, teens, and adults the mantra of “Record it or regret it!” No matter how well-intentioned they may be, if a task or responsibility is not recorded immediately, it is likely to be forgotten. Recording it could mean writing it in an agenda or memo pad that they carry with them, sending themselves an email reminder, using a PDA to enter a reminder, or using their cellphone to set a reminder or leave a voicemail for themself as a reminder.

As children 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.”

By a few weeks into the school year, the student was still trying to enter homework assignments, but the planner was becoming more visually confusing.

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. 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. These strips contain pictorial representations of steps in the editing process such as checking punctuation, checking for capitalization, etc. That concept of providing visual cues can be applied in the home even with young children to help them learn routines or “chunks” of behavior. As one example: a “morning” strip could have images of a child going to the bathroom, brushing their teeth, washing their hands, etc. The visual cue strip can be posted in the bathroom (demonstrating the principles that you put the reminder or cue where the child is likely to see it and where the child needs it) and the child can check off each activity as it’s done.

Another way in which visual organizers are particularly helpful in the area of thought or idea organization. If your child has trouble writing a big paper or essay or organizing his 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 or at home, consider using color to 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….).

In the home or on the job, color can also be a useful technique to help prioritize. As one example, Post-its come in different colors and can be used to tag work or messages that are high priority, low priority, etc.


Cognitive cues are strategies that help the individual 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 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 cognitive cues have you used over the years to help you remember the sequence of items?

Mnemonics are verbal cues that help us recall content, but not all mnemonics are cognitive cues. The mnemonic “CLIPS” (Packer, 1999) can remind students to check for Capitalization, Leave space, Ideas complete, and Punctuation when editing their written work, but the mnemonic does not necessarily indicate that the checks should be done in that order. Similarly, “HOMES” is a commonly used mnemonic to recall the names of the Great Lakes, but the mnemonic does give us any cue as to the order or sequence of the lakes in terms of their size or position (west to east). A cognitive cue for the names of the Great Lakes from west to east might be, “She Made Him Eat Oreos.” If mnemonics give us cues as to content or elements of a list, cognitive cues give us cues as to both content and sequence. “Does McDonald’sTM Sell Burgers?” is a cognitive cue that retains the steps in long division: Divide, Multiply, Subtract, Bring down.

Developing and using cognitive strategies provides useful recall strategies and is especially helpful to those who have difficulty retaining sequences or following multi-step directions. And the funnier or wackier the cognitive cue, the more likely it will be remembered.


I have something to confess. Whenever I see all those magazine articles with wonderfully organized children’s rooms or home offices, I want to throw the magazine across the room. You see I tried a lot of those wonderful ideas with my son, and all it did was cost me a lot of money in organizers and time in arranging things. Two days after the intensive reorganizing project was complete and his room looked wonderful, I opened the door to his room to ask him a question. Here’s what I saw:

Another entry from my “Good Ideas Gone Horribly Horribly Bad Files”

So… before you go investing in all those wonderful space organizers, talk with your child and see what ideas they have to help them organize themselves. How many parents have spent good money to buy desks that never get used because the student prefers to lie on the floor to do their work? File cabinets or organizers also sound great, but if your child merely throws last night’s snack into them and closes the drawer, this isn’t going to work.

Having totally separate work areas for different activities may work for some children or adults. Make sure that they have a complete set of supplies at each workstation, however, to discourage items being removed.

Children and teenagers 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.

If your young child or student is always losing pencils, pens, or other supplies, berating them won’t help. Parents can send in an extra stash of supplies to be kept 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. Teachers: if you sent home a note asking the parents to send in extra supplies and they haven’t, 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 child will clean out their desk and clean their room. Children 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.


Students with EDF tend to have major problems associated with homework. 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.

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, parents and teachers should try to think creatively about how the student can turn the assignment in 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.