Strategies for Getting Things Done


Educators from Carolina Friends School in Durham explore the relationship between health and education.

For information, contact:

Carolina Friends School
4809 Friends School Road
Durham, NC 27705

Telephone: (919) 383-6602

Kersten Jacobson Biehn is the Upper School Learning Specialist and Student Success Program Coordinator for Carolina Friends School, a pre-K to grade 12 independent day school between Durham and Chapel Hill. Kersten has a BA from Princeton, an MA and PhD in intellectual history from Rice, additional graduate degrees in teaching from Emory and Meredith, and a graduate certification in special education from NC State. She is passionate about celebrating neurodiversity and supporting students with disabilities. Her prior experience includes teaching at charter and independent schools in North Carolina and Texas. Over the past decade, she has held a variety of leadership positions, including Principal of Teaching and Learning and Interim Head at The Lerner School. Kersten loves spending time with friends and family, swimming (she is the assistant coach for the CFS swim team!) and sports in general, visiting the mountains and the ocean, staying engaged through community service and activism, reading and learning, and writing a science fiction novel in collaboration with her brother. She is also a Carolina Friends parent.

Supporting Executive Functioning for ALL Brains

By Kersten Jacobson Biehn, PhD

Kersten Jacobson Biehn

As parents and caregivers, there are undoubtedly times when you’ve experienced a child’s struggle to adapt to a routine or to complete a set of tasks. Luckily, brain science can help. Such struggles are often related to something known as “neurodiversity”—a term used to explain the unique ways that our brains function, affecting how we learn and solve problems. We see it every day. For every student, there’s an optimal—and often very different—path to grasping a concept or completing an assignment.

Embracing neurodiversity helps us to understand how all brains work, and the relatively simple strategies that can help all of us. The more we can think about serving neurodiverse needs, the greater benefit to everyone. The following strategies are something you can teach your children, and even use yourself!

Get Ready, Do, Get Done

First, answer the following questions: What does “done” look like for this task? What is the deliverable (and what are the different components)? What absolutely needs to be included? Is there a rubric or project description? Once you’ve established those goals, then you work backwards from what “done” looks like to make your checklist of tasks that need to be completed. Break things down into the smallest pieces possible. For very young children, visual examples are really helpful. 

Now that you have your to-do checklist, make another column for what you’ll need to prepare for those smaller tasks. You should have those at hand every time (including your checklist!). Think about if there are comfort items or environmental factors that help you do your work as well. 

Calendaring Your Checklist

After you have your three columns, take out your calendar, preferably in monthly format. Working backwards from the due date, look at your checklist—how many can you do in a day? Once you’ve mapped out the tasks on your calendar, you can also put it into whatever tool works for you. Digital options are great, but you can also use a daily planner (or both). For juggling different multi-step tasks at the same time, agenda planners color coded by class or project can be really helpful. You can also use stickers or symbols—whatever visual system helps you keep track. 

In the materials column, you’ll need the text, your laptop, your assignment, your checklist, and anything else that is necessary for you. Make sure that you have fulfilled each of the requirements, indicated in the “done” column. Once that is complete, you can “get done” and submit the essay. That last step is crucial! Sometimes students may complete their work and forget to turn it in.

Tips for Addressing Anxiety As It Arises

Getting in the habit of thinking about tasks this way and taking a moment to plan the work and work the plan, even for really small assignments, can lower anxiety. If you as a parent/guardian see your child in an anxious state, you can show them how they can map their work for themselves, so that they begin moving forward and building confidence. This approach can be applied to anything that feels overwhelming for your child.

I also encourage children to share what they’re working on with task break-down with their teachers and advisors. You can take photos of the whiteboards and calendars. Then, if your child begins to feel overwhelmed in class, they can remind themselves, and the teacher will have that tool at their disposal as well. It’s also helpful to remind them that they are doing this task management every day, whether they know it or not! 

Planning as a Family

I encourage families to explore lots of different types of shared planners and journals — make it fun and set aside time to do it together. Teenagers are often more adept at technology than adults; encourage them to explore apps with you. It’s a good idea to play with different formats, and don’t give up until you land on the right one. It’s important to find a system that works and that you can maintain, even with children as young as elementary school. With habit formation, the earlier you start, the more likely it is to stick and become automatic, which builds confidence and reduces anxiety!