“One of my students has difficulty with transitions. I’m concerned about one of my fourth graders. When we switch focus, she can’t seem to get her supplies (and her head) together for the new subject. It can take her up to 15 minutes to settle in. How can I help?”

Dr. Crandall: I can understand how frustrating this situation must be for you. It sounds like your student’s failure to meet expectations is not on purpose—and that’s important. Children generally want to do the right thing; if they are not able to do so, there are usually reasons. Identifying the reasons behind her disorganization can help you target your interventions.

I’ve found that when a student is unsuccessful in a task, it’s often because she hasn’t internalized the structures necessary to succeed. You can help her by being more explicit about what she needs to accomplish.

To start, meet with the student to talk about the different aspects of transitions. Make a list of items that she needs for each part of her day and assign each subject or portion of the day a color. Together, create a legend to remind her which color goes with which subject and materials. Then, when it is time for science, for example, just remind her to look at her green list and make sure she has everything she needs. Many of the directions during a student’s day are verbal, so try to add as many visual cues as possible to support the verbal ones.

Lastly, confer with the student’s parents to assess whether she has similar issues at home. If so, coordinate your efforts—organizing her space at home might help her to be more successful at school.

Q: “I’m worried about a latchkey kid. I know he’s home alone for several hours, and he’s struggling with his work.”

Dr. Crandall: It’s tricky to address concerns like these with parents. I recommend you start with the assumption that your student’s parents are doing the very best they can for their son. Begin by asking to meet in person with the family; a phone call may not convey the respect necessary for such a delicate conversation.

When you do meet, start by asking how the parents think their son is doing in school. Are they aware of his struggles? If so, to what do they attribute them? You might ask questions that will guide them to understand their son needs more supervision. For example, ask, “How much time does your son spend on his homework?” or “Is he consistently able to complete his homework unassisted?”

It may be that the parents simply can’t be at home in the afternoons. If this is the case, discuss ways they can still “be there” (e.g., check-in phone calls) or how they might make alternate plans, such as a homework club or an after-school activity.