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Jan 23, 2017

Have you ever listened to your child lament, “I just can’t think of what to write”? Perhaps you have heard your child utter, in the mode of a 19th century Romantic poet, “I’mPia Cisternino, Executive Function Coach at Beyond BookSmart waiting for inspiration.”  

As a parent, you may find yourself thinking, “My child is smart and articulate, so why are writing assignments so stressful?” Writing is a complex task that requires a student to access multiple executive function skills. To be able to write an essay, a student must be able to 1) attend to and comprehend the teacher’s instructions, 2) create a plan for the form and content of an essay, and 3) follow through with that plan. When you think about the processing and planning skills that a student must integrate in order to compose an essay, it makes sense that even a small writing assignment can cause frustration.  

Many people, including students diagnosed with ADHD, students with high-functioning ASD, and students who are twice exceptional (intellectually gifted students with special education needs) find that executive function skills are far from second nature. But when equipped with the proper tools and support, the same students can become effective writers. A graphic organizer is one of the tools that executive function coaches use to enable students to organize and plan their writing.   

We all use templates in our daily lives. Whether you’re balancing your checkbook or composing an email, a template helps you to keep your information organized. Similarly, a graphic organizer functions as a template, formatted to keep a student’s writing organized.  For students who feel overwhelmed by a writing task, graphic organizers provide a way to break up the task into clear and manageable parts. It’s like a road map to show them where to go. Many students find that once they learn how to organize an essay with a graphic organizer, writing becomes easier and much less stressful.

There are many different types of graphic organizers. So, one may ask, which are most effective? Just as your calendar template serves a different purpose from your resume template, the type of template a student needs depends upon the type of writing that has been assigned.

According to the Common Core, students are expected to become proficient with the following types of writing: 1) opinion/argumentative/persuasive writing, 2) informative/ explanatory writing, and 3) narrative writing.

The organizers listed below, the deliciously named OREO, BLT, and Ice Cream graphic organizers, are formatted to help students in elementary school organize their opinion writing, informative writing, and narrative writing, respectively.  

Opinion Writing

The OREO Graphic Organizer lays out the basic structure for an opinion essay. OREO stands for Opinion, Reason, Example, and Opinion restated.

Informative Writing

The BLT Graphic Organizer helps a student to plan a single, informative paragraph. The paragraph must include an introduction, a thesis statement, supporting sentences, and a conclusion.  

Narrative Writing

The Ice Cream Graphic Organizer is a template for narrative writing. It includes the basic components of a narrative essay: characters, setting, problem/event, and resolution.

Whether or not a student has a formal diagnosis of a learning difference, the truth is that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Any approach to supporting executive function skills should capitalize on a student’s areas of strength, in order to improve their areas of weakness. For instance, if a student demonstrates high abilities in the visual spatial domain, then it makes sense to use a strategy that visualizes the writing process. These organizers allow young writers to visualize a framework for the kinds of information they will need to include in a given paragraph or essay. As students get older and writing demands become more complex, the structure of graphic organizers expands as well. As executive function coaches, we see that even the most gifted student can benefit from a structured approach to the art of writing.


Please see this page for comprehensive information about Executive Function in Elementary students.


Pia Cisternino, M.A., M.S. is an executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart and a speech-language pathologist, with over a decade of experience working with students diagnosed with ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, and learning disabilities. She received her B.A. from Tufts University, where she majored in English and Italian, and continued to study literature at Johns Hopkins University, where she received an Master’s degree in Creative Writing and Poetry. She went on to receive a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. A strong advocate for students with special education needs, Pia founded and facilitated a support group for parents of 2e (twice exceptional) children, and served for two years as co-chair of the Parent Advisory Council on Special Education (C-PAC) within her local school district.. Pia’s approach to coaching centers around enabling students to build skills by utilizing their own individual strengths. 

About the Author

Pia Cisternino

Pia Cisternino, M.A., M.S. is an executive function coach at Beyond BookSmart and a speech-language pathologist, with over a decade of experience working with students diagnosed with ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, and learning disabilities. She received her B.A. from Tufts University, where she majored in English and Italian, and continued to study literature at Johns Hopkins University, where she received an Master’s degree in Creative Writing and Poetry. She went on to receive a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. A strong advocate for students with special education needs, Pia founded and facilitated a support group for parents of 2e (twice exceptional) children, and served for two years as co-chair of the Parent Advisory Council on Special Education (C-PAC) within her local school district.. Pia’s approach to coaching centers around enabling students to build skills by utilizing their own individual strengths. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and children.

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