Six Tips For Helping Complex Learners Manage Routines

Most of us have a host of routines we follow throughout the day. You probably wake up around the same time on weekdays. Maybe you prefer to skip breakfast or you always have oatmeal. You might have a standing meeting on Tuesdays or go to the gym after work. At the end of the night you read in bed or you’re someone who falls asleep watching the news.

Whatever the case, you understand the structure of your days and these routines are second nature. You don’t have to put a lot of thought into how things will go.

But imagine if you did have to think about it. Imagine if every day you weren’t sure what to do first. Should I brush my teeth or make toast? Should I find something to wear or make my bed? Do I need these papers for work? Am I supposed to be somewhere early today?

Suddenly your world would become confusing and hard to manage. Everything would require a decision, and every decision might feel like the wrong one. The whole process would overwhelm you and before you even got out the door you’d be exhausted.

Welcome to the world of a Complex Learner. As individuals who can be anxious, distracted, or rigid, Complex Learners are especially in need of routine to make their lives predictable and safe. At the same time, their interferences to learning get in the way of establishing and maintaining this structure. Here are a few ways parents and teachers can help:

1) Create a predictable schedule.  This seems obvious but it’s something that needs to be clearly communicated and consistently implemented. Have set times for waking up, leaving the house for school, homework, dinner, and bedtime. Schedule video game time, chores, quiet time, or whatever other activities happen regularly for your child. A daily schedule in school that clearly spells out class subjects, transitions, what happens when and what teachers the student will be working with makes for a smoother day.

2) Establish the plan. The steps necessary to complete a task or activity aren’t always obvious to Complex Learners. By breaking things down and letting kids know what comes first, second, third, and so on, you help create a manageable routine. Depending on the age of the child, this could include anything from brushing your teeth, transitioning to another classroom in school, packing a back pack, cleaning the bedroom, going to dinner at a restaurant, attending soccer practice, managing a play date or tackling homework.

3) Preview. This is such an easy thing to do and it makes a big difference for Complex Learners. By going over what is going to happen before it happens, kids get a chance to process things without the pressure of carrying out the plan. This takes away the anxiety of a new situation. It also shows that we’re all in this together and everyone is on the same page. For example, if you preview a visit from grandparents you would let a child know when they were arriving, what you were going to do during the visit, any behaviors or issues you anticipate, and when they are going to leave. In school you might preview field trips, class visitors, or picture day so students have a good understanding of what is going to happen and what is expected of them.

4) Use visual supports. This could be anything from a central calendar that the whole family uses, to a daily schedule written out and posted in your child’s room. Creating a checklist with each step of a routine spelled out makes tasks less daunting and allows kids to focus their mental energy on achieving the goal. This could be for a block of time (e.g., what has to happen during the morning routine) or for a specific activity (e.g., steps involved in brushing your teeth or what goes in your backpack to bring to school). Depending on your child’s age and learning preferences, these lists can be written or can be created using pictures.  It also helps to carry a small white board with you to write or draw out expectations on the go or if something new comes up.

5) Timing is everything. Most Complex Learners have a poor sense of time and sequencing. It may take them an extraordinarily long time to get dressed or they may have no understanding of how long a homework assignment will take. Using timers and clocks is a great way to help kids learn how long tasks should take and helps set limits. A particularly helpful tool is a Time Timer. This clock uses a red disk to show the passage of time in a visual way.  It can be extremely helpful for home, school, in the car and on vacation.  Time Timers come in a variety of sizes to fit a variety of needs. You can find their products at

6) Teach Flexibility. It’s important to balance the need for following set routines with the ability to adapt to change. Not everything is predictable and flexibility is a skill that Complex Learners need to be taught. Talk about flexibility directly and point out instances when your child or people around them are being flexible. Use unstructured time as a way to give kids a sense of control over their own time, but provide some set choices so the options don’t feel overwhelming.

Depending on a child’s needs and personality, some of these strategies might work better than others. Use a variety of supports to create structure for Complex Learners and as they grow and change you can make adaptations or try something new. Adults, after all, need to learn these things too, and modeling flexibility is a great way to show kids how to manage routines.

Anna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners. 

Understanding My Child’s Complex Learning Profile: A Guide to Evaluations

Something’s not right. Your child is smart, inquisitive, but struggling. Maybe he’s having trouble communicating, or consistently overreacts when things don’t go as planned, or is falling behind in school. Maybe she shuts down in a group or can’t follow directions or isn’t learning to read. You know all kids develop at different rates and in different ways, but you are concerned that these challenges aren’t just a bump in the road. Instead, they appear to be a persistent problem that could impact your child’s overall well-being.

How do you understand what is going on and more importantly, how do you create a plan to address your child’s difficulties? Having your child evaluated is a critical step to help answer questions and provide you with the best course of action.

Depending on the age of the child and the presenting behavior, you may receive a recommendation from a pediatrician or teacher for a particular type of testing, or you may decide yourself that you need more information and seek out professional help. Here are a few things to keep in mind along the way.

1) The evaluation process is just that – a process. You may be involved with a number of professionals who are looking at various aspects of your child with the goal of understanding the whole picture. This could include anything from a physical exam to classroom observations to specific psychological and educational testing.

2) Ask questions. What tests are being used? Will the evaluator be available to observe your child in the classroom or talk to your child’s teacher or educational team? How long will it take to get back the test results and the evaluator’s report? The more you know about the process, the more you will be able to help prepare your child and get the information you need.

3) Consider a neuropsychological evaluation. If your school agrees to an evaluation, your child will receive educational testing by a special education teacher or learning specialist. Your child may also meet with a school psychologist or social worker for IQ testing and a social/emotional assessment. But for Complex Learners, neuropsychological testing is important. A neuropsychologist is trained in the cognitive functions that impact behaviors and will be able to identify specific components of your child’s learning profile. This will give you a roadmap to understand school performance and help predict what your child will struggle with and where they will do well.

4) Understand who pays. If you are working with your school district they will cover costs and determine the details of how the evaluation is happening. In general, however, schools will not cover the cost of a neuropsychological exam, so you would need to find a private evaluator. Neuropsychological evaluations can cost thousands of dollars, although many insurance companies will cover part of this expense. Weighing the cost-benefit of this option is important. A quality neuropsychological evaluation, while expensive, can uncover the right diagnosis for your child, and the best interventions to help overcome difficulties at home and school.

5) Get a plan, not a label. The goal of an evaluation is to understand the whole child and create the best course of action to address specific difficulties. You may be worried that a diagnosis will label your child and lead to poor self-esteem, but the right diagnosis can be a relief. It can give you the information needed to ensure your child receives the supports that work. It can give you the language you need to talk about your child’s strengths and challenges and help your child understand who they are as a learner and a person – a wonderful, unique, capable person who can achieve his hopes and dreams.

Anna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners. 

Complex Learners: What to Look For

complex learnersAs parents and educators we understand that one size does not fit all. Your child might approach social situations slowly while someone else’s child jumps right in. One student learns best with verbal prompts while another does better with visual cues. Right out of the gate, children display preferences for how they take in and communicate information. Our brains are all “wired” differently.

But what happens when these differences are difficult to understand and interfere in a child’s ability to learn and negotiate his or her world?

Here are 5 areas where children’s behaviors may demonstrate underlying learning or sensory differences that create barriers to social and academic progress. Children who demonstrate difficulty in several or all of these areas may be complex learners, requiring strategic, individualized programs to support their engagement with learning.


Getting up and out of bed and ready to face the day is very challenging. Equally difficult may be a bedtime routine that allows for consistent and proper sleep. At the same time interruption of daily routine creates discomfort, anxiety and behavior issues. Transitions between one activity and the next, introducing new people and changing plans can all spark resistance and may even lead to “meltdowns.”


Children may not get invited to play dates or birthday parties, or may be frequently teased, even bullied. Not understanding the rules of games, talking too loudly or too quietly, misinterpreting social cues and exhibiting poor conflict resolution and coping strategies make it very hard to initiate and maintain friendships. Children may interrupt, display frustration, and generally “wear people down,” or they may retreat and become extremely shy and unresponsive.


Bathing, combing hair, brushing teeth, and getting dressed create conflict and resistance. Children may be particularly bothered by the texture of a sweater, how certain socks feel, or a tag at the back of a shirt. They may be very sensitive to temperature, often feeling too hot or too cold. Children may also have an intense aversion to certain foods based on smell or texture, and be very picky eaters.


Initiating and completing tasks seems overwhelming, so there may be a lot of struggles with homework and household chores. Children may have very messy bedrooms, closets, and lockers. Following directions is problematic, and children have trouble remembering more than one direction at a time or remembering the order of a sequence of tasks. They may have trouble with focus, and get distracted by noise and visual information.


Reading, math and writing can all present significant challenges for Complex Learners. They may have trouble with specific concepts such as sounding out words, sequencing numbers, or understanding spelling rules. In addition there may be more general problems with retrieval and articulation of information. As a result, children may perform below grade level, or have gaps in their understanding and knowledge base.

Complex Learners may be anxious, distractible, rigid, loud or shy, but they are also creative, clever, funny, passionate and persistent. Our work as parents and educators is to understand more about how they are “wired” and what supports will help them achieve their educational potential.

Anna Johnson is Head of School at The Wolf School in East Providence, a K-8 private special education school serving Complex Learners.

This is part of an ongoing sponsored content series by GoLocal in partnership with The Wolf School.