Derrick is a 12-year-old seventh grader who is a bit of a puzzle to his parents and teachers. His social studies teacher report that he is “hot and cold.” Sometimes, he sits quietly and doodles in his notebook, not saying much at all. But at other times, he is an eager participant in class discussion, coming up with many original comments. 

In fact, some of his comments are so original that they seem to have little to do with the topic of discussion. For example, recently, when the class was talking about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, Derrick commented that the Washington Monument is being renovated. After class, his teacher asked why he thought of that, and Derrick said, “Well, we were talking about Abraham Lincoln ending slavery, and I started thinking about seeing the Lincoln Memorial on my vacation this summer, and I remembered seeing that the Washington Monument had scaffolding on it.

Derrick’s math teacher is particularly perplexed. She says, “Derrick has a good understanding of math concepts. When you talk with him about how to solve problems, he gets the process.” Math is actually Derrick’s favorite academic subject; he likes to help his mom do calculations, e.g., at the grocery store. However, he often makes mistakes, because he misreads math symbols, for example, variables in equations or signs such as “+” and “x.” 

One thing that Derrick does very well is to “look into the future.” His parents note that he often figures out how stories and television shows will end. His art teacher has described his ability to picture how his work will look before he starts. Similarly, Derrick is good at “looking back,” using his past experiences to figure out the best way to proceed. For example, in science class, he recently asked the teacher if he could switch partners for a lab activity, explaining, “last week all we did was goof around, and we didn’t do our work.”


  • Good previewing—he can “look into the future” to make predictions and visualize outcomes (e.g., television shows, art projects, etc.)
  • Good reinforcement control—he can “look into the past” and make decisions based on past experiences and results (e.g., science class)
  • At times, he makes many original comments in class
  • He has a good understanding of math concepts

Areas in Need of Improvement:

  • Consistency control—Derrick seems to be having trouble keeping his mental energy flowing at an even rate, so he seems “hot and cold” (e.g., doodling versus participating)
  • Cognitive activation—he has a great imagination, but sometimes his mind makes connections between too much information, causing him to get off-track (e.g., tangential comments in class)
  • Depth of processing—he has a tendency to gloss over little details, even though he understands the bigger picture or concept (e.g., math errors)


  • Mathematics—in addition to being good at math, he enjoys it and uses his abilities outside of school (like helping his mother when shopping)  

Possible Management Plan:

It is important to speak with Derrick about his inconsistent mental energy supply. He needs to develop an understanding of when his energy is strong and when it is weak. Calling Derrick “lazy” or “unmotivated” would not be useful; in fact, such an approach might be harmful. When talking to Derrick, emphasizing his strengths, such as math and previewing, is just as important, if not more important than discussing areas he needs to improve.

Leveraging Strengths and Affinities:

  • Investigate Derrick’s other areas of affinity and interest. For example, judging from his shared memories, he seemed to enjoy his family trip. He also seemed interested in science content. Explore these topics further. Encourage Derrick to share other areas of interest, so that these interests can be incorporated into his management plan. 
  • Encourage Derrick to use his previewing skills to visualize his performance right before an activity or class session.  By creating a picture of himself participating in the class discussion and focusing on the task at hand, he will, hopefully, make that behavior more likely.

Accommodations and Interventions:

  • Derrick’s peers may help him become more involved when his mental energy is low. For example, a class “buddy” might prompt him when he seems to be in a “cold” period.
  • Derrick might also be able to monitor his own attention, especially if he keeps a log to track of his level of mental energy. At incremental times throughout the day, he can record his behavior as being ‘on’ or ‘off’ in terms of mental energy. Then, at the end of the day, he can sit down with the teacher to reflect on his patterns and performance. With Derrick’s ability to learn from experience, this heightened self-awareness will likely have a positive impact on his attention levels. 
  • Derrick may need some sort of written or verbal cues to help remind him of the topic at hand. These cues might help him keep his ideas and comments more closely linked to classroom discussions. 
  • When Derrick makes a comment that seems tangential, ask him to explain the connection to the topic at hand.  Setting a comment quota (i.e., a set number of times he may contribute during a lesson or period) might also be helpful.
  • Derrick may need specific strategies to help him remember to review details before engaging his strong conceptual understanding. For example, in math, the first step in an assignment should be to go through problems, highlighting function words or signs, so that he doesn’t gloss over the little details. Having done this, Derrick can begin working on solving the problems. 
  • Encourage Derrick to develop the habit of self-monitoring, or checking his work both during, and immediately after a task. For example, encourage him to look specifically for his typical mistakes in math, e.g., mixing up the sign or skipping a variable.