Book Review: Smart But Scattered

By Peg Dawson, EdD, and Richard Guare, PhD; 309 pages. Subtitle: The Revolutionary 'Executive Skills' Approach to Helping Kids Reach Their Potential.

The cover of this book boasts that it will boost any child's ability to "get organized, resist impulses, stay focused, use time wisely, plan ahead, follow through on tasks, learn from mistakes, stay in control of emotions, solve problems independently, be resourceful." That's a tall order, but looking at these as executive skills issues rather than bad attitude is the right idea -- whatever your child's particular cognitive abilities.


  • Covers executive skills, which can be a problem for a lot of kids with special needs
  • Gives both general theory and practical advice
  • Quizzes help you pinpoint your child's problems
  • Offers specific steps and charts for 20 common trouble spots
  • Writing is friendly, accessible, and respectful of parents


  • Emphasis on "smart" in the title and text ticks me off
  • Gives minimal consideration to the disabilities that can cause executive skills problems
  • Makes major changes sound easier than they might be for your child
  • If you're scattered yourself, getting through the lengthy text may be a challenge


  • Part I: What Makes Your Child Smart But Scattered
  • 1: How Did Such a Smart Kid End Up So Scattered?
  • 2: Identifying Your Child's Strengths and Weaknesses
  • 3: How Your Own Executive Skill Strengths and Weaknesses Matter
  • 4: Matching the Child to the Task
  • Part II: Laying a Foundation That Can Help
  • 5: Ten Principles for Improving Your Child's Executive Skills
  • 6: Modifying the Environment
  • 7: Teaching Executive Skills Directly
  • 8: Motivating Your Child
  • Part III: Putting It All Together
  • 9: Advance Organizer
  • 10: Ready-Made Plans for Teaching Child to Complete Daily Routines
  • 11: Building Response Inhibition
  • 12: Enhancing Working Memory
  • 13: Improving Emotional Control
  • 14: Strengthening Sustained Attention
  • 15: Teaching Task Initiation
  • 16: Promoting, Planning, and Prioritizing
  • 17: Fostering Organization
  • 18: Instilling Time Management
  • 19: Encouraging Flexibility
  • 20: Increasing Persistence
  • 21: Cultivating Metacognition
  • 22: When What You Do Is Not Enough
  • 23: Working With the School
  • 24: What's Ahead?

Book Review

Right off the bat, right at the title, this book hits one of my pet peeves: using "smart" as code for "not having REAL problems like those OTHER kids." In fact, children with all levels of cognitive ability can have executive skills problems, and the general marketing direction of this book makes me feel that the authors are only interested in the ones who experience this as a bump on the road to Harvard. I'd have loved to have some real consideration of disabilities in which executive-skill problems factor heavily, like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder -- but that's another book.

If you have no such issues with the word "smart," or are "smart" enough yourself to adapt techniques to the developmental level of your own executive-skill struggler, there's a lot to learn here about the degree to which some kids truly don't know how to do things that everyone else takes for granted.

Executive skills are at the root of a lot of learning and behavioral problems, and often get mistaken for hyperactivity or attention deficit or bad attitude or lack of caring. The book has quizzes for pinpointing exactly where your child's blind spots are. (Yours, too.)

Perhaps the most immediately useful part of the book is Chapter 10, which deals with teaching daily routines. The authors provide specific steps and charts for twenty common trouble spots, like bedroom cleaning and homework. You can pick one and get started while you go back and read the rest of the book to learn how to apply the techniques to other areas of difficulty.

The authors suggest starting this work before the teen years and rank some of the information by age level. That's helpful for those of us who need to go by developmental level rather than chronological age and not take book titles too seriously.