The 10 Planning Skills Every Child Should Learn
After you complete an assessment of your child’s executive functioning skills, note that planning skills may look different depending on your child’s age, their skill level, and their experience with independent planning. These skills describe progression, including beginner, intermediate, and advanced executive functioning tasks. Focus on identifying where your child needs support right now, and then gradually expanding to more difficult executive functioning goals.
How to identify an end goal
Start by encouraging your child to identify the end goal of simple tasks. Ask them about the end goal of putting away belongings (“so the room is clean”) or of daily living tasks like going to the car wash (“so the car gets clean”). Ensuring a learner can identify the end goal of a task is a prerequisite skill for learning to plan the intermediate steps.
How to identify the main idea vs. minor details
Some teens and adults with unique learning needs get hung up in the details of planning and miss the ‘big picture’ or the main idea. Before beginning to work on executive skills like planning, you may need to focus on boosting the communication skill of articulating the central concept vs. minor details. Use familiar movies, video games, and books to talk about main ideas; then move on to the main idea vs. small details on scheduled daily activities.
How to use a checklist
Hundreds of different sources cite the value of using checklists. From the United States military to Fortune 500 business success, humans from all walks of life find value in creating a list of tasks and visually marking them off when completed. It seems like a simple concept, yet many individuals with unique learning needs struggle to create checklists independently and use them functionally. Start by practicing how to use a checklist with the steps of familiar tasks. Then graduate to using a list of steps with new responsibilities. Then, once your child can independently check off steps, move to the next one, start working on creating checklists.
How to order simple activities
As part of using checklists above, you may need first to teach your learner how to order the steps of simple activities. It’s challenging to teach planning skills if your learner struggles to know which actions go in what order. Have your child write out the steps or use visual cue cards to order the steps of everyday activities (i.e., getting a car wash, preparing a favorite meal, ordering in the drive-through). Have your learner focus on explaining and understanding the cause-effect relationship when sequencing steps. It can go a long way to help learners understand planning skills if they can also articulate why steps should go in a specific order.
How to use a calendar/planner
Once a child can demonstrate the order of a task, and use a checklist to complete steps in order, start to introduce the concepts of time and pre-planning tasks. For many teens and adults, it can be helpful to start with a daily calendar first, focusing on mapping out the steps for one day rather than overwhelming them with multiple days or weeks of tasks.
As a reminder, we’ve developed hundreds of different calendar/planner systems because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Observe for several days and get a sense of how your learner uses a calendar most effectively as a tool to stay on track. Does it make sense for it to be on a mobile device? Paper and pencil? It’s it helpful to sync with your own calendar to share updates, changes, and reminders? Choose a calendar or planner tool that’s most likely to help your learner succeed, not necessarily the one that you prefer.
How to set reminders
As your learner masters the order of steps and using a calendar or planner tool, start teaching the value of reminders as a planning tool. Teach your teen or young adult to be more planful by setting smartphone reminders or using a well-placed note. Encourage them to try several different options and provide support and praise when they indicate a reminder was helpful. If your learner misses a critical task or deadline, instead of a reprimand, use it as an opportunity to teach reminders.
How to use visual maps, drawings, and diagrams
Now that your learner has more experience with planning concrete, well-defined tasks, it’s a good time to start working on planning tasks without clear steps. One strategy shown to help enhance executive functioning is creating visuals, including mind maps, drawings, and diagrams. These visuals can help create order from undefined or less structured activities. They can also be helpful when needing to prioritize tasks or plan what to do next.
Fun Ways to Promote a Child’s Planning Ability
While it may seem daunting at first, there are many fun ways to set up the planning stage of a task with your child. The suggestions outlined below are just a few of the fun ways you can teach or reinforce planning skills with your child at home.
Help your child learn to take responsibility for future events in a fun and engaging way by having a family calendar in the home. Allow the child to personalize the calendar with doodles, stickers and writing down their events themselves. If they are too young to write themselves, sit down and write the events out with them. These events could include extra-curricular playdates, sleepovers, deadlines, birthdays, etc.
Have various checklists around the house for the child to help assist them in activities or routines they may struggle with (i.e., morning routine, doing laundry, etc.). Graphic organizers are another wonderful tool to help promote children’s plans. It provides a creative way for the child to identify the steps needed to achieve the desired outcome or reach a goal. Graphic organizers can help the child navigate tasks required both in the classroom and at home more easily. With Halloween around the corner, you can even create a checklist with your child to help them prepare for carving pumpkins or creating a step-by-step Halloween craft (or even their costume!).
Baking or cooking with your child is a fun way to improve planning skills. The recipe ingredients and instructions act as a natural “checklist” or “graphic organizer” that helps you achieve the end goal. To simplify this for younger kids, create a checklist that includes the steps necessary to be successful in cooking and baking (i.e., turn the oven on, gather ingredients, mix ingredients, place on pan, put in over, set timer, etc.). Visual checklists that use pictures instead of words for younger children can also be incredibly useful!
Board and card games that require some strategy can be an excellent way of promoting planning skills in your child. With these, they have to identify the steps that will help them achieve their goal of winning. If the planning ability does not come naturally to them at first, turn the experience into a teaching opportunity. Educate them on identifying the steps necessary to win. Then, continue to play the game regularly. Over time, with repeated experiences, the child should be able to identify what steps they should take on their own. For younger children, the board game “Trouble” or the card game “Uno” are great games to play to promote planning skills. For older children, board games like “Monopoly” or “Life” would be great resources as well.
Have your child plan an event with your assistance. Your child will learn how to take on future responsibilities and the steps required to keep those around them entertained. Maybe the child can plan a family outing. Have the child decide what activities the family will do together and how the family will get from “point A” to “point B”. Your child could also plan a sleepover with their friends and decide what activities the friend group will do and how they will get set up.
There are many ways to improve your child’s planning skills. Get creative and work with your child to make these strategies as fun as possible by involving their interests! For example, if your child loves cars, work together to create a planning chart/checklist that has a Hot Wheels theme. If your child loves animals, help them plan a family outing to a petting zoo. You can use your child’s interests as positive reinforcement or a reward when they achieve a goal through planning. You can also incorporate your child’s interests into the activities listed above to help develop their planning skills to keep them interested and engaged.