Why kids with executive function challenges have trouble with planning

By Kate Kelly

Why Kids With Executive Functioning Issues Have Trouble With Planning, kid packing a backpack

At a glance

  • Kids with executive function issues often have trouble with planning.

  • Planning is a complex skill involving the three main executive function skills.

  • Trouble with planning impacts all aspects of life, including learning.

Planning might seem like a natural process when you have to get something done. But for kids who have trouble with executive function, it can be a big challenge. Things often don’t get done or even started, no matter how large or small the task.

Learn more about why many kids with weak executive function skills struggle with planning.

What trouble with planning looks like

Imagine: It’s 11 p.m. and your child has a paper due in the morning. But there are only a few sentences on the screen, and panic has set in. After staring at the computer for an hour, your child quickly throws together a few paragraphs and then heads to bed.

It might be natural to chalk this behavior up to procrastination or lack of motivation. But what you might really be seeing is your child’s difficulty with planning.

Planning is the ability to set a goal, think of the steps needed to achieve it, and decide on the order of the steps. It’s a complex process that requires all three areas of executive function.

Many people have an easy time planning. But people with weak executive skills may not know where to begin, or what has to happen next in order to reach their goal. So, they don’t get through tasks, even if they’re able to do each step individually.

Trouble with planning affects all areas of life. But you may notice the impact most at school, especially as your child gets to the higher grades and has to figure out how to get work done on time.

The role of executive function skills

Each of the key areas of executive function plays a role in the ability to plan. A breakdown in any one of them can result in poor planning.

Flexible thinking: Kids who struggle with flexible thinking may have trouble coming up with the right steps to achieve a goal. They might get stuck on one step and be unable to think of additional ones or alternatives.

Kids may also have a hard time coming up with new strategies or switching from one strategy to another. If a strategy works for one type of activity, kids may want to use it for everything. Say your child likes studying with flashcards. That might be ideal for a vocabulary test. But it’s not good for an exam about a book’s major themes.

Working memory: Making a plan requires keeping multiple things in mind at once. Kids with weak working memory skills may have trouble remembering the end goal while also thinking about the individual steps it will take to get there.

Putting steps in the right sequence can also be a challenge. You need to remember what came before and what still needs to happen as you put the steps in the right order.

Self-control: It takes self-control to complete all the steps of the plan or do them in the right order. Kids who struggle with this skill may impulsively decide to skip the outline and dive into writing the paper. The result is a paper that’s missing required sections.

Making a plan and executing it — actually doing the steps — are two different things. For instance, kids may have a great plan in place for doing a book report. But they may not act on it if they can’t resist the temptation to play video games. It takes self-control to step away from the screen and execute the plan.

Ways to help your child with planning

Trouble with executive function is a lifelong challenge. But there are a number of ways you can help your child get better at it.

Ask open-ended questions. Encouraging kids to reflect can help them become better at flexible thinking. When your child is starting a new project, ask questions like:

  • “Did that strategy work the last time you tried it? What might work better?”
  • “How much lead time do you need to get it done? Do you think you’ve left enough time?”
  • “You said you’d have the flashcards done by Wednesday but that’s the same night as soccer. What can you adjust?”

Help break down tasks. Have your child use a calendar or planner to map out school assignments and activities. Together, write down the steps with timelines. Create a checklist to mark off tasks as they are completed to help your child stay on track.

Look into accommodations. Your child might be able to get accommodations at school. The teacher might break the task into chunks and give them each a deadline, for instance.

Key takeaways

  • Flexible thinking, working memory, and self-control are key skills required for planning.

  • Planning skills become increasingly important as kids get older.

  • To strengthen planning skills, ask open-ended questions and help your child break down tasks.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD is a professor and director of research at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.