What Are Planning Skills in Childhood?
Planning skills in childhood include the ability to “make a plan,” that is, the ability to set a goal, identify a sequence of actions to reach the goal, and then carry out that sequence of steps.
Planning is an executive function that refers to the ability to develop strategies to solve problems or to get tasks done. Each step needs to be carried out to reach the goal.
In child development, this skill begins developing in late preschool years and is honed in elementary school. Of course, these skills are refined as children get older, and they are not perfect from the start. A very significant challenge in planning can be hard on a child and their parents beginning in elementary grades.
Examples of situations in childhood that involve planning
- Planning is necessary for writing tasks in school. Children who fail to outline their work, use a graphic organizer, or think through what they want to say tend to struggle with writing.
- For a science project, a child may need to identify a hypothesis, get it approved by the teacher, collect data, run the experiment, write the results, and make their conclusions.
- Children who have trouble planning might struggle with connect-the-dots puzzles, card games, checkers, and chess.
- Planning skills are needed for organization in school. Children need to be able to keep track of assignments that are due and put together a plan for how to complete them.
- Planning is required to bring the appropriate materials to class and turn assignments in on time. Messy desks, cluttered bedrooms, and disorganized lockers may also result from poor planning skills.
- Your older child may not remember birthday parties or get mixed up when making plans with friends for the weekend. Your child may have a hard time using a calendar.
Key Components of Planning Skills in Childhood
Causes of a lack of planning skills in childhood include difficulty with the component skills involved.
Planning is a general term that can be broken down into various component skills. If your child is having difficulty with these component skills, planning will be hard.
- Establishing a mental set: means understanding the rules of the game or the directions for an activity
- Cognitive flexibility: refers to the ability to shift fluidly between activities, problem-solving approaches, and ideas. An example is stopping playing your video game so that you can come to dinner
- Shifting attention: refers to the ability to change from one focus to another. An example is looking away from the computer screen so that you can hear the teacher talking
- Sequencing: means developing an order to the steps that need to be taken to complete a task
- Monitoring: is also critical to planning. For example, to accomplish a goal, individuals need to be able to see how far along they are in the process and assess what remaining steps are left before reaching the goal. Monitoring also involves gauging improvement
- Sustained attention: being able to continue paying attention to complete the task is the final component of planning
Symptoms of Poor Planning Skills in Children
- Struggles to complete tasks systematically and effectively: your child is not able to outline their work, use a graphic organizer, or think through their assignment
- Struggles with connect-the-dots puzzles or crossword puzzles: your child does not have an easy time with connect-the-dots puzzles, card games, checkers, and chess.
- Not doing assignments: your child is not able to keep track of assignments, not able to put a plan together for how to complete assignments, and not able to keep track of due dates
- Disorganized: your child has a messy desk, cluttered bedroom, disorganized locker. They fail to follow daily routines or the morning routine
- Trouble with multi-step directions: in writing, for example, they may struggle because of the requirement that paragraphs be written in a logical or sequential order
- Fails to follow multi-step directions: your child forges ahead without thinking it through, get lost without specific instructions for each step of a problem
- Trouble setting goals: has difficulty with goal setting, checklists, and just planning their life
Causes of Poor Planning Skills in Children
- ADHD: children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder often struggle with executive functioning skills like planning, staying organized, shifting focus, initiating and inhibiting responses
- Autism Spectrum Disorder: children with ASD are more likely to have ADHD. They also commonly have trouble with executive functioning. Indeed, not all children on the spectrum are poor planners, but this symptom is a common one that often occurs with inattention
- Depression: children and teens who are depressed are often poor planners. They tend to lack the energy to take on complex tasks and tend to seem slower and less engaged across the board
- Subclinical traits of ADHD and difficulty with executive functions: a child may not meet full criteria for ADHD but have some traits that include difficulty with planning or other executive functions. Some personality traits align more with planning and organization, while others do not
- Other cognitive causes or challenges: planning occurs in the brain’s prefrontal cortex as other executive functions do. Anything medical or cognitive that impacts brain function and development could impair planning
- Substance abuse: substance abuse of any kind can have an impact on functioning, particularly on those executive functions
What to Do About Poor Planning Skills in Childhood
When considering what to do about a lack of planning skills in childhood, it may be helpful to use an example.
Let’s imagine a child who is trying to do a connect-the-dots puzzle.
- First, the child would need to establish a mental set, that is, to understand the objective and rules of the game. Thus, they would have to know that the dots are to be connected to make a shape.
- Second, the child would have to be able to visually scan through the numbers and plan out where to start and how to proceed.
- Third, the child would have to be able to track or monitor their progress toward the goal by seeing what number they are on and what number comes next in the sequence.
- Fourth, they would have to shift from one number to the next.
- Finally, the child would have to sustain attention long enough to complete the puzzle.
In this small example, it is clear that planning involves a lot of simultaneous skills that are required to work together well to get the job done. Any break in the chain can result in a frustrating experience in which the final project is incomplete or incorrect.
How to help children make plans for school projects
Let’s think about planning a project for school. Here are steps and what parents and teachers can do to help teach the child to plan.
To establish a mental set, a child needs to understand the rules and objectives of the task. This process may include
- A visual demonstration of the task
- Written step by step instructions
- A statement of the end goal of the task that is agreed upon by parent and child or teacher and student
To visualize and plan how to start and proceed, a child needs to develop steps. Maybe the steps are:
- Choose my topic
- Turn in an outline of my presentation
- Give the teacher draft one of my paper
- Complete my video or visual presentation
- Turn in the final draft of the paper
- Present to the class
A calendar that includes each step on a specific due date would help.
To track and monitor progress, a child needs to use the steps and calendar (if this task is a long-term one) to do the steps and check them off as they work.
Ways to do track progress include
- Daily email
- Google document
To shift, a child may need some support and scaffolding in reminders from a teacher or parent. A gradual release model works best, whereby teachers and parents reduce support as the child gains skills. Rushing late assignments to school on your child’s behalf or regularly emailing for an extension for your child generally leads to poor outcomes.
To sustain attention to the task, a child may need
- A set schedule (30 minute time chunks)
- A to-do list for the session
- A quiet space
- Regular breaks
- Check-in from parent or teacher
Finally, at the end, offer so much praise and celebration because this is not easy for all children. The more practice your child gets, the better they will be at planning.
When to Seek Help for Planning Skills in Children
If your child is struggling with planning, and the suggestion in the What to Do section above did not help, they will likely need some support, particularly in managing their schoolwork. As children get older and have more to organize and juggle, it is never a bad idea to put support in place.
If you have concerns that your child has a bigger problem that may be contributing to planning difficulties, an evaluation can certainly be a helpful next step.
Professional Resources for Planning Skills in Childhood
- School Psychologist: to help with learning problems, planning problems, organization skills. Consulting with a school psychologist or therapist may be helpful to establish a set of strategies and routines that will help get your child on track. Call or email your child’s school to reach the school psychologist
- Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to help with concerns about executive functions and attention. Sometimes having a comprehensive evaluation that includes a look at executive functioning can help parents understand where to start in supporting their child. Licensed psychologists in clinical, school, counseling, and neuropsychological domains can sometimes offer this testing.
- School Counselor: to help with planning and organization, particularly in middle school. Work with a child to get organized, to keep a calendar, and to communicate with the classroom teachers
- Executive Functioning Coach or Tutor: to help a child outside of school in maintaining a calendar, approaching work and assignments, breaking tasks into manageable steps, and staying on track
Similar Challenges to Poor Planning Skills in Childhood
- Poor Metacognition: may struggle with the ability to assess progress toward a goal
- Poor Inhibition: may have trouble thinking before acting or stopping oneself
- Inflexibility: may not tolerate change or may rigidly adhere to routines
- Poor Organization of materials: may lose things, be forgetful, or have a messy locker and binder
- Inattention: may have trouble paying attention or shifting attention when planning
Book Resources on Planning Skills in Childhood
Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but Scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.
Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2013). Smart but Scattered for Teens: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping Teens reach their potential.
Lewis, Jeanne & Calvery, Margaret, & Lewis, Hal (2002). Brainstars — Brain injury: Strategies for teams and re-education for students.
Reid, Robert & Leinemann, Torri Ortiz (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, 1st edition (what works for special-need learners).
Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.
Brain injury alliance. Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado. The Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado is the go-to resource for help and services for survivors of an injury to the brain, their families, and providers. http://biacolorado.org/
Cook, Julia (2016). Planning isn’t my priority… And making priorities isn’t in my plans.