Are you constantly repeating the same instructions over and over? Does your child leave their homework and assignments to the last minute? Do school bags come home with crumpled homework and school notes? If your answer is a resounding yes, your child may need some extra support with their planning and organisation skills.
What are planning and organisation skills?
Planning and organisation skills are cognitive processes that come under the umbrella term of executive functioning. Executive functioning describes the group of thinking skills used by people to plan and organise their actions to achieve their goals. We use our executive functioning skills to plan, focus, attend, remember instructions and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
Planning – is the process of thinking about the activities required to reach a desired goal. Organisation – refers to the ability to direct and bring order to the task at hand. Why do some children struggle with these skills? Experts do not know exactly what causes executive functioning difficulties. However, there are some likely causes and contributing factors.
Genetics and hereditary
If other family members have displayed difficulties with planning and organisation skills, it increases the likelihood of children in the family also displaying these difficulties.
Differences in brain structure
The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that controls executive functioning. Researchers are exploring if the size or shape of the prefrontal cortex is different in children with planning and organisation challenges. Executive functioning difficulties is not a sign of low IQ. In fact, most children with executive functioning difficulties display average or above average intelligence.
Differences in brain chemicals
Norepinephrine and dopamine are essential chemicals to support the brain to maintain focus and control impulses. It is thought that the brain in people with executive functioning difficulties may block the use of norepinephrine. When this chemical is blocked, it impacts the child’s ability to attend and control their impulses. This same process is also seen in children with ADHD.
Children with executive functioning issues often have other medical conditions or diagnoses. Children with ADHD, dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder and other neurological conditions often struggle with their executive functioning skills. If a child has difficulty with their executive functioning skills, they may:
- Have difficulty starting and finishing tasks
- Frequently lose items
- Have difficulty keeping their bag/room/desk tidy
- Have difficulty remembering multi-step instructions
- Have difficulty editing their schoolwork
- Struggle to complete tasks in a reasonable timeframe
- May forget to bring home homework
How can I help my child?
The good news is that children can continue to develop and improve in this area.
Tips for home
DEVELOP MORNING AND AFTERNOON ROUTINES
Having a consistent routine can support children to learn how to organise their belongings. For example, every afternoon take shoes off and put in the same place by the front door, unpack bag and put homework/school notes in the same spot on the desk, hang bag on the same door hook.
USE A VISUAL TIMETABLE
Using a timetable for the week supports children to learn how to plan ahead. They can look to the timetable to see what they need to pack in their bag for the day, or when homework is due.
USE A VISUAL SCHEDULE FOR TASKS
Visual schedules can support children to keep on track with what they need to do in the morning/afternoon. Using a schedule reduces the need for you to repeat verbal instructions for each step. Instead, you can refer to the schedule, supporting your child to become more independent with their morning/afternoon jobs.
REWARDS AND INCENTIVES
Using a reward system can provide motivation for your child to learn and implement the visual schedule. Consider what rewards will work best for your family. Rewards do not need to be food based items or toys. Some reward ideas may include screen time or choosing the music on the commute to school, or choosing a fun game or activity for the weekend.
Having items labeled means they are more likely to come back to you if they are misplaced. It also supports your child to locate their items at school.
PREPARE THE NIGHT BEFORE
When possible, prepare as much as you can the night before. For example, have your child lay out their school uniform, pack homework in their bag, pack sports gear in their bag.
ORGANISE THE SCHOOL BAG
Encourage your child to place frequently used items in the same section each time they use their bag. You could also attach a luggage tag with a checklist of reminders for what to take to school and what to bring home from school.
PROVIDE THE WHY
Explaining why it is important to plan and organise will help your child to see the purpose in the task. For example, it is important to unpack your school bag each day so any school notes can be signed so you can attend school outings. Having a clean room is important so you can find your favourite toys easily and they are not lost or broken.
Tips for school
COLOUR CODE BOOKS
Using colour coding for subjects at school supports children to find which books they need. For example, have a blue cover for all Math books and a red cover for all English books etc.
HAVE ONE HOMEWORK FOLDER WITH COLOUR CODED TABS FOR EACH SUBJECT
Having one folder for all subjects is easier to keep track of compared to multiple different homework folders.
USE A DESK ORGANISER
Using a desk organiser can support children to learn where to place items in their desk to keep it neat and tidy.
Using visual supports reduces the demands on a child’s working memory and attention for remembering all verbal multi-step instructions. Examples of visual supports to plan and organise work include, highlight key points on worksheets, make a checklist to break down the steps of the task, use mind maps to write out ideas.
Planning & organisation apps
There are many apps available to support both primary and high school students with their planning and organisation skills. We’ve featured a couple in our We Love section.
It is important to remember learning and implementing new strategies takes time. So patience and persistence is key when supporting your child to learn and implement these new strategies. Initially, these strategies might take some extra effort for your child. However, once they learn these new skills they can take steps to plan and organise their actions to achieve their goals now and into adulthood.