Why Kids With Executive Functioning Issues Have Trouble With Planning

By Kate Kelly



At a Glance

  • Kids with executive functioning issues often have trouble with planning.
  • Planning is a complex skill involving the three main executive functioning 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. For kids with executive functioning issues, however, it can be a big challenge. The result is that things often don’t get done or even started, no matter how large or small the task.

Learn more about why many kids with poor executive functioning skills struggle with planning.

What Trouble With Planning Looks Like

Imagine this scenario. It’s 11pm 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 inability to plan.

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.

People who don’t struggle with these skills may easily be able to figure out the steps needed to get something done, and just do it. That’s often not the case for people with executive functioning issues. They 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.

Difficulties with planning impact all areas of life. But you may notice the impact most at school, especially as your child gets to the higher grades.

In the early grades, teachers often break projects down into steps. In middle school, kids may do writing assignments in stages. Over a period of a week or more, they may separately turn in an outline, an introduction, a set number of paragraphs that make up the body of the paper, the conclusion, and the footnotes.

By high school, however, there’s more emphasis on independent learning. Teachers expect kids to figure out on their own how to get assignments done on time. For kids with executive functioning issues, this requires a level of planning that can be a real challenge.

The Role of Executive Functioning 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, or cognitive flexibility, may have trouble coming up with the appropriate steps needed to achieve a goal. They might get stuck on one step and be unable to think of additional ones or alternatives.

Imagine a middle-schooler has a test at the end of the week. She makes plans to study early in the week with a friend, but then the friend gets sick. As a result, she doesn’t study at all until the night before the test. It’s not that she didn’t want to study and do well on the test. She just couldn’t come up with a plan B.

That’s not the only way trouble with flexible thinking can get in the way of planning. Kids with this challenge often 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 may not be the best way to prepare for an exam about a book’s major themes.

Working memory: Making a plan requires keep 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 (part of an executive function called inhibitory control) to complete all the steps of the plan or do them in the right order. A child with poor self-control may impulsively decide to skip the outline and dive into writing the paper. The result is a paper that doesn’t read well because it’s missing required sections.

Making a plan and executing it are two different things. For instance, your child may have a great plan in place for doing a book report. But she may not act on it if she 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 can make the act of planning a long-term challenge that effects performance and self-esteem. 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 through a  or an . The teacher might break the task into chunks and give them each a deadline, for instance. The teacher might also set up check-in points to make sure the work is staying on track.

Read up on more ways to help kids with executive functioning issues at home. Find tips to help your child improve flexible thinking and boost working memory. You can also explore ways to help your child gain self-control, including apps to help younger kids and teens and tweens.

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.

About the Author

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


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Reviewed by

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