Planning and Prioritization



Overhead calendars adult helping child prioritize

This article is adapted from one that I wrote as part of a series on executive functioning for Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities.


Many students with learning disabilities struggle with executive functioning skills. An important executive functioning skill is planning and prioritization—the ability to develop a roadmap that will enable your child to achieve a goal. Strategies to improve this skill include breaking projects into manageable chunks, creating a visual plan or schedule, and identifying a concrete system for prioritizing.

Students who have weak planning and prioritization skills find themselves hamstrung even before they begin an assignment or a task. They have difficulty identifying the steps required to accomplish their goal (e.g., creating a presentation, writing a paper, cleaning their room, etc.) and can’t decide what information and tasks are important to pay attention to and in which order they should attend to them. 

Is This Your Child?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, your child will benefit from strategies to improve their planning and prioritization skills:

Does your child…

  • Feel overwhelmed by open-ended questions or long-term projects?
  • Complete unimportant tasks prior to important tasks?
  • Struggle to either say how they will study or what they need to study?
  • Misidentify the important information from a class lesson or a text?
  • Lack clear goals even in areas of interest?
  • Get caught up in the details and miss the big picture?
  • Regularly complete assignments or other obligations late?
  • Write disorganized essays?
  • Hold on to everything rather than decide which items to keep and which to throw away?

Accommodations to request in School

Like most skills planning and prioritization can be improved with intentional, concrete instruction. Following are some guidelines to help your child in this area:

1.    Clarify the goal

It’s impossible to plan if you don’t know what you’re planning for. That’s why it’s important to prompt your child to articulate what success looks like before getting started on a project or a task. 

Accommodation: For school projects, request that assignment sheets or rubrics be provided. A good use of resource room time is helping students explicitly differentiate between what “good” and “great” look like for a given assignment.

At Home: Review rubrics with your child at home to create a check-list containing the most important elements of the goal; it’s a great planning tool that will also support self- and task-monitoring.   

2.    Establish that planning is productive

Many kids skip planning because they don’t consider it part of doing.  They don’t want to waste time; they just want to get started. Help your child reframe that: planning is doing something. It saves time by allowing them to work more confidently, it ensures that they won’t miss important aspects of the task, and it lowers stress levels by breaking multi-step to-do items into manageable parts.

Accommodations: Provide a list of the week’s assignments so that your child can plan ahead or offer a pacing plan for larger assignments.

At Home: On the day a project is assigned, planning should start! Encourage your child to break the project into steps and set due dates for those steps (including a catch-up day or two!). 

3.    Agree on a framework for prioritizing

Deciding what to do first is tough, particularly if your child doesn’t have a consistent set of parameters to help them decide.

Accommodations: Identify a clear prioritization structure for your child that all of their teachers are aware of and can reinforce. For young kids learning to distinguish between “need to’s” and “want to’s” is a good place to start. As your child gets older add complexity with a “1, 2, 3 system:” “1” means this needs to happen now; “3” means it’s the least urgent, and “2” is somewhere between ASAP and not urgent at all. Alternatively a simple four-box grid may be useful (sometimes called an Eisenhower matrix), where the X axis represents urgency (“now,” “later” and the Y axis represents importance (“important,” “less important”), works very well for most high school and college students.

At Home: Whichever system you and your child settle on, practice sorting a few example tasks so that you can adjust the system and be sure you have a similar understanding.

4.    Provide lots of practice

If your child receives SETTS (also known as Resource Room), make sure prioritization is a topic that they are working on there. The special educator can help your child keep planning at the forefront by reviewing upcoming assignments and prompting them to prioritize:

  • What’s the most important thing to get done today?
  • Great! When will you be able to do that?
  • Can any of those things be done on a different day?
  • How does your week look?

Younger kids will also enjoy thinking through the steps for some of their favorite activities like how to build a snowman, set up a playdate with a friend, or be ready for a soccer game. Have them consider what can happen in one day, and what they need to start planning for in advance. 

5.    Experiment and Adjust

Great planners know they always need a contingency. You and your child will both benefit from keeping this in mind. Anyone who manages projects at work knows that deadlines often need to be modified. Any parent knows that no day goes by without an element of unpredictability. Any successful adult took years to develop a planning system that works consistently. 

Part of the benefit of regular planning is that it empowers your child to respond to the unexpected. When your child knows that his plans will need to be adjusted and that the first calendar they try out likely won’t be the one they ultimately stick with, they will come to see those inevitabilities as successes rather than failures, which ultimately will make them a better planner and a more resilient student. 

If you’d like help identifying additional ways that support for planning and prioritization can be incorporated into your child’s school day, let’s set up a time to talk.

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