EF Skills: Planning & Prioritizing

By Jenna Prada, M.Ed


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?
Skill Improvement Strategies

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.

Examples: For a school project, help your child process the assignment sheet or rubric to identify all of the requirements as well as the difference between “good” and “great.” When cleaning their room, desk, or backpack, it might require that they (or you) first make a pile of everything that needs to be sorted.

Pro-Tip: Use this process 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.

Examples: To help your child see all of this, involve them in family planning, creating a routine around spending 15 minutes planning each day, or setting up a shared family calendar that helps them see the week ahead.

Pro-Tip: 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.

Examples: 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 (sometimes called an Eisenhower matrix) may be useful, where the X axis represents urgency (“now,” “later” and the Y axis represents importance (“important,” “less important”), works well for most high school and college students.

Pro-Tip: 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

Keep planning in the forefront by asking questions that prompt planning everyday tasks. Get started with the following questions then add your own:

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 their 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.

Jenna Prada, a certified teacher and administrator, is the founder of the Learning Link and the Director of Executive Functioning & Special Education at Private Prep.

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