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Breaking Down the Planning Process: Supportive Steps in the Development of Executive Function

Planning and organizational skills – complex executive function processes – are necessary to complete daily routines, chores, and homework. Unfortunately, these skills are rarely taught.

Research Suggests that parenting style may affect executive functioning of children with or without learning disorders. Through supportive and low-stress environments in which caregivers scaffold tasks in a manner that helps children to focus their attention on critical elements and organize strategies to solve problems, children begin to internalize strategies that enhance self-regulation.

Breaking Down the Planning Process:

Supportive Steps in the continued Development of Executive Function

Overall Educational Goal

Once children enter preschool, the demands placed on their ability to plan for and remember to carry out tasks or assignments begin to increase. Planning and organization skills, which are complex executive function processes, are necessary to complete daily routines, chores, or homework, yet these skills are rarely taught. As the Center on the Developing Child (Working Paper 11) contends,

As essential as they are, we aren’t born with the skills that enable us to control impulses, make plans, and stay focused. We are born with the potential to develop these capacities – or not – depending on our experiences during infancy, throughout childhood, and into adolescence… These skills develop through practice and are strengthened by the experiences through which they are applied and honed.

Children must be taught to set goals and effectively plan and organize their approach to accomplish them. As defined by Atance and Jackson (2009), planning involves the representation of, and preparation for, a future goal. Students with certain executive function deficits often jump into action without setting a clear goal or plan to guide their process. This impulsivity may lead to getting stuck, giving up, and to a sense of frustration and failure (Meltzer, Pollica, and Barzillai, 2007). Although executive function involves neural circuitry that extends throughout much of the brain, it is commonly held that the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that has a protracted development, plays an integral role in the process (Miller and Cohen, 2001; Reynolds and O’Reilly, 2009; Dawson and Guare, 2010). The maturation of the frontal lobe is dependent on both genes and environment – it is an experience-expectant and experience-dependent processes. Children will benefit from experiences designed to target these processes.

The following two activities are designed to provide children with opportunities to support the development of these critical neural networks by engaging in scaffolded, purposeful, and strategic planning processes. Given the finding that early learning related skills, including planning and organization, are linked with later academic success (McClelland, Acock, and Morrison 2006), it seems important to engage children in explicit planning and organizational processes from a young age. These supportive activities, designed for the home environment, can serve to supplement additional executive function curriculum or coaching targeted at prevention and intervention.

Activity 1

Keep Your Train On Its Track

Description/Target Population

In the course of the day, caregivers often ask children to complete tasks such as to get ready for school or clean up the playroom. These goal-oriented activities involve a number of steps and components for a child to keep track of while continuing to progress towards the final goal. Keep your Train On Its Track is a scaffolded opportunity to support young children as they begin to engage in more complex planning and organizational processes. This activity is designed for any parents or caregivers and their 4, 5, and 6 year old children. Materials in the printable activity kit include: Goal Star, Engine Car, Train Cars, Train Tracks, and, Distractor Cards.

The purpose of the activity is for parents (or caregivers) to engage their children in the process of planning and organizing the steps involved in reaching a desired goal. The first step of the activity is to set, or state, the desired goal with the child. This goal is represented by the Goal Star. Parents should ask their child to picture this desired future state. What will it look like when you’ve reached the goal? An example goal may be: Get to School on Time or, more simply, Get Ready for School. This goal is the star the child is trying to reach and serves as a reminder of the goal or future state that must be kept in mind while the child is engaged in the intermediate steps. Place this goal card at the end of your train track. The next step of the process is to talk through what needs to happen in order to reach that goal or accomplish the given task. Together, parent and child should talk about what it means to “get ready for school”. What do you have to do to get ready? What are the different steps involved? What will you need to remember to do? Draw a card (or take a picture) to represent each of these components or steps and add it to a car of the train. Example steps might include: put on shoes, put on jacket, put lunch in backpack, and put backpack on back. After creating the train cars, caregiver and child should work together to organize the steps – to put the cards in order. What should you do first? Why does that make sense? After organizing the train, caregiver and child should talk together about any potential distractors that might get in the way of accomplishing the goal. What might get you off track? Then, they should make cards for any of these “off track” obstacles. These cards can also be made on later occasions and added beside the track.

After creating the train, caregiver and child should place it in an appropriate spot for the child to use. Initially, parents should work with the child as the child proceeds through the steps, focusing on times of transition. After the child has completed the first step, a parent might ask: What do you need to do next? Gradually, the parent should step back and allow the child to proceed through the plan on his/her own. The parent can, periodically, check in to see whether the child stayed on track and reflect with the child about what got them “off track”. If a child got “off track” because of the toys in the bin next to their shoes, talk about strategies that might help them to stay “on track”. If the goal is to get to school on time to be able to play on the playground with friends, getting off track means that the child may be late and miss the chance to play. While working through the steps of the plan, it is this future state that child needs to keep in mind as the goal he/she is working towards. Through this supportive and scaffolded planning process, the child has the opportunity to identify a future state, or goal, and plan and organize the steps involved for achieving that desired goal.


Executive Function plays a significant role in school readiness and continued academic performance (Blair & Razza, 2007; Nathanson et al, 2008). Children must learn to set goals, plan, and monitor their progress. As discussed, while the entire brain is involved in executive function, it is a general consensus that the prefrontal cortex plays an integral role in the process (Reynolds and O’Reilly, 2009; Garon, Bryson, and Smith, 2008). The preschool years, the target age group for this activity, represents an important period of development of executive function during which a foundation is formed for the continued development of higher cognitive processes that continues into adulthood (Garon, Bryson, and Smith, 2008; Espinet, Anderson, and Zelazo, 2012).

There are many different definitions of planning, but there is consensus that planning involves the representation of, and preparation for, a future goal. Research has shown that children’s performance on various planning tasks generally improves with age, with a noticeable increase between 3 and 5 years of age (Atance and Jackson, 2009). Gauvain and Perez (2005) also found that the opportunities children had to plan at home with their parents were positively related to children’s classroom planning. Keep Your Train on Its Track is an attempt to provide positive, early opportunities for children to plan with their parents in a supportive and low-stress environment. As Schroeder and Kelley (2010) explored, parenting style may affect executive functioning of children with or without learning disorders. Their research suggests that, through supportive and low-stress environments in which caregivers scaffold tasks in a manner that helps children to focus their attention on critical elements and organize strategies to solve problems, children begin to internalize the strategies that enhance self-regulation. Keep Your Train On Its Track is one way in which to help parents to provide this type of supportive environment for their child’s development.

It is during the preschool stage that children demonstrate a marked improvement in the ability to use event knowledge in planning and in the ability to think about and make decisions in anticipation of future states (Hudson, Shapiro, and Sosa, 1995; Richmond & Pan, 2013). Research has shown that a child’s ability to picture him/herself in the future develops significantly during the preschool years (Atance and Jackson 2007; Keller et al., 2006). Given this research, this period represents an important opportunity to provide children with experiences to utilize these developing skills and associated neural networks. Activities like getting dressed and eating breakfast – activities that can be the focus of Keep Your Train on Its Track – represent opportunities to cultivate these developing planning skills.

Activity 2

Dinner Night!

This activity is designed for parents and their preteen children. The purpose of the activity is to provide children with additional experiences in creating and organizing a plan to reach a desired goal by engaging them in the process of planning a family dinner. Initially, the caregiver should sit with the child and set the goal. The caregiver should explain to the child that, together, they are going to make dinner for the family. The next step is to decide on a simple meal to prepare. It may be helpful to think about dinners they’ve had together or to provide three recipes from which the child may choose. After a decision has been made, the caregiver should ask the child to picture what the desired goal might look like (i.e. the family sitting at the table with the food on their plates). The child should sketch this goal in the cloud as the goal.

The next step in the process is to think through what steps are involved in achieving that desired goal. Caregivers should talk with their children to identify these components. What has to get done in order to have dinner ready in time? Children should write each of these main steps as a header on the top of a planning card (simple flashcards cards work fine). These steps may include: gather the ingredients, prepare the food, set the table, and serve the meal. The child should be encouraged to articulate a reasonable sequence for these steps and put the cards in order, culminating with the picture of the final goal.

Once the parent and child have organized a plan for proceeding, they should work together to accomplish the goal – to make dinner for the family. Once a piece of the project has been completed, the child should place a check on the appropriate card. This will help the child to track the progress they’ve made and to shift gears and move onto the next step towards the goal. Throughout the process, parents should work with their children to monitor their progress with the final goal in mind. An important aspect of this activity is to identify and remember times when something must be done – to set the table when the chicken comes out of the oven or to turn the burner down when the noodles start to boil. The intention is for this activity to be repeated on multiple occasions and for the parent to gradually release control to the child as the child builds his/her independence with the planning process. Still, it is important for the parent to provide the necessary support, including cuing questions, as the child continues to develop independence with these skills.


Successful performance on planning tasks relies on the integrity of neural systems involving the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that continues to develop beyond adolescence (Dawson and Guare, 2010; Lamm, Zelazo, and Lewis, 2006; Crescentini et al., 2012; Anderson, 2002). Individual experience plays a role in the myelination and synaptic pruning in the prefrontal cortex, a process that contributes to the development of an efficient neural network supporting executive function (Best, Miller, and Jones, 2009; Cartwright, 2008). The protracted period of development of the prefrontal cortex provides extended opportunities to intervene in individual experiences to affect the development of executive function and the processes involved in planning, the ability to map out the steps needed to reach a desired goal and to determine priorities in completing those steps (Dawson & Guare, 2010).

This second activity facilitates parents’ efforts to support their children’s development of planning and organizational processes during a critical period of development. The preadolescent period represents a time of rapid learning and development during which there is a second surge of synaptogenesis in the frontal lobe (Dawson and Guare, 2010; Arain et al., 2013). This is also a time in children’s life just before planning and organization demands increase significantly.

Preparing a meal, as in this activity, requires complex skills of planning and organization – a process that includes picturing a final goal, deciding what one needs to do to accomplish that goal, and considering what might get in one’s way. While working on individual steps, an individual must also keep the final goal in mind and monitor one’s progress toward that goal. Cooking dinner also relies on the performance of prospective memory – the ability to remember to do something in the future. Prospective memory is an essential skill for successful functioning in daily life (Smith, Bayen, and Martin, 2010; Mackinlay, Kliegel, and Mantyla, 2009; Guajardo and Best, 2000). Smith, Bayen, and Martin (2010) found that children’s ability to remember when something must be done improves between the ages of 7 and 10 years. It is the upper end of this age range to which this activity is targeted. Preparing a meal includes many opportunities to exercise prospective memory – such as remembering to set the table while the chicken is cooking or to add the sauce when the meat has browned.

The participation of the parent or caregiver is critical to this activity. Schroeder and Kelley (2010) found that, in keeping with previous findings, higher levels of family organization, parental support, and sensitivity to autonomy were positively correlated with a child’s ability to plan/organize. Children with weak executive function benefit from support in learning essential planning and organizational skills. As school and homework demands increase in the late elementary grades and into middle school, children with weak executive function fall behind their peers. Providing direct instruction in planning and organizational strategies – as modeled in this activity – can help students to develop these abilities and, hopefully, to overcome deficits in these areas (Johnson and Reid, 2011).


These two activities provide experiences in which children at critical periods of neurological development can engage in and continue to develop planning abilities and the underlying neural systems. These activities, however, are intended to be supportive strategies to supplement additional efforts. Students who struggle with the executive function processes of planning and organization will benefit from additional coaching and intervention techniques to support their performance.


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