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Kids who struggle with executive functioning, especially planning and prioritizing, probably could benefit from doing some prioritization activities.
Of course, it’s you- the parent who noticed this need. Your child was probably off trying to find a missing shoe, or getting hyperfocused on Minecraft, or waiting until the last minute to clean their toys before Grandma comes over. Or all at once, because that’s life with executive dysfunction.
Executive functioning problems come in eight different flavors, but today we’re going to be talking about planning and prioritizing. This is how your brain evaluates information, recognizes sequences, decides what’s most important, and plots out your next moves. Complicated stuff! It shouldn’t be surprising that a child of any age struggles with these functions, never mind one with a diagnosis.
But to help give you some tools and tips, I’ve collected some of the best prioritization activities to do with your child. With some repetition and dedication, you can help them make significant improvements in their ability to plan ahead.
Prioritization Activities that are also Games
This can be a game between different kids or between a kid and a parent. Have each direction (without the number) written on strips of paper individually. Have child order them correctly and then do those actions in order:
- make a container with paper and duct tape
- run across a field/room
- Collect candies/pom poms/lego pieces/whatever
- carry items to starting location
- empty items into master bucket
If they enjoy this one and it helps, you can make up your own versions with different tasks in different orders!
Chess is excellent for learning to plan and prioritize because it involves so much strategy. What’s even better is that there’s a hugely competitive element to this learning activity. There are also clubs, championships, and rankings surrounding chess if your child desires to really get into it. Otherwise, they can simply play against the computer for a fun challenge.
“Following Directions” Drawing Game
This is an activity best done one-on-one between you and your child. Have your kiddo describe to you the proper way to draw a teddy bear, car, or other common item. Be sure to only draw what they tell you to start. For example, if they say “he has big, furry ears,” but haven’t yet asked you to draw the head, explain why you can’t do that. Soon, they’ll learn they need to describe the general shape of things first before getting lost in details.
Geocaching describes itself as “the world’s largest treasure hunt.” It combines running around in nature (which is really good for helping your child focus naturally) and clues. This can be a very motivational prioritization activity because they get a prize at the end!
Prioritization Activities for Students
Use a Planner.
Some teachers might call this an agenda notebook, homework organizer, or other term, but they’re all describing the same thing. These help your student understand what’s expected of them and when. Teach them to write down all homework or other to-dos, word for word, on the day they’re assigned. Then, another note on the day things are due to help them see the space in time between now and then. You can even teach them to write short notes the day before things are due to make sure nothing gets forgotten.
Wants vs Needs Lesson
They might want to go out and play kickball for the next three hours, but that’s not what they need. For a kid with executive dysfunction however, it can be hard to tell the difference. Help them out by doing a lesson on wants vs needs. Have a word bank filled with activities, like “be line leader,” “do my homework,” “have lunch,” or “go to recess.” This activity is great for discussion, because some things like “go to recess” could actually be both! Then you naturally get to talk about priorities and when that’s a want or a need.
What kid doesn’t like a reward? Sometimes, the anticipation of the reward can really help a kid with ADHD, autism or other executive dysfunction really focus on something they might otherwise not. It can be hard to prioritize important but un-fun activities like classroom chores, homework, or We talked more about rewards in our article on improving impulse control, but .
Write Everything Down
I’m talking about the daily schedule, any agendas, and all notifications on the board every day. If the child can’t quite read yet, add in lots of visuals
Writing everything down serves two purposes: one, it helps you keep on task and moving throughout your day. (Every teacher needs help with that!) But two, it helps your students anticipate what’s coming and plan accordingly. It’s hard to remember to go to a cubby or locker to grab gym shoes if they forget it comes after lunch. Nailing down a routine with visual reminders on the board is an essential prioritization activity. Check out these morning and evening visual routines charts for some visual schedule help.
Prioritization Activities at Home
Talk About Your Own Struggles
Even adults want to have fun more than work sometimes. But if the children are fed, clothed, housed, and generally taken care of, that means you’ve done the hard work of prioritizing many times! You have a lot of experience in saying no to fun and prioritizing what’s important, so let your child learn from you.
You can teach them this as you go through making a chore to-do list together, planning a vacation to Grandma’s, or even just what the day will look like. When your child hears you verbalizing how you weigh choices, they learn the questions to ask themselves when they weigh their own. Here are some sample questions to think about teaching:
- What’s the most important task today/this week/this trip?
- How many things would we like to do?
- How long will everything take?
- Can any of these things be done another time?
- How much energy do I have today?
Cooking Activities for Prioritization
Cooking or baking together is one of the best prioritization activities because everyone needs to eat (priorities, people!) Get your child to help you plan the meals for a week. They can see how the leftovers from BBQ can become stir fry ingredients, but not vice versa. They also can see how grocery shopping needs to happen on time before anything can get made, too. This is doubly good if you’re worried about your child having good life skills when they get older.
As an added prioritization activity, baking requires precise steps. I mean when you’re actually cooking, everything must be done sequentially. If you feel adventurous, test out a few recipes where you do things out of order and see how the results change. (But maybe have the dog handy to help eat any failed experiments!)
For more reading on this topic:
- Executive Functioning Activities: 50 Skill Builders for Kids
- Impulse Control Activities for Kids (And What WON’T Work)
- 15 Sensory Toys for Executive Dysfunction
- Accommodations for ADHD: 25+ Tips & Recommendations
Hillary is a former teacher who went rogue and became a freelance writer. When not offering support and advice to homeschooling families, she tends to her own garden, family, and cat. You can connect with her on her website, homegrownhillary.com.