Is your child failing to make a plan?

Is your child:

  • Saying, “What do I do now?” “I’m lost!”
  • Disorganized?
  • Forging ahead without thinking it through?
  • Forgetting when assignments are due?
  • Coming home and not being sure how to do the homework?
  • Failing to follow multi-step directions?
  • Getting lost without specific instructions at each step of a problem?
  • Struggling with connect-the-dots puzzles or crossword puzzles?


Some children have trouble ‘planning’. Planning means thinking out the steps it will take to solve a problem or to complete a task.

Children with these difficulties often have trouble with math problems that involve multiple steps; they may perhaps skip steps or jump to the wrong answer.

Planning is necessary for writing tasks in school. Children who fail to outline their work, use a graphic organizer, or think through what they want to say tend to struggle with writing.

Children who have trouble planning might struggle with connect-the-dots puzzles, card games, checkers, and chess.

Planning skills are needed for organization in school. Children need to be able to keep track of assignments that are due and to put together a plan for how to complete them.

Planning is required for bringing the appropriate materials to class and for turning assignments in on time. Messy desks, cluttered bedrooms, and disorganized lockers may also be the result of poor planning skills.

Your older child may not remember birthday parties or may get mixed up when making plans with friends for the weekend. Your child may have a hard time using a digital or paper planning calendar.

He may show up in sweats on picture day. She may forget the date of a big presentation or fail to email an important document to her presentation group.


Clinically, ‘planning’ is an executive function that refers to the ability to develop strategies to solve problems or to get tasks done.

Planning can be defined as,

“the ability to set a goal, identify a sequence of actions to reach the goal, and carry out that sequence of steps” [2].

The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for making logical plans and for thinking through solutions to problems.

Within the general term planning, a variety of component skills, as follows, are included: establishing mental set, cognitive flexibility, shifting attention, sequencing, monitoring, and sustained attention.

Establishing mental set means understanding the rules of the game or the directions for an activity. Planning also requires cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to shift fluidly between activities, problem-solving approaches, and ideas. An example is stopping reading your favorite book so that you can come to dinner.

Shifting attention refers to the ability to change from one focus to another. An example is looking away from the computer screen so that you can hear the teacher talking.

With regard to planning, let’s imagine a child who is trying to do a connect-the-dots puzzle.

First, the child would need to establish a mental set, that is, to understand the objective and rules of the game. Thus, he would have to know that the dots are to be connected in order to make a shape.

Second, the child would have to be able to visually scan through the numbers and plan out where to start and how to proceed.

Next, the child would have to be able to track or monitor his own progress toward the goal by seeing what number he is on and what number comes next in the sequence.

Then, he would have to shift from one number to the next. Finally, the child would have to sustain attention long enough to complete the puzzle.

In this small example, it is clear that planning involves a lot of simultaneous skills that are required to work together well in order to get the job done. Any break in the chain can result in a frustrating experience in which the final project is incomplete or incorrect.


If your child struggles with planning, he or she may need some support. Children with difficulties planning are likely to struggle on procedural tasks like math.

They often have trouble with multi-step directions. They may struggle with writing because of the requirement that paragraphs should be written in a logical or sequential order.

Further, the ‘monitoring’ skills required for planning are essential to many academic endeavors. For example, children who are poor readers often fail to ‘monitor’ their comprehension. They may not ask themselves, ‘does this make sense?’ or ‘wait, I already read that part’.

Monitoring is also critical to goal attainment. In order to accomplish a goal, individuals need to be able to see how far along they are in the process and to assess what remaining steps are left before reaching the goal.

If your child is struggling with planning, it is likely that he or she will need some help at school. Parents might consult with the school psychologist or with the learning specialist regarding teaching your child some planning strategies. It also may be that your child needs parent help with project planning.

A close collaboration between teachers and parents is necessary here. A home-school communication notebook, daily email, or Google doc can be a good method for keeping track of assignments and directions from teachers.

However, it will be critical that your child becomes more independent with planning over time.

A gradual release model, whereby teachers and parents reduce supports as the child gains skills, works best. Rushing late assignments to school on your child’s behalf or regularly emailing for an extension for your child generally leads to poor outcomes.

Support and hand-holding may be necessary, but the focus is always on transitioning the onus of responsibility and planning back to your child. Often, this progression is difficult to navigate.

Consulting with a school psychologist or therapist may be helpful to establish a set of strategies and routines that will help to get your child on track.


If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.

  • Metacognition: may struggle with the ability to assess progress toward a goal
  • Inhibiting: may have trouble thinking before acting or stopping oneself
  • Flexibility: may not tolerate change or may rigidly adhere to routines
  • Organizing materials: may lose things, be forgetful, or have a messy locker and binder
  • Attention (Focusing): may have trouble paying attention or shifting attention when planning


Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.

  • Autism: children who have poor planning skills may also have challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, and sensory problems, associated with autism
  • Specific Learning Disability (Educationally Identified Disabilities): poor planning impedes progress in reading, writing or math and may be indicative of a learning disability
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): some individuals who have poor planning skills may have had brain injuries
  • ADHD: children who are poor planners may have difficulties shifting attention, maintaining attention, and establishing mental set, associated with ADHD


If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • CLEAR Child Psychology: to obtain a customized profile of concerns for your child, or consult ‘live’ with a psychologist
  • School Psychologist: to help with learning problems, planning problems, organization skills
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to help with concerns about executive functions and attention
  • School Counselor: to help with planning and organization, particularly in middle school

These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:

  • Wisconsin Card Sort: test of adapting to changing rules and shifting attention
  • TOVA: continuous performance test of sustained attention and impulse control
  • Comprehensive Trail Making Test: test of visual shift and sequence, planning visual sequencing and shifting attention
  • Tower of London: test of visual planning, measures initiation, rule following, and problem solving
  • WISC-V: test of intelligence. Clinical observation of problem solving approach during the IQ test
  • BRIEF: executive functioning rating scale test for parent and/or teacher that considers planning and organizing


[1] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but Scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.


[2] Lewis, Jeanne & Calvery, Margaret, & Lewis, Hal (2002). BrainstarsBrain injury: Strategies for teams and re-education for students.


[3] Reid, Robert & Leinemann, Torri Ortiz (2006). Strategy instruction for students with learning disabilities, 1st edition (what works for special-need learners).


[4] Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.


[5] Brain injury alliance. Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado. The Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado is the go-to resource for help and services for survivors of an injury to the brain, their families and providers.

[6] Cook, Julia (2016). Planning isn’t my priority… And making priorities isn’t in my plans.


Image Credit:
Description:Boy points at activities on calendar learning days
Stock Photo ID: #475663916 (iStock)
By: SerrNovik
How to help your child get organized
Previously Licensed on: May 20, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for Clear Child Psychology

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