How to Break Down Complex Tasks for Kids with Weak Executive Functioning

If your child has executive functioning weaknesses, chances are a teacher or therapist has suggested that you “break down complex tasks into smaller steps.”

Often, this results in parents nodding along to the recommendation, but then getting home and thinking, “Huh? What does breaking down these tasks look like?! And what tasks should we break down?”

All good questions.

Let’s start by exploring what tasks make sense to break into smaller bits.

For many of us, multi-step tasks come easily and we do them on “automatic pilot.”

Let’s take getting ready in the morning as an example.

When we have intact executive functioning our mornings go like this:

1.Get up

2.Shower

3.Get dressed

4.Go to kitchen

5.Get breakfast

6.Clean dishes

7.Pack for the day

8.Brush teeth

9.Leave the house

If you look at that list, it’s 9 steps. When our EF (executive functioning) is smooth and efficient, our brains see it as one task: “getting ready in the morning.”

But for people with glitch in EF, their brain sees it as 9 separate tasks and at ANY point, the brain can get stuck and spin. So maybe you have a child who has a hard time getting out of bed, then stays in the shower way too long, getting dressed means sitting down and reading a book, brushing teeth is water play and silly faces in the mirror, etc. Sound familiar?

So in this example, clearly the task of “getting ready in the morning” can be broken down into small steps.

Other seemingly straightforward tasks that can be broken down include:

  • Getting ready for bed
  • Cleaning a room
  • Getting ready for sports or music practice
  • Starting, doing and completing homework
  • Chores that have multi-steps (which is almost all of them). Examples – feeding pets, laundry, filling/emptying dishwasher, etc.

Now let’s talk a bit about how to break them down and help your child stay on track.

First, identify ONE task you would like your child to focus on. When we train the brain to be more focused and efficient, we can only do it one step at a time. So choose one task: morning routine or bedtime routine or homework routine or feeling the pets, etc. Once they master one task, you can move on to another.

Second, take some time to consider how many steps, or shifts, are involved in the task. You can use the example of the morning routine above as a guide. Some tasks , like feeding a pet, involve getting the bowl, getting the food, opening the food, putting it in the bowl and feeding it to the pet. That is 5 steps that WE may think are “simple,” but the weak EF brain needs help managing.

Third, write down the steps in number order:

For the feeding pet example, the steps are:

1.Get bowl

2.Get food

3.Open food

4.Put two scoops in bowl

5.Feed Fido

Fourth, make a checklist for your child to follow. Use words or pictures (if reading is hard for your child). You can put this checklist on a clipboard for them to keep near the area where they will do the chore, or you can post it on a wall, fridge, etc. Makes sure it is easily visible and gives your child the option to check off each step when s/he completes it.

Fifth, praise use of the checklist. Even with a check list, completing multi-step tasks is challenging for your child. The first few times they try to use the list, they will get stuck and make mistakes. Praise the USE of the LIST, not the outcome of their attempt. We want to develop good habits for using coping strategies, and the list will be a biggie throughout your child’s life, so they must practice using one and they won’t do it perfectly right away.

A few more tips on helping your child break down complex tasks:

  • Don’t minimize their struggle. When we say, “This is easy,” or “Why can’t you just get ready?” over and over, our kids feel shame. Their weak executive functioning makes it hard for them to do tasks that are seemingly “easy.” Giving them strategies will support their progress, telling them they don’t measure up isn’t helpful.
  • Start with simpler tasks and build up in complexity. Our goal is to help your child be successful. The way we build EF skills is practicing strategies, seeing success and then applying the strategy in areas that are more challenging. For example, start by asking your child to use a list for a 3-4 step task. Maybe it is feeding the pet or taking out the trash (trash out of kitchen barrel, tied, go outside/garage, trash in outdoor barrel). Once they can do that task with ease, move up to a 4-5 step task. Once that is easy, level up to 5-6 step task, etc.
  • Be prepared to have lists all over your house. Some families have bathroom routines posted to the mirror, breakfast routines posted on their fridge, homework routines posted in their office. If your child needed a wheelchair, your home would be adapted. The same needs to be done for kids with weak EF.
  • Include all kids in the process. Even if you have children who don’t need this support, it can be fun to give everyone a clipboard with lists on it. Maybe older kids have to create their own lists of things to do today. Younger kids can learn to do new chores with a list. Kids are more likely to use this strategy if it can be family affair.
  • Leverage technology appropriately. If your child has access to a tablet, smart phone or itouch and is smitten with tech, you can use a simple notes or list app to help them stay on track.

Hopefully this article gives you some ideas on how to break down complex tasks. If you would like some specific support for your family on managing routines and multistep tasks, give us a call. We’re here when you need us!