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Developing Neural Pathways to Encourage Planning Ahead

Encourage Planning Ahead

Establishing an organized plan of attack for homework and chores (or chess) after school is not natural, at least, it definitely was not for me. So, for people like me, we have to be taught the necessary skills, which means establishing and nurturing neural pathways in our brains that remind us to what we need to do once we get home and that help us remember how to do so. We then have to keep those pathways activated! That is hard.

Your prefrontal cortex in your brain provides you with essential skills, such as the ability to organize, prioritize, plan ahead, inhibit responses, manage time, self-regulate (i.e., tell yourself it is time to get to work and actually stop the fun activity you are doing and start the less exciting one you need to do), and the list goes on. In fact there are 32 specific executive functions that are key to excelling in school and later in life by making you more efficient, organized, and focused.

This post is the first exercise in a series called “Executive Functions Training”, which delves into training our neurons and developing pathways in our brains to help us plan, organize, manage time, and so on, so that those processes become second nature.

This first training specifically addresses helping your child plan for his day after arriving at home from school in order to help him focus and avoid distractions through self-regulation.

After a long day at school, kids are easily distracted once they get home. Maybe the sun is out and the yard looks like so much fun, or they see a stray toy lying around, or maybe they are hungry, but also have a ton of pent up energy and need to run around. There are several things that can divert your child’s attention. A big problem for me is that all of those distractions might actually be good for the child. Everyone needs a break after school. The problem comes when your student cannot refocus and ends up never getting back to work. It is important to build these skills overtime so that children learn that they can take a break, but then they stop their fun activity and get down to business. 

To start teaching your child how to plan, focus, and self-regulate, calmly ask her to do three to four simple tasks once she arrives home, followed by a reward for accomplishing the tasks. Some examples:

1. “When we get inside, I would like you to take your shoes off and put them in your cubby. Then I want you to wash your hands for a snack I have prepared.” This is good for while you are in the car right as you are approaching the house. You might want to ask your child to repeat the tasks back to you. Note: if this is too easy a task for your kid, it will be boring and will not work. Also, the reward for completing the tasks is an important motivator. Here it is the snack (and maybe also some playtime outside afterward).

2. “Please put your backpack in your room, come back downstairs, eat a snack, and then do your twenty minutes of nightly reading. Then you can play outside.” This is more complicated. While you do not want to make it too hard to complete, you do want to keep challenging your child so he keeps thinking about what he needs to do and how to accomplish the goal. You should be aware of how long the task is taking and you may want to check in if it has been too long. Do not punish or get angry at your child too quickly for not following orders, just check in and remind him of the tasks at hand and the ultimate goal. While checking in, you can talk through the necessary steps to achieve the objectives with your child. This can be a tough step because your child will probably push back and try to play or do something more fun right away instead of waiting until after he has finished reading. Talking through the reasons why it is not time to play and insisting that your child follow your instructions (i.e., maintain the boundaries you have created) will be difficult, but helpful in the long run.

Rewards may need to stay the same or change from time to time, you will need to be able to judge for your child.

Consistency is key.

Ask your child to do the same things everyday after school and ask everyday. If you ask your child to do the same three things every day, eventually she will just do it without you asking – she will have planned ahead! Teachers start telling students on the first day of preschool to hang their coats and bags in their cubbies. Once coats and bags are hanging, they can go play with their friends. They get really good at this very quickly. At a young age, they have developed the habit to go to their locker and organize themselves when they arrive at school.

As your child gets better at their after school tasks, you can add a step (this will get some resistance at first, so a particularly good reward that day is a good plan. Also, the reward should not be something they were already expecting to be able to do or eat.)

They will not be perfect the first time! And it is okay! Be there supervising to help them figure it out if they forget a step or get distracted. They do not have the neural pathways developed yet, so remind them of the reward and how to accomplish each goal – if they really need it. Do give them a chance to figure it out on their own each time.

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