Why Your Child Doesn’t Organize or Plan Ahead (And What You Can Do About It)

Time management. Organization. Studying. Planning ahead.

Do these ideas give your child a sense of excitement? Or fear of the unknown? If your child seems uninterested or even afraid of these ideas, it may be more than just a feeling of being overwhelmed and a dislike for school. They may have executive functioning deficits.


I hear the phrase “executive functioning” more and more these days, and whether or not students have it. What exactly is executive functioning?

Executive functioning skills are cognitive processes in the frontal lobe of the brain, the area behind the forehead. These are skills that are really important for kids when it comes to school. Executive functioning skills are important for focus, self-control, planning, sustaining focus and resisting distractions. These skills allow people to juggle multiple things in their mind at one time. For example, when writing an essay, can you remember to capitalize the letters and use proper punctuation, spell the words correctly and also make sure you’re writing makes sense? If you can, you probably have good executive functioning skills.

Executive functioning skills also have to do with a thought process: finishing something, starting something new, planning ahead, and staying organized along the way. Executive functioning skills get better as kids age, but even at a young age, the skills are important for school success.


Executive functioning sounds a lot like ADD or ADHD. How exactly are they related?

Issues with a child’s executive functioning skills are actually very closely related to ADD or ADHD. Professions no longer use the term “ADD”; it was replaced in the mid-1980s by Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or AD/HD. The slash actually represents with or without. A child could have ADD and not the hyperactive part, but they still have an ADHD diagnosis. ADHD has to do with things like focusing and sustaining focus for a period of time and also being able to regulate attention.

Many parents say, “Well, my kid doesn’t have a problem with attention. He can play X-box for 3 hours. But when it comes to homework, it’s much harder for him to regulate attention!” That’s really where ADHD comes in. It’s not about paying attention to any one thing, it’s about making yourself pay attention when things are difficult and there is trouble regulating attention.

When it comes to executive functions, sometimes people can have poor executive functioning skills but they may not meet the criteria for ADHD. However, everybody with ADHD does have poor executive functioning skills.


I think my child is showing some symptoms that he has issues with executive functioning. What are some signs that might help parents see this?

Kids who have executive functioning difficulties often have a hard time staying organized. It’s not just in subjects, but also time management. If your child might have a messy backpack, forgets to write their assignments down, and doesn’t always bring the right materials home from school, he might be struggling with executive functioning skills.

Help your child create a mental to-do list for what he has to do for homework that day or even plan ahead. Long-term planning is often really difficult for these students. If something is due two weeks from now, they have a hard time breaking that assignment down into smaller, manageable chunks. In addition, kids with weak executive functioning skills might have a hard time focusing and putting effort into homework, especially when it’s really not interesting to them. They might even be able to just focus for 5 or 10 minutes before they lose track. For these kids, they need to have breaks on a regular basis and have assignments broken into smaller pieces so these chunks are much more attainable than a single, massive, intimidating project.


What is the first step in helping my child improve his executive functioning skills?

If you suspect your child has some executive functioning deficits, the first step is to realize that tasks like focusing and planning ahead are just going to be harder than for other kids. It’s not that your kid wakes up one morning and says, “You know what? I’m just going to really aggravate my mom.” or “I’m going to frustrate my dad.” It’s not like that at all. Kids want to please! They want to do a good job, but things like staying organized and focusing and planning ahead are just innately difficult for them.

It’s really important to acknowledge the fact that your child is going to need much more structure than the typical kid. You might not see a plan to start homework from your child the minute they come home from school each day. You might need to engage in a dialogue with your child to make sure they know what they’re going to do first, second or third. You’re also going to have to provide a distraction-free area for him to do homework. If left to his own devices, he’ll often do homework in places like his bedroom, which is really distracting! A child with executive functioning deficits just needs a little more external structure than the average student.


What do I do if my kid doesn’t want to listen to me?

A low frustration tolerance is typical for kids who struggle with attention. It’s not uncommon for these kids to really push back towards their parents’ overtures, even when they know they need the help. If your help has gone on deaf ears by your child, consider getting someone else to do the heavy lifting. Often, kids are much more willing to listen to someone who doesn’t have an emotional attachment to them, like a tutor or someone who has training in Educational Coaching.

Educational Coaches have the ability to work on three specific things with kids. One is organization, both with materials and time. The second is time management of short and long-term assignments, and the third is study skills. Kids with executive functioning issues get by because they’re really smart, but when the work becomes harder and there’s a lot more of it, they really have a hard time.


Having somebody who can work in these three areas, in addition to helping with subject areas, is really the key. Give us a call at 703-934-8282 or fill out a Get a Tutor form and we would be happy to help.