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Re-thinking Lists: Helping Kids Take Action When it’s Time to Get Things Done

Updated: Mar 4

One of the things I hear most frequently when working with adults on executive function is how fond we all are of lists. We love checking off our completed tasks, feeling accomplished, and perhaps that sense of relief that comes with the inherent brain dump (cognitive offloading) simply creating a list can afford. Coincidentally, one of the things I hear the most when I work with kids on executive function is how frustrated parents get when their well-intended lists are not effective.

The process of creating and using lists work well for some of us, so we create them for kids as a supportive guide. Naturally, we want them to experience the same benefits we do. But for a lot of kids—too many kids—it does not make a positive impact and creating a list for a child can actually make things more difficult in the long run.

There’s a reason rooted in neuroscience and development for this. Kids (and adults) who struggle with executive function (that higher order thinking necessary for things like problem solving, staying organized, performing efficiently, and focusing) have not developed the type of information processing needed to execute a list made by another person.

Basically, lists are an extension of our good processing. When we have good executive function, we’ve developed the processing required to actually execute lists because we can think through the scenario that demanded the need for the list in the first place. As a result of being able to think through the scenario in a realistic way, my list will not only reflect the reality of time constraints, potential obstacles, and situational factors, but the self-talk (non-verbal working memory) required to move our bodies will engage at the right time to help complete the process.

So what should you do instead? Let’s keep lists on the table. They’re effective if they’re created correctly and effectively. But let’s not be hasty. Below are some common ways we use lists around the house and at school, and ideas for making adjustments in order to see improvement in performance. The list can wait.

Make Chore Lists or Posting Chore Charts

Whether you’re listing to-dos for your kids to help them remember tasks you need help with, or you’ve incorporated a chart of routine tasks your child is expected to complete

What You May Be Doing:

  • “Did you do your chores?”

  • “Check the chart.”

  • “You won’t get the (sticker/reward/etc) if you don’t finish them.”

  • You may have even broken down each chore into steps (and perhaps found yourself exasperated when your child still couldn’t follow through.)

Try This Instead:

  • Walk your child through each task, actually performing each step and modeling what each entails. Describe what you are doing in each step. Take photos as you complete them, and make each photo easily accessible so that it can be referenced until the task becomes familiar. Allow the matching of the visual to reality.

  • “What will this space (the bathroom, part of your room, the inside of your backpack) look like when you’ve finished? And how will you feel?” or “What does it mean to have taken the dog out?” Your child’s answer should include all parts of the chore having been completed after thinking through it.

  • “What steps will you be taking as you work on it?” Be sure to help your child connect the emotion associated with having completed the task. This will help contribute to lasting change.

Trouble With Hygiene

While you may feel like your child is the only one with horrible hygiene habits, I see a lot of kids who have trouble with consistency in this area—especially oral hygiene. A common solution parents try is posting a list on the bathroom mirror to remind a child to tend to these tasks. (Never works, right?)

What You May Be Doing:

  • We say: “Did you brush your teeth?” “The dentist is going to be mad at you!” “Your teeth will rot!”

  • “You’re going to lose all your friends when you smell bad at school.”

  • (Insert more scare tactics here.)

Try This Instead:

  • You’ll need to problem solve some common issues, like aversions to some toothpastes and sensitivities to toothbrushes to rule out sensory issues or other problems.

  • “What might be preventing you from remembering to brush your teeth when you get out of the shower/before you come downstairs to leave for school/etc.? What could we do instead?”

  • “What will it look like for you to be ready for bed/school/to leave the house?” (hygiene steps will be tended to)

  • “Show me where you will go and what order you will do each of these things.”

  • “Let’s pretend we are (brushing our teeth, washing our hair, etc.)” With your child, ‘mime’ each task as though you are acting it out with realistic motions. This is referred to as gesturing, and has been shown to improve executive function.

Morning and Evening Routines

Have you resorted to making lists to try to get out of the house on time in the morning? Or perhaps to make sure everyone is in bed at a decent hour, minimizing the endless stall-tactics?

What You May Be Doing:

  • We say: “Hurry up, 10 minutes until we need to be out the door!”

  • “Get dressed and be downstairs in 5 minutes!”

  • “Get dressed, brush your teeth, and hurry up and eat your breakfast, we need to leave."

  • “Check your list, what should you be doing next??”

Try This Instead:

  • Depending on the age or ability of the child, create (or have him create) a drawing of the space where the task will occur, and together, do a mental practice of the task daily, prior to carrying it out, as repetition is required for the brain change required for lasting change.

  • Take photos of each room in your house, arrange similar to the layout of your home, and secure on a hard surface, such as a foam board. Have your child point and narrate the steps he will take in order to move through completing his routine.

  • Say instead: “Show me how you will move around the house to get from the couch to being ready to climb into your bed.” Talk through it together. Do this each night until you start to see your child starting it independently.

Strategies in school are similar. For instance:

When Helping Students Prepare to Change Rooms

What You May Be Doing:

  • Say "OK, get your materials for math and line up!"

  • Say: "Get your things and pack up!"

Try This Instead:

  • Say, “Think about what you will look like once you are in line ready to walk to math.” Choose a student to talk through it slowly. Allow the class to prepare together as a group so that everyone is ready at the same time, rather than students with executive function deficits consistently remaining a beat behind. Start a few minutes earlier, and say, “Ok, let’s think through the day together and make sure we have all the materials we need to complete tonight’s homework. Get out your planners.”

A Child Has Trouble Getting All Assignments into Their Planner, or Doesn't Write Anything

What You May Be Doing:

  • You say: “We really need to be independent. I’ll check at the end of the day to make sure you’ve written it all in.”

  • “You’re 12 years old, you should be able to do this.”

  • “The homework is all posted online, you can find it there.”

Try This Instead:

A planner is essentially a list created incrementally throughout the day. Luckily, kids learn in the early grades the mechanics of writing. Many skills and good processing must come together for assignments to make it into a planner. It’s most productive to do whatever it takes to get the information in one place so that kids can move on without having to be stuck before they even start working on the skills the assignments are meant to teach.

  • Say: “If you need help getting assignments into your planner, let’s work together throughout the day, I’ll help you make sure they make it onto the page as the day goes on.”

  • “No problem, I’ll write them if you need me to.”

  • “Oh you forgot/didn’t hear the assignment/missed it? No problem. Here, I’ll tell you what it is, and let’s try to notice tomorrow what made it hard for you to stay focused when I announced the assignment.”

The idea here is that lists are ultimately not discouraged; however, they are not useful until a person has developed the processing required to create a list that is based on reality and is a result of developed working memory. It must be created on their own. If you find that you are needing to create a list for a child, back up and invest your time into creative solutions that allow a child to begin to visualize the future and problem solve potential obstacles before they happen. And remember, independence comes with time and consistency of intervention. So hang in there.

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