Prioritize it! Teaching kids the difference between NOW and LATER

Do you ever wonder why your child or teen with ADHD can’t figure what to do when? They may be capable of listing things they need to accomplish but then they struggle to order these items. Soon, they feel overwhelmed and discouraged. Unsure how to decide what’s critical, they shut down and avoid starting anything.

Planning and prioritizing are key executive functioning skills, intimately related to organization, time management, initiation motivation and goal-directed persistence. They need to be taught directly to kids with ADHD and require a lot of adult patience. They also rely heavily on two of the 5 C’s of successful ADHD parenting: Collaboration and Consistency. You’ve got to work with your son or daughter to create a strategy for doing tasks with an order and a method that makes sense to their unique brains. With routines and repetition, these tools eventually become second-nature to them.

In order for kids to learn how to plan and prioritize, they have to understand the difference between urgent and important. Something urgent is time-related and has to be dealt with immediately. There’s a deadline, a limit or an impending crisis such as preparing for a test tomorrow, writing a paper that’s due tomorrow or finishing your taxes on April 15th at 11:58 pm. Something important is value-driven. It matters but there is less pressure around it: the “right-away factor” is missing. Things like extra-credit projects, practicing the piano or exercising fall into this category.

When a task is both urgent and important, it has to get done NOW. This is where we begin to help kids with ADHD: they’ve got to figure out how to do this since it’s just not clear to them. With their NOW/NOT NOW brains, it’s all or nothing. Many kids tell me that they can’t start anything without the fire of a deadline underneath and then they are incredibly stressed and anxious. While they may push back against any support you are offering, they, like you, want to argue less and feel proud of themselves. These are your motivators.

Armed with a paper calendar, markers, pens and Post-It notes, make a time to sit down with your son or daughter for no more than 20 minutes. Follow these steps to teach planning and prioritizing:

  1. Show your child or teen how to do a brain dump: Make a list of everything that needs to get done. Whether it’s cleaning their room or different homework assignments, getting these tasks out of their heads onto a piece of paper reduces the stress of trying to remember it and carry it all around inside. You can use your computer or iPad to create the list as long as you print it out afterwards.
  2. Help them understand the difference between urgent and important:  Discuss what type of organizing system makes sense to them. Is it color coding, numbers or letters?  Next, based on deadlines, order the items that you’ve written down together. Which items move to the top of the list and why? Some kids do better with separate lists of only one or two things to reduce overwhelm. Consider if this strategy would help your son or daughter.
  3. Talk about when and how long: Attach due dates to the items you’ve written down. Then, estimate approximately how long each one would take and write that next to the task. Ask your child or teen how they like to approach work. Do they like to start with something easy, feel a sense of accomplishment and move onto to a harder task? Or, do they prefer to get the hard stuff out of the way and then do the easy things–the stuff they enjoy. Connect the tasks to their preferred order of working.
  4. Put the items into a sequence: Now you are ready to order the items on the list, start with urgent tasks followed by the important ones, if you can get to these. Some kids aren’t ready to move beyond doing what’s urgent. That’s okay. Help them create tools for the urgent stuff now. Later, with more practice and maturity, they can move onto incorporating important things that have less pressure. Show them how to work backwards from deadlines and put the steps on the calendar.
  5. Break things down: Remember that procrastination, discouragement and frustration are signs that the task is too big for your child or teen to being. Make the tasks smaller and the steps more simple.
  6. Incorporate breaks: Make sure to incorporate times for body and brain breaks. Use Post-it notes to remind them what they were doing so they can ease back into it.

When you discuss how to order and evaluate tasks, teach planning strategies and work together to use calendars with steps for getting things done, you show your child with ADHD how to plan and prioritize with Collaboration and Consistency.