Create daily routines for children with weak executive functions

Getting kids on board with organizing is not always the easiest of tasks. Trying to organize a child with weak executive functions (the self-regulating skills that help us plan, organize, make decisions, shift between situations/thoughts, and control our emotions and impulsivity) can be even more overwhelming for both parent and child.

But it doesn’t have to be. Children who struggle with executive function problems see and interact with the world differently, but with these differences, come many strengths. If you are prepared to think outside of the box, be flexible yet committed, and truly explore your own creativity, organizing with your child can be a fun, rewarding experience for you both.


Do be specific

Telling a child with weak executive functions to “clean” or “organize” a space will usually end up with both of you being disappointed and frustrated with the outcome. Giving a “clean your room” command is too vague and too subjective for kids to accomplish. Instead, give the child specific tasks--one at a time--until the room looks the way you would like it to.

Start by asking, “Can you please put all of the toy trucks in the truck bin.” Once your child has done this, praise him and lead him to the next step. Try saying, “Good job. Now I would like you to take all of your dirty clothing to the laundry room.” Working together to minimize any confusion regarding expectations for a child will help both of you be successful with your organizing goals.

Do use immediate rewards

A major roadblock for kids with executive function struggles is the inability to break down tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. This is not only important for chores, but for rewards as well. Telling children to work all week for one big reward is setting them up for disappointment. Instead, work out a system whereby a child is rewarded continuously and at the time the targeted behavior is observed. This does not have to mean that kids physically receive something. It can be verbal praise, a tally mark or a visual addition to the graphic representing them getting closer to their bigger goal.

Do make organizing a creative task

Spending time asking questions and observing how kids naturally approach and respond to tasks will help give you insight into why certain things are a struggle for them, as well as the personal strengths they bring to the table.

A child may be struggling to adhere to a morning routine and get out the door to school on time because she can’t understand the sequencing of dull tasks, such as brushing teeth and packing lunch. But what if it was not a routine? What if it was a morning play and she was the main actress? Write up a script together that she can rehearse each morning. Her costume is her school clothes, and her first scene takes place in the bathroom where she spends time brushing her teeth. She must then enter the kitchen stage right and interact with “Mr. Fridge” who will give her a sandwich.

Do try visual aids

Due to the relatively weak working memory that comes from struggles with executive function, multi-step processes are difficult to execute. Asking your child to go upstairs and get ready for bed may not sound overwhelming, but it certainly can be.

Getting ready for bed actually involves multiple steps, such as brushing teeth, putting on pajamas and picking out a bedtime story. Work with your child to create a visual chart, which lists step-by-step common routines that either hang in an easy-to-see space or can be carried from place to place by a child. Then, as the child loses track of what she is supposed to be doing, she can refer to it to get back on track. Charts can use words or pictures, depending on the age and reading level of your child.

Do stay positive

Parents may be tempted to take privileges away from a child if he does not do what is asked of him. However, kids with weak executive functions come up against failures more often than those with strong executive functions. Try focusing your attention on rewarding the targeted behavior, rather than punishments for things that don’t get done.


Do not get frustrated

Your child wants to be successful. If chores and organizing are difficult, it is most likely because the strategies for getting them done are not matching up with a child’s natural processing or learning style. Getting frustrated closes the door to communication and problem solving. Stay calm and get your children involved in developing ways they can help around the house and ways in which you can support them.

Do not give up

Traditional strategies may not work for you and your child, but this does not mean that nothing will. Stick with your new, creative strategies for enough time to really try them out, which is usually about 2 to 3 weeks. If things still are not working out for you, it is time to put that thinking cap back on and try something new.

Do not be stubborn

Remember that the goal is for your children to be contributing members of the household by doing their chores or by organizing their space. This does not mean they must achieve these goals the same way that you did growing up, or the same way that Johnny down the street does. If your child wants to dress up like a pirate and shout commands to imaginary mateys, who are helping him clean his room, go with it. The organizing process needs to match the person doing to work.

Do not compare

Often times, it is just one child in the family who struggles with executive functions. If this is the case, getting frustrated and comparing the abilities of one child to another is hurtful to everyone involved. Kids with weak executive functions are generally aware that they struggle with certain types of tasks and pointing this out over and over won’t help them get any better. If you have kids who interact differently with the world, their chores and organizing routines need to reflect this.

Do not forget to praise

One of the easiest ways to encourage good behavior is to freely and frequently tell kids when you are happy with what they are doing. If your child is making an effort, praise her. If she did even a small task that was asked of her, let her know how much you appreciate it.

Jumping cartoon

Working with your children to institute a chore or organizational routine does not have to be a stressful process. Focus on your children’s strengths in order to develop a system that allows them to succeed. Remember to be creative, specific and positive.

More expert advice about Tackling Family Problems and Conflict

Photo Credits: Child labor 7/26 by clogozm via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Stephanie Wright, CPO ® Certified Professional Organizer

Stephanie Wright holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. She has an educational background, specializing in working with children and young adults diagnosed with learning disabilities, ...

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