215 Ferris Avenue, East Providence, RI 02916 | 401-432-9940

Executive Function & Goals

Helping Your Child With Planning For The Future

Happy 2023!  The beginning of a new year seems to always bring with it conversations around resolutions and goal setting.  For Complex Learners, goal setting or planning for the future is a component of executive functioning that many struggle with. To successfully set and meet a goal, you need to identify your future self doing something very specific, and then work backward to identify the steps required to get there. This is something that isn’t always easy for adults, so it’s especially daunting for children struggling with executive function skills. 

But whether it’s for a new year resolution or just personal development, being able to set a goal and work towards it is a valuable skill for every Complex Learner. So what can you do to help your child? With practice and a plan, your child can work on developing their goal-setting abilities. We spoke with Occupational Therapist, Nicole Braga-O’Neill, for 4 ways to engage your child in developing this skill at home!

Start Small 

No matter if your Complex Learner is 5 or 15 years old, they struggle with planning for the future then it is best to start small to build their confidence. Begin with small tasks they are already familiar with, such as brushing their teeth or setting the table. Ask them to physically draw out what that would look like once it is done. They may draw themselves smiling with shiny teeth or the plates, forks and cups set out on the table before dinner is served. This activity supports them in visualizing their future goal by starting with a task they already know. Build upon the familiar and increase the number of steps over time to build up the skill. While you may start with brushing teeth, over time this may develop into you asking them to draw out their entire bedtime routine. This will help your child build this visualization skill until they are able to plan and strategize how they will complete those steps of the bigger goal (entire bedtime routine).  


Time is a very abstract concept for many students who struggle with executive function skills. The passage of time is always present, but to know if a task will take them 5 minutes versus 15 minutes to complete is a complex concept. This factors greatly into being able to set goals because, without a clear understanding of time, they won’t be able to realistically plan their steps. The solution to this problem is quite simple – a clock. Having clocks or setting timers is a great way to work on understanding the passage of time. For younger children, or those still learning to tell time, use a color-blocking clock.  An analog clock, or time timer, with increments of color, will allow them to follow the movement of the hands, or the passage of time, within a given space.  For older children, setting a timer on their phone or watch may be most beneficial and convenient for them. 

Whatever way this looks for your child, developing a time frame in which a task should be completed is a great way to start to work on the concept of time. Start with a familiar task that needs to be completed within a given time frame with a hard start and stop point. This allows your child to see how long tasks are actually taking them. For children who benefit from auditory reminders, the length of a familiar preferred song is also a useful tool to identify the passage of time. Having your child complete a task by the end of a given song, or a specific playlist, allows them to pace and listen for when they are almost out of time.


While a clock is one visual that supports a successful planning process, other visual supports can be integrated and individualized to meet your child’s needs.  A checklist or visual schedule is another way to address completing a task in sequential order and meeting an end goal.  As mentioned earlier, the end goal should always be drawn out and visible when first learning to develop this plan. This gives your child a constant reminder of what they are working toward while checking off the various components of a task. Over time the visuals can be dialed back, and the level of independence will increase.

Make It Fun

Goal setting and planning can be really challenging skills for many Complex Learners but they can be made really fun.  You can make some of the tasks into races and see who can finish first.  The end goal can be made to look super silly, and the student needs to “fix” the mistakes to make it look correct again. 

Overall, planning and goal setting is a challenge from childhood to adulthood.  But starting small and just starting at all, are both really positive changes in the right direction.

Want to get notified when there’s a new World of Complex Learners blog post? Subscribe to our blog!

Post a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.