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How Monkey-See, Monkey-Do Can Teach Your Child To Prioritize

Father and Son

Prioritizing isn't always second-nature for all people. Teach you child by example.

Prioritizing can be a challenging task for many people. What’s first? What’s next? What can wait until tomorrow? Now, take that and multiply it by 100, and you get a glimpse of how hard it is for a child with ADHD (or an adult!).

Executive function deficits make it especially difficult for ADHD kids to prioritize. Neurotypical folks don’t usually think much about the processes we use to prioritize – we “just do them.” But as parents, if we can verbalize our priorities, and teach our kids how we think through things sequentially, we can help them master it themselves over time.

Monkey See, Monkey Do­– Monkey Prioritizes Just Like You!

Kids mimic their parents, and you can use that to your advantage. There are lots of opportunities in the weekly routine to set examples for your children when you prioritize. In my house, I share my to-do list on the weekends.

“I’m going to the store first because it takes the longest and I want to get it out of the way. Then I’m going to garden because I enjoy it more – and I can work up an appetite before lunch. I have to balance my check book but I’ll do that this afternoon when I’m tired and want to sit down.”

By externalizing my executive function, my kids can see that prioritizing is an actual process, and something they can learn.

Now for those of you who struggle with prioritizing, yourself, take heart. We all have some systems that we’ve put into place for ourselves to make life easier. It could be when and how you brush your teeth, or how you manage cooking dinner, or which load of laundry you decide to do first. Think about the simplest processes you use, and talk them out loud. You might be surprised to discover that you’re actually prioritizing without thinking about it consciously.

Homework is the #1 Priority Test

Homework challenges often result from what Dr. Thomas Brown calls trouble with “Activation” — organizing, prioritizing, and activating work. There are several steps to organize in the mind. What work do I have to do? What is most important? What is going to take the longest? How do I organize time so that I have enough? Because our kids have difficulty with Activation, they have trouble figuring out how to put all of their homework in order and get started.

My kids, for example, have a hard time gaging how much time tasks will take, so they usually pick the easiest assignment and do that first. Picking the low-hanging fruit can be a good strategy, but if they spend an hour on a project that should take 15 minutes because they want to do it perfectly, that cuts into the time that might be available for their other work. Then, when there’s less time for Minecraft or YouTube, kids get frustrated, or feel defeated.

Activating Activation: Give Your Kids a Structure

The key is to set realistic expectations: your child may not be able to manage her time now. Her homework folder or task list might be a foreign world, and she just can’t handle the language yet. That’s ok. What is reasonable for her? Start there. You’ll set her – and yourself – up for success.

For example, look through your child’s assignments with them at the outset, and show them how to construct an agenda. “Why don’t you do this assignment first because it’s going to take 30 minutes. Then, you can do this one because it’ll take 10. Then you’ll do this one because….” You are teaching her good habits. She’s not just doing the easy ones, but neither is she worn down by the bigger ones.

Or you might help her prioritize by due dates: what’s due tomorrow, and what’s due the day after. Planning – out loud and methodically – gives her the tools she needs. Automating this process with apps like a project timer, checklists, or a smartphone app can really help keep her on track independently too.


Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster, founders of ImpactADHD.com, teach/write about practical strategies to parents of “complex” kids with ADHD and related challenges. To help your kids find the motivation to get anything done, download their free parent’s guide, The Parent’s Guide to Motivating Your Complex Child.

This article was originally published at ImpactADHD. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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