A New Ability: Making Plans

Have you noticed your school age child likes to make plans? At least sometimes. This is new. Effective planning relies on the capacity to decenter, think flexibly, and take into account several factors of an event or situation. Studies of planning usually look at how well children can plan to quickly get through a maze. Mazes are drawn on paper or are small models children can look at and then figure out how to go through them. Findings from these studies consistently indicate that 7 to10-year-olds are vastly more successful than 4 to 6-year-olds.

The same planning and thinking skills are what make games of strategy so popular with this group. Board games such as checkers, Guess Who, Mastermind, and, a little later, Clue and chess are time-honored hits. Similarly, an ever expanding range of electronic and online games that require strategies, logic and planning are geared towards this age group. On playgrounds, games with rules appear, including elaborate child-invented rules.

boy looking at a map of a zooIn the real world, children this age are increasingly excited and able to plan events such as sleepovers, parties, and sports competitions and these allow them to coordinate their expanding thinking skills with their developing social skills.

Planning abilities also open the door to accepting greater responsibility. It may seem logical that during the elementary years children will gradually take control of recurring obligations, things like homework and self care for example. Yet despite the expanding capacity to plan, legions of children fail miserably at these things.

Being able to plan doesn’t equal being responsible!

The reason for the apparent discrepancy in ability and behavior is that assuming responsibility takes a lot more than being able to plan. It also requires well developed self regulation and several aspects of executive function. Self regulation involves an individual’s adopting social standards of acceptable behavior. Executive function is an array of higher level cognitive processes that regulate attention, are involved in retrieval of information from memory and enable inhibition of thoughts and activity. Inhibition here means being able to ignore distractions or being able to stop one activity and switch to another because it is appropriate to do so, not just because one wants to. Executive function develops slowly over many years and requires maturation of particular brain regions, especially those in the pre-frontal cortex. This neurological development cannot be hastened and in fact continues to mature into early adulthood.

So, your school aged child has a rapidly expanding ability to plan, but remembering, stopping pleasurable activities in order to handle obligations, and exhibiting self-regulation are still developing. This is why you may see a discrepancy between what you know your child is able to do and what she or he actually does. It isn’t necessarily being lazy or irresponsible.

Suggestions for parents

During middle childhood, your child will probably love to take charge of things or plan social events and activities, and she or he has a rapidly expanding capacity to do so. Providing opportunities to practice this build skills, confidence and enthusiasm. You may want to engage your child in planning events, for himself or the family more generally. Children this age also like to plan things together and doing so builds social skills. Collaboration with others also leads to fuller and more complete planning since suggestions are weighed and agreed on. You may want to encourage your child to plan, or help you plan, parties, sport meets, family excursions, overnight visits to friends and family, or planning meals, photo albums and other activities your family enjoys.

♥  However, you will need to scaffold implementation of plans and responsibilities by taking on some of the responsibility for regulation, remembering and balancing activities.

girls, sleeping bags, games