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The Hidden Complexities of Simple Tasks


Educators often observe students facing challenges with seemingly simple tasks. What we often fail to see is that that simple task is actually a collection of many simple tasks. Students who struggle with executive function may have difficulty breaking down and managing all of the little steps involved in that seemingly simple task. This is demonstrated below with the seemingly simple task of making toast:

Making Toast as an Educational Analogy 

Consider the steps involved in making toast: 

1. Get out the bread. 

2. Plug in the toaster. 

3. Set the toaster to the appropriate level. 

4. Put bread in the toaster. 

5. Get butter out of the fridge. 

6. Get the plate and knife ready. 

7. Get toast from the toaster. 

8. Put the toast on a plate. 

9. Add butter to toast.

While making toast might seem straightforward, breaking down the steps illustrates the complexity behind task execution, particularly for students struggling with executive function. Executive function skills include managing time, paying attention, switching focus, planning and organizing, and remembering details. These skills are crucial in everyday tasks and academic settings, from completing a math problem to organizing a project. The breakdown provides insight into where students might get stuck or overwhelmed. 

The Art of Backward Planning Goals in Education 

Knowing that students with executive function challenges sometimes struggle to complete more simple tasks, we must provide support, especially for larger tasks. One way to build support is through backward planning. Backward planning or design involves setting an end goal and determining the necessary steps. This method can be particularly effective in teaching students to approach their assignments and projects. When backward planning, consider the following:

Visualizing the End Goal: Encourage students to envision the final product of their projects or the outcome of their study sessions, creating a clear target to work towards.

Breaking Down the Steps: Help students identify the steps for academic tasks, creating a roadmap for success. 

Iterative Refinement: Teach students to refine their approach based on outcomes, similar to adjusting the toaster settings. This flexibility is a critical component of executive function

Reaching Success, One Slice at a Time

By understanding and teaching the concept of backward planning and breaking down tasks, educators can guide students through the structured, sequential thinking required in planning and organization. Whether it’s a simple task like making toast or a more complex academic project, the key to success lies in planning, breaking steps into small, manageable pieces, and refining the approach. 

Making toast is a metaphor for the intricacies of executive function skills, even in mundane tasks. By acknowledging and teaching these skills, educators can prepare students for various academic challenges and life goals. The next time students undertake any task, they can appreciate the inherent planning and execution skills involved and understand the importance of each step in reaching their desired outcome.

Educator’s Note: 

Students with executive function challenges often encounter more criticism than their peers. Balancing corrective feedback with positive reinforcement is crucial, ensuring they understand that developing these skills is a process and progress is valued. 

For More:

Helping Kids Who Struggle With Executive 

3 Basic Steps of Backward Design Lesson Plans  

Breaking Down a Task

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