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The Hidden Complexity of Simple Tasks: Making Toast and Executive Function Skills


Growing up, my mother gave my two ADHD brothers and me what she thought was a simple task. She would say, “We are running late. Put butter on toast and meet me in the car in five minutes.” 

She would return to the kitchen 10 minutes later, and there was bread scattered on the counter, butter on the floor, and we were wrestling. My mother would lose her patience with us, not understanding how we could not complete a simple task. Our family decided to repeat this routine several times per week for about ten years. 

What Are Executive Function Skills? 

Before we dive into our toast analogy, let’s discuss executive function skills. These are the mental skills that encompass things like managing our time, paying attention, changing focus, planning and organizing, and remembering details. They are fundamental in our day-to-day tasks, whether planning a work project or figuring out what we need for a dinner recipe. 

Making Toast as an Analogy 

Let’s revisit the toast-making steps: 

  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. 

My mother thought she was giving us a very simple task by saying, “Put some butter on toast and meet me in the car.” However, we were getting stuck along the way when you broke this task down into all the steps to get from beginning to completion. Of course, we are being rambunctious, but we couldn’t figure out how to reverse engineer success and transition through the steps to complete the buttered toast goal. 

The Art of Backward Planning Goals 

Backward planning, also known as backward design, involves setting an end goal and determining the necessary steps to reach it. It’s like reverse engineering your goals. 

  • Visualizing the End Goal: Just as you can envision a warm, buttered slice of toast, start any project or task by visualizing your desired result. This sets a clear target to work towards.
  • Breaking Down the Steps: As seen in the toast-making process, every end goal has a series of steps leading up to it. By identifying these steps, you can create a roadmap for success.
  • Iterative Refinement: Refining your steps or approach to tasks is crucial, just as you might adjust the toaster settings after a too-light or too-burnt outcome. Flexibility and adaptability are key components of strong executive function skills. 

Parenting Note- 

The typical child with an executive function challenge receives 20,000 more negative comments than positive comments by age 10. Finding a way to break down the steps and give two positive reinforcements to one negative comment is the key to success. It’s exhausting, but keep in mind. Executive function skills can be developed, so this is not forever. 

Reaching Success, One Slice at a Time 

By understanding and visualizing our end goals, we can work backward to understand the steps required to get there. We can also help our children, students, or family members complete goals. Like toast, we must prepare each ingredient and tool and ensure each step is executed correctly. This process reflects the structured, sequential thinking required in planning and organization. 

Making toast is simple, yet it perfectly exemplifies the essence of executive function skills. It serves as a reminder that even in the most mundane tasks, we continually plan, adjust, and execute. By honing these skills, like perfecting our toast-making technique, we can better prepare ourselves for life’s more complex challenges and goals. 

So, next time you’re making toast, take a moment to appreciate the beauty of executive function skills. And remember, whether it’s breakfast or life, the key to success lies in planning, breaking steps into small and manageable pieces to reach your desired outcome. 

Parenting a child who struggles with executive function can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to navigate this journey alone. Let Untapped help!

For More: 

Executive Function and Goal Setting 

What is Executive Function?

Helping Kids Who Struggle With Executive 

3 Basic Steps of Backward Design Lesson Plans 

Breaking Down a Task

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