11 Tips on Breaking Tasks Down for Students: An Executive Function Post

In your inclusive classroom, you’ll probably have some students who get overwhelmed by large projects or complex activities. What’s the best way to support their success and help them avoid overload? Try breaking complicated tasks into smaller, less intimidating steps that feel easier to tackle and complete.


Today’s post gives you 11 helpful tips on breaking tasks down for your students who experience overload or have executive function challenges. These suggestions are adapted from Solving Executive Function Challenges by Lauren Kenworthy et al., a practical guide on helping kids with autism be flexible, get organized, and work toward goals–though the tips in this post are useful for any student who needs more support when faced with a multi-step task.


Pinpoint problem areas. Start by playing detective and figuring out which parts of a task are most difficult for your student. Does he have trouble getting started? Does she lose focus in the middle of a complex task? Analyze the components of tasks and activities so you can pinpoint trouble spots and determine which parts of the task might need to be broken down into more manageable pieces.


Set a starting point. Some students get overwhelmed and “stuck” when they don’t know how to begin a larger project. Advise your students to start by finding one source of information on the topic and then show you what they found.


Build in breaks. Your students might find it easier to focus when long periods of classwork are broken down into smaller chunks. You might set a timer, have a student work on a task for 10 minutes, and then take a short break.


Try a cover-up. If the student takes one look at a full page of math problems and says “I can’t do this!,” cover up all the problems but one with a blank piece of paper. Seeing one problem at a time will help make the task seem more doable.


Cut them a check(list). Put a laminated checklist in the child’s folder that lists the steps for completing multi-step tasks, such as doing long division, writing a complete paragraph, packing up at the end of school, and other frequent tasks. Include a box to check off next to each step. (At home, parents might try a paper checklist on a clipboard for getting ready to go to school each morning.)


Flip it. If the visual presentation of many steps on a checklist is overwhelming, use a small flip chart to organize steps of an activity or routine. Write or create a visual of each step on a separate index card, and then connect all the index cards in order with a ring. The student can flip through the steps one at a time without feeling overloaded.


Make it routine. Does your student have trouble focusing on homework once they’re away from the structured school environment? Help the student create a homework routine that pops up on their laptop or lives in a special section of their notebook. The routine should clearly map out all the steps to follow when completing homework, from writing down an assignment to putting the books in the backpack.


Shrink the scope of your questions. During classroom conversations, does your student struggle to answer open-ended questions such as “How was your weekend?” Try asking smaller, more specific questions such as “What did you eat for dinner last night?” (This is a good tip to pass on to parents, too.)


Post rule reminders. For students who thrive when tasks are broken down, it helps to have clear reminders of classroom rules posted in relevant areas. For example, a simple list of rules for computer time (e.g., obey time limits, no Internet) should be posted right next to the computer as reminders for all students. Rule reminders can be useful outside the classroom, too–for instance, parents can print three rules for a fun playdate on an index card and have their child review it right before their friend arrives.


Call out connections. Students who become overloaded trying to learn new material may find it easier when you make connections to material they’ve already learned. Look for ways to relate new concepts to ideas the student already understands, or put new information in a familiar context. You might point out, “This percentage math problem reminds me of those pie fraction problems you had last week.”


Try it outside the classroom, too. If your student is intimidated by the thought of joining peers at recess, sit down together on a bench and talk about it. Break the situation down with questions: Who’s playing games that the student might like to join? Are there children on the playground who are especially fun to play with? Are there students who have been mean in the past? Finding a friendly peer or fun activity as an entry point may help a scary social situation feel more manageable.


Have you developed your own strategies for helping students break tasks down into smaller, more manageable chunks? Share your best tip in the comments below! And if you liked today’s post, here’s what to do next:



--Solving Executive Function Challenges: Simple Ways to Get Kids with Autism Unstuck and on Target

By Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., Laura Gutermuth Anthony, Ph.D., Katie C. Alexander, M.S., OTR, Monica Adler Werner, M.S., Lynn Cannon, M.Ed., & Lisa Greenman, J.D.

Developed for use with students in Grades K”“8, this practical guide shows how to embed executive function instruction in dozens of everyday scenarios, from morning routines to getting homework done.





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