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It’s summertime! It’s a time for cookouts, evening swims, and family vacations. Summer is full of “plans”. But what if you live with a son or daughter who gets stuck on their own plans!?

In the heads of many of our clients, summer is the time for “my plans”. Summer is the time of year when they believe they can follow their own schedule and not one created by someone else. I often see kids who struggle with social or executive function (EF) deficits that don’t know how to communicate their “plan” effectively or they assume you should “just know”.

So how can we help our kids become flexible thinkers and cognitively shift between their plans and the plans of others? Here are seven tips for starting to help kids learn to be flexible shifters:

  1. Understand the power of a thought: Kids create pictures in their heads of what “summer” means (a lot of us do). It is important to remember that many kids become anxious that others will tell them that their “plan” can’t happen. Anxiety can be paralyzing for kids with social or EF deficits, which can create behavioral issues. Validate that they have plans and things they want to do; let them know you have “plans” as well and that sometimes you have to “flex”.
  2. Teach them to plan for the future: Talk about the difference between “set plans” (e.g., dentist appointments) and flexible plans (e.g., vacuuming). Many of our parents have a weekly white board calendar where they write things for the whole family to reference. Talking about how to fit your plan into a larger schedule is a key life skill.
  3. Model how to communicate your plan to your son/daughter: Pick a time of day that you communicate your plan to your child. Choose a time that typically is less stressful and a natural time for conversation (e.g., breakfast, lunch, after getting dressed). It is important that you talk about your own plans as well as your plans for your child for that particular day. Familiarize your child with the vocabulary of, “my plans for the day are…”. Modeling behaviors is one of the best teaching tools out there!
  4. Be realistic in your expectations: If you do have a child who is rigid about their plan, start with 1-2 “additional plans” for the day. Make them something routine based and things they have done independently before. For younger kids, ask them to make a picture in their head of what the plan looks like, and then say, “great, now tell me the steps”. Make sure their words matched the picture they painted! Kids need to both see and feel success when doing someone else’s plan if we expect them to do more in the future.
  5. Set up “check points” during the day: Set up specific times with your child where you will be checking in with them and their plan. Make it as concrete as possible. Use timers if needed as a way of alerting them that the “check in” will be coming up. Some kids benefit from having a “code word” for this check in (have fun with it).
  6. Avoid asking, “how are you doing with…” Once you ask the “how are you doing” question, you are provoking a “fight or flight response” in your child. The word “how” often has a negative connotation for kids with social or EF deficits. Instead of asking in the middle of a task, wait for your “check in time” and then lead off with, “I am just checking in with your plan for the day. I was wondering where you were with things”. Using the thinking verb “wondering” softens the intent behind the question.
  7. Reinforcement is key!! We can’t be naive and think that our kids will be internally motivated to do your plan on their own time. Therefore, setting up systems of reinforcement is key. Try setting up a system of motivation based on their interests. Your system can be a token system, up to a point system for accomplishing the set goals, to social praise and non-verbal reinforcement. Maybe a special trip they are working towards at the end of the week/month/summer? The system that you put into place will vary based on the ages and language level of your child. Just remember, we as adults become motivated to do the plans that others put forth for us because we get paid to do it!

Helping our kids shift their plans in a way that avoids checking out behaviors is possible. This is a life-long social skill that kids need to be exposed to at an early age. We can teach flexibility as long as those doing the teaching remember they too need to model flexibility, even in the midst of a difficult situation. Happy shifting!

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Chris, Director of the Social Learning Center at Benhaven, holds a Graduate Certificate from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in Behavioral Inventions in Autism and is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist & Licensed Professional Counselor with a specialization in Autism Spectrum Disorders and social cognitive interventions. The Social Learning Center is dedicated to learning, understanding, applying and communicating effective methods of social teaching for each individual and those who support them.