Breaking Projects into Small, Manageable Steps

Fundamentals of planning concept

By Cristina Evans, M.Ed. and David Murphy, M.Ed., Ed.D.

Deciding on how to get started on a big project and coming up with a plan for completing it can be challenging for anyone.  For those with executive functioning deficits (EFDs), it can be downright daunting.  It can feel overwhelming because long term projects and assignments force students, with EFDs, to use multiple executive functions at once. They must plan, prioritize, organize, evaluate, and initiate simultaneously. It’s a process that can feel like being asked to swim in the deep end, without any experience. Thankfully there are some evidence-based skill development techniques that have been proven to systemize the planning process, reduce stress and increase the quality of the resulting project.  Sarah Ward, a speech pathologist and founder of Cognitive Connections in Concord, Massachusetts has created a practical approach to project planning. She calls this approach the Get Ready-Do-Done method.

This strategy begins by asking your student/child to picture or imagine what the completed project should look like. This step helps kids to ‘see’ the finished product, and mentally initiate the planning process. By picturing the final product, a student is directed to plan the project backwards by using three separate planning spaces; Get Ready, Do, Done.  ​When initially teaching this strategy, the teacher or parent presents a picture or drawing of what is expected.  It is helpful to teach this using simple projects first, such as an easy-to-assemble a meal (pizza), a household chore (setting a table) or a simple art project.

A picture or drawing of what the finished product will look like when done is what drives the content of the other two planning spaces, Do and Get Ready.  Once the student knows what they are working towards they can then begin to list the steps they need to “Do” in order to get it Done.  As the student progresses in this method, you can start to encourage your student/child to draw a ‘Done’ picture of what the final project will looks like.

The “Do” planning area is used to create a list of materials needed for the project.  Students/children can use their ‘Done’ image as a reference. Afterwards, the student will make a list of the materials in the “Get Ready” planning space. Once this step is done, the student has completed the planning backwards process and is now ready to start the project by moving forward.

​It is important to teach this strategy using simple tasks before moving onto the more complicated, such as a school project.  However, by using careful scaffolding, eventually students can use this tool to plan and complete complex, multi-step assignments at any grade level.