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We all know the feelings brought on by a lengthy ‘to do list; ’ panic, dread, anxiety. It can be enormously overwhelming and lead to a spiral of destructive thoughts. That’s exactly how some individuals we support feel when we present them with a series of tasks. Whereas we have learnt and developed strategies to manage these feelings and manage our time, many of those in our care cannot do this without support.
When tasks feel unmanageable and overwhelming, children, young people and adults in our care can sometimes resort to demand avoidance. This is when the behaviour they present appears disruptive and defiant. For example, this could be refusal to complete a task, tapping, fidgeting, and moving around the room. The behaviours are a product of the same feelings we get with a ‘to do’ list. What we’re asking them to do can feel impossible and failure inevitable. It’s our responsibility to break tasks down for them and, in time, educate them with the skills to do this independently.
Know the Individual
Before we consider practical ideas for breaking down tasks, knowing and the understanding the individuals we support is key. Taking the time to listen and make meaningful connections through talk and play builds trust and an understanding that we’re not to going to ask or demand too much of them.
Instead of rushing into a series of tasks, we can think about how we’re going to help keep the individual interested. We’re far more likely to keep a person motivated and on board with what we’re asking them to do if we incorporate their likes and interests.
For individuals to succeed in the tasks we give them, we need to be flexible and innovative. Below are a few examples of how to break tasks down to make them more manageable and less daunting.
- Consider how tasks are presented: Instead of talking through a series of demands, we can be minimal in the how much language we use. Too much talk can be difficult to process and overcomplicate tasks; focus on being simple and succinct.
- It may help to use role play, visual images, simple hand gestures or signing to support the individual’s understanding of what we have asked of them. In some settings, puppets or favourite toy characters can work alongside the individual to complete tasks.
- Use prompts to sequence tasks in a bullet point list that can be crossed or ticked off. ‘Now,’ ‘next’ and ‘then’ cues are a good way of sequencing tasks that need to be achieved.
- It’s important the individual knows and understands why they have been asked to do something. For example, “To go to the shops we need our shoes on,” not just “put your shoes on.”
- Event mapping things that need to happen in the long and short term can help to sequence actions and improve the individual’s understanding of what’s going to happen next for them. Visual timetables are great at breaking down events and tasks into bite-size chunks. Pictorial learning journeys and calendars can help to communicate longer-term plans and future activities. Again, we can consider how we can work with the individual’s interests.
- Some individuals respond well to sand or digital timers. They can be good at directing attention and quickening the pace. Be mindful that this isn’t always the case and, for some, timers can trigger heightened stress and anxiety.
- It may be appropriate to include sensory breaks when you are asking a person to complete a series of tasks. For example, this could be a drink of water, a piece of fruit, an exercise, or a walk outside. Taking breaks can help to refocus attention and break tasks down into manageable amounts. We can incorporate sensory breaks into a visual timetable or bullet point list using ‘now,’ ‘next’ and ‘then cues.’
When we present an individual with a series of tasks, we can remember how a lengthy ‘to do list’ makes us feel. Unlike some of the individuals we support, we have learnt the skills to break down this list into bite-size chunks that make the ‘to do list’ feel less overwhelming and manageable. When we make time to understand the individual and build connections, we can find practical strategies to break tasks down in a helpful and engaging way.