4 Ways to Teach Students Backward Planning

Students can learn to use their time wisely and strengthen their executive functioning skills by starting with the end in mind.

May 9, 2023
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Let’s play a game. Imagine you’re talking to a student, and complete this sentence: “Your project is due tomorrow, and you should have…” Whatever follows the ellipsis identifies a missing skill set—one that likely falls in the realm of executive function (EF). 

Emerging research is celebrating the importance of EF skills, with a nod to the possibility that executive functions may be more important for life outcomes than one’s IQ score. Teaching the skill of backward planning grows several EF skills for students and provides scaffolds for their success and independence. 

What Is Backward Planning?  

Backward planning embodies its name. It’s the cognitive act of planning and scheduling each step, backward from a due date to the present moment. In the classroom, examples of backward planning abound. Teachers use it to plan when to start preparing students for upcoming assessments or when to announce projects. Even giving yourself enough time in the morning to get to campus on time is a result of successful backward planning; you set your alarm by first planning how much time you need to get ready and then counting back to find your alarm time—that’s backward planning.

Students often backward-plan for social events, such as scheduling shopping for a prom outfit a few weeks before the event. Many students may backward-plan for academic events as well, allotting several days to prepare for an assessment or paper. This skill, although crucial, is not innate and can be developed through lessons, practice, and reflection.

4 Ways to Teach Backward Planning

1. Upcoming events. An engaging way to teach backward planning is unfolding in our springtime classrooms: End-of-the-year events, field trips, and rites of passage present opportunities to learn and practice the backward-planning skill set. As you discuss upcoming events with your students, consider digging into what comes next, by asking them the following questions in preparation for the event:

  • What does this event require that you have, be able to do, or have already done? 
  • When you envision yourself at the event, what are you doing, wearing, or holding?
  • Make a movie in your mind of the weeks and days before the event: Each scene you envision can become a step in your readying process.
  • Who needs to know about the event? How much advance notice do they need? 

2. Academic applications. Announcing a project or essay is the prime moment for backward planning. Demonstrate how a student may look at the requirements, and list out the components necessary to satisfy the rubric or assignment. For example, students may circle the verbs in a set of directions and turn them into the steps they must complete. Once the steps are listed, you can guide students to estimate the time that each step may take. Finally, students can take the chunks of time they predict they’ll need and plug the time into their calendars. The following steps highlight the process: 

  • Deconstruct the directions. What are the actions you must take to complete this assignment?
  • Hack the rubric. Double-check your actions list by looking at the top score column of the rubric. What does it require you to do? Be sure to add a final step of comparing your project with the rubric and adjusting, as needed.
  • Estimate time. Once your steps are listed, give each a time estimate (padding with 15–30 minutes is a great idea, too).
  • Schedule backward. From your due date and in response to the demands of your schedule (i.e., be realistic about whether or not you’re likely to work on a project on a Saturday night), place your steps in your calendar. (Bonus idea: Give yourself a false deadline of a few days to create a buffer just in case life gets unexpectedly busy!)

3. Tests. Projects and essays are more clear opportunities for backward planning, but don’t count out assessments! You can empower students to plan out their study approaches, estimate the required time, and schedule their study sessions. 

4. Problem-solving, considering special populations. For students with EF deficits, learning disabilities, ADHD, or autism, practice, feedback, and adjustments will be vital to mastering any EF skill. Consider making the invisible steps of backward planning concrete and visible for them, by creating task cards (physically or digitally) that list the basic steps. Small group support may be best when helping students tackle a project with heavy weight on their grade. Reminders of and check-ins at the incremental step deadlines will be vital for students with emerging EF skills. 

Building executive function empowers students for success in school and in life. The great news is, we can do so with small adjustments to our pedagogy, joining our students to experiment and refine until we have a great formula for strategies that work!

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