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Unleash the power of checklists!

by Mary Mazzoni on April 11, 2012

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Does your child’s disability affect attention, organization, and short term memory?

Do you find yourself repeating reminders almost every day?

Well-crafted checklists can make day-to-day life more pleasant – as well as increasing your child’s independence and self determination.

If you answer “yes” to the following questions – checklists are a tool of choice for your child.

Where you are now

  1. Does your child depend on reminders to begin routine tasks?
  2. Does your child begin multi-step tasks but become distracted before completing them?
  3. Do your repeated reminders often cause friction between you and your child?

Where you want to be

  1. Do you want to decrease (what your child perceives as) “nagging”?
  2. Do you want your child to complete routine tasks more independently?
  3. Do you want your child to build skills needed for success in the workplace?

Why a checklist?

If you’ve answered “yes” to these questions, you’re certainly not alone. Most kids with neurologically-based disabilities struggle with navigating the many demands of day to day life.

But will checklists really make a difference?

After all, you may say, “my child already knows what he’s supposed to do!”.  Isn’t a checklist a kind of “crutch”?

Checklists in the “real world”

Consider this true story of how interactive checklists in a hospital save lives! Time Magazine selected Dr. Peter Pronovost as one of the world’s “most influential people” because of the thousands of lives he has saved. How did he do this? By instituting Safety Checklists that now prevent death from infection in hospitals throughout the United States.

Didn’t the doctors and nurses who now use these checklists already know the safety protocols? Sure they did.  Did they intentionally ignore these protocols?  Of course not. They simply got distracted.

The use of checklists, long part of military procedure, is now growing exponentially in medical, manufacturing, and business settings. Far from being a “crutch”, checklists are valued as simple tools  to efficiently achieve desired results.

Pitfalls of prompt dependence

When kids rely on reminders, we say they are “prompt dependent”.  The obvious concern is – what will happen when no one is there to provide the prompt?

Frankly, continual prompting works against the independence and initiative our kids will need for success in postsecondary education and the workplace.

Checklists empower kids to complete multi-step tasks without prompting.

Where to start

  1. List several multi-step tasks that you routinely prompt your child to complete*
  2. Arrange a (mutually convenient) time to talk with your child
  3. Let your child know that you have confidence in his readiness to rely less on reminders, and explain how adults use checklists to remember the steps of a task
  4. Allow your child to choose one multi-step task from your list to try first*
  5. Help your child design a checklist for that task
  6. Help your child decide where to locate the checklist
  7. Help your child decide on a way to remember when he should use it
  8. Agree on a day to begin using the checklist
  9. Agree on a day to meet again to evaluate how the checklist is going
  10. Reinforce your child when he completes the task without prompts using the checklist
  11. Repeat the process for a new task of your child’s choice (after he’s been successful with the first checklist).

(*Note – start small. If the evening routine includes packing backpack, taking shower, brushing teeth – start with a checklist for packing backpack first, add the other components later.)

Designing the checklist

A checklist only works if the user manipulates it in some way (e.g., checks off completed items.).  Experiment with various formats until you find one that works for your child. Checklists can be designed for kids and adults of all skill levels. Here are just a few sample formats:

  • Checklist apps for smart phone or tablet (see review of current popular apps here.)
  • Laminate a paper checklist, so your child can check items off with dry erase marker
  • Combine photos and print-to-voice for checklists on smart phone
  • Create lists with photographs of each step. Use velcro so child can place items from “to do” to “done” column

Location, location, location

If the checklist is on your child’s phone, he’s likely to have it everywhere he goes.

If it’s a paper list, keep it where it will be used. For example, now that she’s on her own, our daughter has a “leave the house” checklist on the inside of her front door. (She put it there after once leaving the apartment with the oven on!).

Get started prompt

Checklist apps for iphone and other smart phones typically have a built-in programmable alarm. Otherwise, your child can preset a separate audible or vibrating alarm to prompt himself to begin each checklist.

At school and in the community

Once your child has had success using checklists at home for various routine tasks, apply the strategy to other areas of life.

Meet with your child and his teacher to develop checklists (one at a time) for school. Use the same process, with the teacher identifying routine tasks that currently require prompting and your child choosing where to begin from that list.

For example – a vibrating timer can be set for 3 minutes before the end of each class period, and your child can use a checklist to – place papers in proper binder, record assignment, put writing utensils in designated place, pack backpack, ask a question if needed. Or, there can be a checklist inside the locker to guide packing for each “locker stop” during the day.

Gradually collaborate with your child to replace repeated adult prompts with checklists – at home, school and in the community.

Self determination

Checklists won’t work if they are unilaterally imposed on your child. He should be a partner in the process, involved in experimenting with different formats until he finds one that works well for him. This way, he’ll be likely to use the strategy when he’s on his own.

Your turn

Checklists are powerful because they are efficient. They reduce stress, avoid parent-child conflict, increase independence, and help our kids prepare for the future. That’s a lot of bang for a simple strategy!

Does your child use checklists? Do you? What format works best for your child? We’d love to hear your ideas and experiences in the comments.

Was this post helpful? Please share it! Thanks!

Photo Credit – The BarrowBoy on Flickr

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sandra Pearson April 12, 2012 at 6:16 am

Checklists have been especially beneficial for Matthew. Whenever starting something new, especially, the checklist helps him to create the new routine without Mom looking over his shoulder (routines can be used for good!). It helps him to feel more independent, yet comfortable knowing nothing will be missed. This helps to keep his anxiety in check. He usually only needs to use one a few times before he has committed it to memory.


Mary Mazzoni April 12, 2012 at 7:39 pm

So glad to hear how Matthew uses checklists in his own way to tackle new routines! How cool that checklists empower his independence, increase his comfort level and reduce his anxiety. All without “Mom looking over his shoulder”. Awesome! Thanks so much for sharing, Sandra!


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