How to Help the Child Who Just Can’t Seem to Get Started

how to help the child who just can't seem to get started

Do you have a child whose smarts and skills amaze you, but they have a procrastination problem? Have you read a paper or looked at a visual for a school project and marvelled at your child’s work but wondered how it even got done? What do you do when a bright and capable kid just can’t get started?

Many highly capable kids just don’t know how to get started on tasks as simple as getting dressed in the morning or cleaning their room. Some of these kids do very well once they get going, but get overwhelmed by the details and can’t figure out a plan of action, or even the first step. Even worse, this pattern of inertia can turn into a habit of procrastination. How do you help a child get comfortable with task initiation?

For many children with this problem, modeling and teaching strategies can go a long way toward giving them the focus, organization, planning, and time management skills to get them moving with more confidence and efficiency. While they may always take a bit longer to get started on projects, providing them with direct instruction can often be a very helpful tool. In this edition of the LearningWorks for Kids Beyond Games series we provide you with strategies to help kids who just can’t get started.

Step-by-step. Break bigger tasks into several smaller tasks can be a big help (and relief) to the child who doesn’t know where to start. A big task can be overwhelming to a child, but turning it into a bunch of little tasks makes it easier for them to identify a starting point and lessens some of the pressure of completing a larger project. A child can learn to identify the component parts of a chore and the steps needed to complete it — the possible starting points for cleaning his room, for instance: picking up clothes, putting away books and papers, making the bed, emptying the trash can. Helping your child determine which steps make sense to do first, what should follow next, and what can wait will help build focus, planning, organization, and time management skills.

“Micro” steps. Some children need further elaboration on the smaller steps that go into a larger step. Rather than simply telling a child that homework comes before play, it might be more useful to help them get organized for the task at hand. Give them detailed instructions on preparing for and doing the task. Tell them to gather their books, pencils, and homework assignments; go to their desk; get situated; start with the first math problem. It’s important to assess their skills, experience, and the type of job that is to be done in order to determine how far you’ll need to break down the task.

Keep calm. Recognize that a child will need help getting started on tasks and provide them with good directions to accomplish it. Rather than getting frustrated with kids who just can’t seem to get started, we need to accept that they will need help and encouragement on a regular basis. Make sure you have your child’s attention before giving instructions when they needs to start working on a task. Eliminate distractions such as television, videos, and the computer. Make eye contact, be concise, and ask them to repeat the directions. Emphasize the importance of using similar strategies when they talk to you.

DIY. When it comes to helping them develop healthier habits and stronger skills, modeling the strategy you want to teach them makes it much more effective. Additionally, giving them new and different responsibilities, and even putting them in leadership roles, can give them much-needed perspective. Make sure they’re in earshot as you narrate the fact that you plan to break up your household tasks. Say something like, “Okay, this kitchen needs cleaning. I think I’ll start by clearing off the counter, then I’ll do the dishes, and then I’ll take out the trash.” Engage a child in these kinds of “hands-on” household tasks that allow you to demonstrate how to divide the job into starting points and smaller steps. A task like meal preparation is ideal because it can involve consulting a recipe, having the necessary ingredients and utensils within reach, and allotting time to set the table and put out condiments or side dishes. Repair or construction tasks are also good examples for this strategy, as they involve clearing a space, studying instructions, and gathering materials and tools. Work toward asking your child to plan a menu or a project of their own, then act as their assistant while they direct you.

For more information about focus, which encompasses task initiation, task persistence, and tuning out distractions, see our thinking skills page. You can complement the strategies listed above with games and apps that help kids develop this important executive function, like Focus@Will, Whispering Willows, and Social Chess. See our playbooks and app reviews for detailed guides.

Featured image: Flickr user Michael Newton

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