Chores are neglected. Homework sessions begin and end with tears. They stall and find excuses. You worry they don’t have the motivation they need to be successful in school, or later in life. But their struggle with task initiation doesn’t spell doom. It just means it’s time to help your child find the energy to stop procrastinating.
Sometimes kids who can’t get started on tasks, particularly tasks they perceive to be difficult, just don’t have the cognitive or physical energy to attack a challenge. Some kids can seem chronically under-aroused and need prompting to pay attention and get started on things. Simply helping them improve their level of physical energy can be important for some children. Others require environmental changes that make the circumstances more interesting — and may even change their brain chemistry to get them to become more alert. In this edition of the LearningWorks for Kids Beyond Games series we provide you with 8 strategies you can use to help your child find the energy to tackle undesirable tasks.
Rise and shine. Sometimes a child’s lack of energy can mean that just getting started in the morning is a monumental task. Many children with executive functioning difficulties have problems getting a move on in the a.m., but you can make mornings easier by showing them how to be prepared. A child can get ready for school more efficiently by preparing as much as possible the night before, doing things like making lunch, packing a backpack, and laying out clothes and shoes. Some children also benefit from having two alarms for waking them in the morning, with the first alarm set to go off softly and allowing 10 or 15 minutes in bed before a second, louder alarm goes off that cannot be reached without getting out of bed. Alternatively, an app like SleepBot tracks their sleep cycle and wakes them within a certain time frame and when they’ll feel the best. Involve your child in planning other effective time strategies in order for them to take ownership of their responsibilities. This will also help you evaluate which methods work best for them.
Do as I do. Of course, modeling your own task initiation strategies is one of the most effective ways to help your child learn how to stop procrastinating. Describe out loud the steps you take to get ready for your own chore or project, listing the items you need to complete a task. This can help your child learn how to develop their own set of verbalizations — phrases they can use to get mentally prepared to tackle chores or homework. “Okay, I’ll go to the bathroom, then prepare a snack, then gather my books, and get a pencil and a notebook.” Having all their “ducks in a row” can help them feel like they can tackle whatever it is they need to do.
Brainstorm. Sometimes the steps to complete a project aren’t so cut and dry. Teach your child brainstorming methods for getting started on more complex tasks. Have them verbalize what it is they want to do, and list which steps they need to take. For tasks with multiple subtasks, draw a “spider map,” with the main goal in the center, larger steps branching from it, and the subtasks for completing those steps branching from those. Then order the steps to make one big outline for starting and completing the project. Use an app like Popplet or Idea Sketch to make the brainstorming process neater and more easily accessible. For free-write brainstorming, use an app like Evernote or One Note that makes it easy to go back and add things as they come to mind, then use bullets to order the list. When the process is finished, have your child identify and state out loud the first step they need to make and immediately start on it.
Prioritize. Sometimes a task is so overwhelming or undesirable that we will find tons of little things to do that help us avoid it — even things that would be avoided under normal circumstances. When it comes to a task like cleaning an overly messy room or tackling a book report, your child might not be able to see the trees for the forest. Offer an example or suggestion of where to start, like picking up all the clothes or noting the parts of the book they found most engaging. Taking photos of the process as each step is completed makes a record for them to see how far they’ve come, and importing them into an app like Story makes a visual guide for the next time around.
Progress makes perfect. Even small jobs like hanging pictures, re-potting plants, or cleaning the refrigerator can serve as occasions for discussing how to plan steps, knowing how to begin, and allowing enough time to finish. A more ambitious undertaking like painting a room would require more planning, from design to completion, but would also emphasize the need to set efficient starting and stopping points. As a child learns to appreciate the process of completing small steps, they may feel less overwhelmed when viewing the job as a whole. Encourage them to see parallels between the processes of completing DIY projects and chores and completing long-term projects for school.
Make success visible. When it comes to tackling tasks, it’s always nice to track progress and be recognized for it. Use a visible to-do list that publicizes your child’s achievements. Divide the list into two columns: “to do” and “done.” Post this visual display of accomplishments where all family members can see it. Let your child help decide what to include on the list, how to prioritize by necessity or preference, and take part in planning for future tasks. Encourage a child to create and maintain a to-do and done list by themselves. They can use an app like Weave or Forgetful to keep track of their lists, maintain a document both of you can access through Google Docs, or they might even choose to post their lists on a social networking site like Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram to get an even larger sense of accountability.
Slow and steady wins the race. Sometimes kids get discouraged because they feel a task or project should just be done already. Let them know that good work takes time and that starting off slowly is okay as long as they keep working. Remind them that many great movies, books, and video games (like The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy) can take a little time to get into the excitement and action. Some of the best stories start by introducing the main character and background information before the action begins. Point out the similarities between the steps that are used to establish the background and rules in games, books, and movies with the reasons for ordering common, daily-life tasks, such as why we put away clean clothes so we can get ready more efficiently or that we practice spelling and vocabulary words in order to enjoy reading an interesting book. An app like First Then Visual Schedule can help remind them what comes first and why.
Work it out. It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to help a child find the energy to work is to get them to expend energy. Physical exercise leads to the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps us focus and think more clearly. Help your child come up with strategies for physical movement when they feel themselves getting sluggish or foggy. Stretching, running in place, and even running an errand can get kids out of the rut and back on the road. Use an app like SuperBetter to make physical activity a quest they’ll get points for completing every day. A site like GoNoodle is good for directed jumping around, dancing, and general physical silliness.
Featured image: Flickr user Casey Fleser