Let's Get Started!! Building Your Child's Task Initiation Skills
Does your child engage in last-minute cramming sessions to prepare for unit tests? Has your child ever pulled an all-nighter to finish a project? Most children and adolescents have experienced the unpleasant consequences of procrastination. All parents have heard their child say, "I'll do it later," only to find that the task was never completed. To a certain extent, this is normal. Many people have a natural tendency to put off tasks until tomorrow, until the weekend, or until a time when they "feel like doing it." Unfortunately, procrastination patterns in childhood can grow into unhealthy habits in adulthood. Eventually, these habits can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, procrastination can contribute to lower grades, dependence on others to complete work, and tardiness.
Task initiation or "getting started" is a foundational executive functioning skill. By definition, it refers to the ability to begin a project in an efficient and timely manner, without procrastination. Task initiation can be particularly challenging when facing an effortful or undesirable task, such as a boring chore or a demanding assignment. It is important to remember that completing most tasks requires a combination of executive functioning skills. These skills include planning, prioritizing, time management, organization, impulse control, attention, and working memory. Despite the numerous possible areas of task completion breakdown, the biggest issue is often just getting started. Students with ADHD, Learning Disabilities or perfectionist tendencies tend to struggle with task initiation. In the classroom, they often require numerous prompts and reminders to get started. During group activities, they typically wait for another group member to initiate the task.
Why do students continue to procrastinate when they know how much stress it can cause?
Many underlying issues can make task initiation extremely difficult for students:
- "It's too hard!" - The task may appear to your child as too difficult to handle. They may lack confidence in their ability to conquer such a difficult task and avoid it in favour of something more enjoyable.
- "It'll take too long!" - Issues relating to time consumption may be preventing your child from initiating. It is common for students to put off a lengthy task until they can find a large block of time to tackle it, such as on the weekend.
- "I don't know what I'm supposed to do!" - A general lack of knowledge about what is expected may be causing your child to hesitate. It is extremely challenging for a student to start a task when they do not fully understand what is being asked of them.
- "I'm scared to try!" - Your child may be feeling a sense of fear, particularly if the task requires them to shift outside their comfort zone. For these situations, a child may worry about completing the task before they even have started.
- "It has to be perfect!"- Perfectionism often prevents students from initiating a task. Some children tend to set unrealistically high expectations of which they fear they will be unable to achieve.
- "I don't care" - Motivation (or lack thereof) plays a role in task initiation. Students who do not feel a sense of purpose or meaning in the task at hand will naturally be less inclined to initiate.
How can I help my child get started?
The good news is that there are ways to break the procrastination cycle by learning and practicing the skill of task initiation. Here, we offer a list of 10 general and specific strategies to help your child get started!
- Ensure your child has a clear understanding of the task at hand. If necessary, help them to address any confusion or misunderstandings.
- Avoid looking at a large, effortful, time-consuming task all at once! Instead, break it into smaller, manageable chunks. For example, instead of tackling a 2-hour project in one evening (or overnight!), break the project into four 30-minute sessions. Ideally, the endpoint of each chunk will be visible to your child from the start. A good way to break tasks into smaller chunks is using an Assignment Planner.
- Have your child identify specific start times for tasks and help them to stick to the agreed upon schedule. A countdown timer may be helpful!
- Consider offering your child a small reward for initiating a task on time, particularly if the task is undesirable.
- If your child is experiencing some anxiety or fear around the task, help them to think of the task as an opportunity to grow and move in a new direction.
- If your child struggles to initiate beginning- or end-of-day routines, create a list of all the things that need to be done (e.g., get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, wash face, pack bag, etc.). Together, decide in what order the tasks should be completed and create an itemized checklist. Cue each item on the checklist as necessary.
- Keep a calendar with your child detailing all upcoming tests and quizzes. Help your child to create a study plan about one week before a test. This plan should detail specific study times and strategies to be used. Strategies could include flashcards, sketchnotes, quizzing a friend, completing practice exams, making notes from a study guide, etc. The more specific the plan is, the easier it will be for the student to initiate.
- Support your child in creating a homework plan. Have your child write down all assignments and place stars next to the items that will require assistance. Estimate how long each item will take and set a specific start time for each item.
- If your child struggles to start a writing assignment, encourage them to first engage in a "messy" brainstorming process. In this process, any idea is accepted, and no criticism is allowed. The goal is to generate words on paper. After enough content has been generated, your child can organize their ideas. Graphic organizers are ideal for this stage. Students who get "stuck" when starting a written assignment have often skipped these crucial initiation steps.
- Research on Self Determination Theory suggests that intrinsic motivation ("I care about this!") combined with autonomy ("I am in control!") and self-efficacy ("I am capable of this!") is ideal for overcoming procrastination.
Read more about how to help your child with executive functioning skills, including task initiation, at home:
- Caregivers and Parents on Schooling at Home: What Role Do Executive Skills Play?
- Interventions for Executive Functioning Challenges: Task Initiation
- Why Kids with Executive Functioning Issues Have Trouble Starting Tasks
Building task initiation skills doesn't always have to be done through completing homework or chores! Below are some fun task initiation challenges that you can do with your child:
5 Fun Task initiation challenges:
Let's practice using our initiation skills! You have 30 seconds to complete the following tasks below. You can also download and print the activities.
1. Brainstorm 10 words to describe this character:
2. Write the first two sentences of a story based on this image:
3. Send a message to your (parent, grandparent, friend) giving a big, genuine heartfelt compliment!
4. Pick a messy area (maybe your bedroom!) and put 3 (yes, only 3!) things away.
5. Think of something you've been meaning to do for a long time but have been putting off. Identify a small thing you can do right now to get the momentum going. As an example, create a document for your paper, give it a title, and write your name on it. Or, set a time in your calendar to call that friend.