There is math homework that needs to be done, teeth that need to be brushed, a dog that needs to be walked, shoes that need to be tied, but somehow after what feels like intense cueing, nagging and perhaps even bribing, your child still can’t seem to get started. For children, most likely this is not a case of procrastination, but rather that of task initiation.
This executive function domain is obviously an important one. In our garage we have an older gas lawn mower. It often takes several hard yanks of the cord to get the engine running, but once it gets going, we can get the yard mowed in a couple hours. I liken our mower to task initiation. Many times parents will complain to me about their child not completing tasks, and when we take the time to observe the child, it is not always a matter of completion, but a matter of the child starting a task. Or perhaps, starting it in an efficient and timely way.
What can also feel incredibly frustrating is when children with task initiation issues get interrupted or distracted, and then they have to return to the task because for some children, it is back to square one.
If your child needs help getting things started, I think it is important that anyone working with your child understands s/he needs explicit instruction in strategies on how to build this skill. Secondly, you need to put in environmental supports in place. An example for children who have a hard time getting homework done is to help your child create an organized learning space. This strategy has become particularly critical over the last year when children suddenly were expected to learn remotely. Students seemed initially lost and they struggled to gather all of the tools they needed for virtual school such as a writing utensil, a charger for their computer, a desk or table to sit at, putting needy pets out of the room, and removing pillows, blankets or toys next to them while they worked online. They were used to us helping them to create those organized learning spaces. We certainly learned as a community that our children require instruction on how they need to approach an assignment independently when we are not sitting next to them to help them get started. Our instruction needs to be direct and explicit. Visual supports can be incredibly important.
If your child struggles with following multi-step directions or processes, knowing the order they need to accomplish each step can be imperative for them. An example of this impediment is when you send a child with task initiation deficits upstairs to “clean their room.” Furthermore, nothing gets done even after your child has been in their bedroom for an extended period of time! The task is too large, but breaking the large task into smaller ones and placing each task in a checklist allows for success. Eventually, students will memorize the “clean room checklist.” However, like all of the other executive function skills, the skill of task initiation takes brain development, explicit instruction and time. A checklist may be necessary for several months before a child memorizes it.
Meg Bamford is the Head of Radcliffe Creek School in Chestertown