Every September, from elementary through middle school, I would take home all of my textbooks and read every chapter. Then I would take out my loose leaf paper and answer every question at the end of the reading or math sections. I had a spot in the corner of my closet where I would organize the homework by subject and then by chapter. By the middle of September, I would have all of my homework completed for the year. Every evening I would go into the closet, pull out the assignments for the next day, and place them into my backpack. Yep, I was that kind of kid ~ highly organized, task oriented, goal setter. (What can I say? Did I mention it drove my mom crazy since I didn’t have much homework the rest of the year? She was determined that I would participate every afternoon in homework hour.)
Today, we know that students who are well organized, who can prioritize, and who can set long term goals are using their executive function skills efficiently. The ability to control and coordinate cognitive abilities and behaviors is the foundation of successfully navigating the academics as well as the work world. And, like all skills, there is the continuum from those who seem almost obsessed (like my former self!) to those who struggle with keeping a calendar or remembering what to bring to school or work the next day. Most students fall in the middle; they learn to write down their assignments in the same place every day or place their homework assignments in the same folder every night. Yet, like all skills, there are students who need more support and additional strategies in order to be successful.
Executive function skills encompass everything from prioritizing homework assignments to placing a header in homework assignments to remembering that the dishwasher needs to be cleaned out after dinner. Experts often cite planning, organizing, managing time, focusing, and prioritizing as major aspects of executive function. Yet, there is one area that is not often discussed, but has a major impact on learning – task initiation. Students who struggle with this skill are often termed “lazy” or “unmotivated.” Yet, in my experiences of working with students who struggle with this aspect of executive function, they are anything but.
According to Dawson and Guara, experts in the field of executive function, task initiation is “the ability to begin projects or activities without undue procrastination, in an efficient or timely manner.” For students who struggle to start tasks, parents often share they feel like taped recordings: “Have you started your homework? Cleaned your room? Completed your Algebra homework?” Often an added frustration is that the student easily starts a preferred task (gaming, texting, playing with Legos), but spends an hour looking at the clock instead of writing the paragraph about his favorite summer activity.
Why is task initiation so difficult? While there can be several factors, such as poor working memory (does not remember the directions) or prioritization (waited to do the most difficult last and now doesn’t have the energy or brain power to complete the task), most students share with me they are overwhelmed with the task. Not certain of where to start, they put off the task as long as they can. As they realize more time is passing, they become more and more anxious and eventually a sense of inevitability is created ~ I can’t do this task. In younger children, this is often expressed as tears or acting out while in adolescents, there may be slamming doors or outright lying about the task being completed.
How can adults help? First, stifle the thought that the student is lazy or doesn’t care about his or her work. Instead, think differently about how to ask questions. Instead of asking, “Have you started on your writing assignment?” ask the question differently, “Are you a bit overwhelmed about where to start?” or “What do you think is making this assignment so difficult to start?” Try to ask questions that need more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
In addition, help a child or teen create visual cues that will help with starting a project. Many families use erase boards in the kitchen or paint a wall with chalkboard paint and create daily schedules. For classrooms, having systems in place when the teacher is unavailable are often very valuable for the student who gets stuck. For example, share it is okay to ask another student for assistance or write down a question for the teacher to answer later or check a notebook for ideas. Creating a topic book for a student who struggles to come up with ideas in writing or having a strategy page for the student who forgets the steps in multi-step math problems is often very helpful.
Perhaps the most important step in making tasks feel less intimidating is breaking the task into smaller parts. For the student who seems to wait until 11pm the night before a big test to study, help him break down the unit into 15 minute study blocks for several nights. If a third grader has a difficult time writing her three paragraph essay, have her draw the topics she wants to discuss. Then have her arrange them in order of importance and write captions underneath. Find a starting place that does not generate a lot of stress and build from that foundation.
Finally, with the student, create a plan of how a task will be done. When my son started struggling to start chores after school, we created a checklist for each task he was to complete. The checklist included my expectations for each chore, the items he would need to complete the chore (broom, sponge, etc.) and how much time might be needed for each task. Then he came up with his own plan of when the chores would be completed. Taking ownership of the tasks and knowing what was expected reduced our arguments and my complaints. While he still needed the occasional nudge, he learned how to start tasks on his own without a lot of excuses or tears.
If you would like more information about Executive Function Skills, Island Educational Services has a lending library with a variety of resources for families and teachers. In addition, we are happy to work with families in brainstorming ideas and strategies for children and teens who are bright, capable, and intelligent, but are struggling with the demands of school. We have several wonderful “coaches” who can help students set up systems, create strategy sheets, and provide successful study tips. There are also several websites who have good strategies and ideas; the National Center for Learning Disabilities and LD Online are two excellent sites with additional links.