Many parents grow weary of prodding their children to do homework, get ready for school or complete household chores. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Kids who procrastinate can break the habit if parents teach them the skills and self-discipline needed to start and complete tasks.
“Anytime we talk about a child’s behavior we need to first look at his developmental level,” says Vicky Kelly, Psy. D., LCSW, specializing in child development. “Are the tasks he’s being asked to do within his developmental abilities to accomplish? If the answer is yes, the next step is to look at why the child is procrastinating.”
Children procrastinate for a variety of reasons: lack of motivation, distractions, disorganization, feeling overwhelmed and fear of failure due to perfectionist tendencies. Once a root cause has been determined, parents can help their child make changes and thus break the procrastination habit.
Wendy King did this. “Madeline has procrastinated with homework since she started elementary school,” says the mother of her 11-year-old. “Now that she’s in middle school, the workload has escalated and expectations have increased, and at times Madeline feels overwhelmed.”
The main problem is long-term assignments. “Madeline will know about them but procrastinate doing the work until the last minute then rush to get it done,” King continues. “One thing she recently started doing was writing the assignments on index cards. That’s helped.”
“If your child feels overwhelmed with a task, be proactive on the front end,” suggests Kelly. “Teach her to break down bigger projects into smaller, more manageable ones. Work out a plan, and if need be write it down. Then check on your child’s progress. In this way you are acting as her coach but still holding her accountable for the work.”
Michelle Handlin recently took on the coaching role. “The biggest challenges I’ve had with Joey are getting him to pick up his toys, do his homework and get ready for bed,” says the mother of her 6-year-old. “This year I talked with his teacher about it and she suggested I break down whatever the task is, give him two or three specific directions, ask him repeat them and then report back to me when they were done. Once we started that, I saw a marked improvement.”
Another thing that may help is a timer.
“With young children you can make it into a game—‘Let’s see who can pick up the most toys before the timer goes off,’” says Rita Emmett, parent educator and author of The Procrastinating Child. “If your child has a short attention span, start with five or ten minutes. If he’s older, go longer. While the timer is ticking, tell your child to stay focused on that task and not get distracted. Then when the timer goes off, give him a short break and reward. If you need to, set the timer again.”
With older kids, use discretion with a timer as it could elicit a power struggle.
“When setting time limits give older children some control,” says Kelly. “If, for example, the trash needs to go to the curb, tell your child about it after school but give him until dark to get it outside.”
Another way to motivate children to get a job done is to use teachable moments when they are feeling the natural consequences of their procrastination—being late for school, having to miss an activity or getting a poor test score. Then rather than chastising them, suggest and encourage use of tactics that could break the habit.
One thing Handlin found helpful was to establish daily routines and offer incentives when tasks were completed. “We started a routine at the beginning of the school year where Joey had to get his homework done right after school,” she says. “He does complain, but he also knows once he’s finished he can go out and play. I also praise him in the process. If he gets his math problems done and they’re all right, I’ll say ‘You’re getting better and better at this!’ That always makes the work go faster.”
King provides incentives too.
“Whenever Madeline finishes an unpleasant task, I let her do something she enjoys. I’ll say, ‘If you complete this, you’ll get ten minutes more on the computer,’” she says.
Most important, remember there is no one-size-fits-all technique when it comes to helping children break the procrastination habit. Discuss with your child what method works best for him and allow some trial and error until he settles into a routine. But remember building competency and responsibility takes time, and he may need to learn the skills and self-discipline to do it.
“If your child doesn’t know how to break down jobs, organize information or stay on task, teach him. Then gradually up the level of expectation and let him become more independent while you provide coaching and encouragement,” says Emmett. “Whatever time you invest now will positively impact every area of your child’s life both now and in the future. The results will be a much richer, fuller life.”
-Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren.