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Question:
How can I stop my child procrastinating?
Asked By : Tami
Words from the Expert:

Question:

How can I stop my child procrastinating? She takes hours to complete homework given by her teacher. 

Answer:

Managing your child’s procrastination can be very stressful and hard to come to grips with, especially when they are scrambling to complete the big assignment that was given out a month ago. Why didn’t they just start earlier?

At times like these, you might find yourself lamenting your child’s “laziness” or lack of motivation. But there are actually far better reasons for your child’s procrastination that have nothing to do with a questionable work ethic.

Children by default tend not to look beyond the immediate present and what they enjoy or do not enjoy in the moment. You were probably not so different from your child when you were young too. And that’s because the part of the human brain that enables us to prioritise and make good long-term decisions (called the prefrontal cortex) only develops fully in young adulthood, or in our twenties.

To your child, tackling the easier assignments or chores that earn them a pass from you for playtime today sounds like an infinitely better choice than slogging over a difficult project that might require a few days’ sustained work. Why bother to do something that is unpleasant when you can avoid it instead?

There may also be other underlying reasons for procrastination which can be causes for concern. Your child may lack confidence to accomplish the task that is expected of them which leads them to putting it off, or they may have a perfectionist streak that makes the task appear overwhelming.

Often, they may not fully understand what the task involves. And while children generally have shorter attention spans than adults, in some cases a chronic inability to stay on task or recall what tasks need doing could be a sign of a learning disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

For the most part, however, there are steps you can take to help your child vanquish procrastination. Here are five:

1. Break the Work Down into Smaller Parts

Getting a big project or a large volume of holiday homework can create an oppressive anxiety in your child over how there is simply too much to do. You can help your child by breaking down what they need to do into smaller parts. For example, you could break down a project into research, writing and editing components.

Or you could segment the holiday homework into different parts for different days and provide an incentive for each segment your child completes. Having a clear and manageable to-do list can put your child on firmer footing to get cracking, rather than the vague command to “go do your homework”.

This will also teach your child skills they can use to manage on their own in the future. But be careful not to break the tasks down into too many parts as that could produce the original effect that there is too much to do again.

2. Reward, Not Punish

Rewards can be effective in motivating your child to complete a task they are otherwise reluctant to do. Rather than taking away their privileges when they procrastinate, set up the structure of rules around them such that they get time on their devices, for example, when they complete their homework as agreed upon. Children, after all, thrive on positive reinforcement.

For younger children who are less able to prioritise long-term over short-term benefits, giving them smaller rewards that they do not have to wait as long for can work wonders. For example, they could earn a tasty snack after an hour’s work. Of course, this does not mean there are no consequences for wilfully disobeying the rules that both of you have agreed to!

3. Get Rid of Distractions

As true for adults as it is for children, there is no denying that the availability of potential distractions around a procrastinator is directly related to how easily and how often they cave to the temptation to put things off for later. It is much easier to concentrate on a difficult exam paper in a hushed classroom, for instance, than on a similar mock exam paper in the living room when any number of more interesting things sit within easy reach. 

While home-based learning is not going away for a while yet, you can help your child by replicating the hushed classroom as far as possible at home. This could be as simple as removing your child’s favourite toys or devices from their line of sight, or it could mean some reorganisation of the study space so your child isn’t constantly distracted by the rest of the family’s activity.

4. Use Your Experience to Relate

You probably aren’t and haven’t been immune to procrastination either, and sharing your experiences of when you have succeeded and failed in overcoming it can help in two ways.

Firstly, you show them that you understand their struggles, and are not imposing unreasonable expectations upon them. Secondly, you also show them that you practice what you preach, and give them the confidence that beating procrastination can be done.

5. Start Early in the Day

This is not about getting started early ahead of the deadline, although that is obviously a good habit to inculcate too. Rather, it is about starting early every day when your child’s willpower reserves are plentiful. Research has shown that willpower is a limited resource that depletes as the day goes by and more decisions are made.

For example, an adult who has expended a lot of willpower in the day on a challenging project instead of slacking off becomes more susceptible to impulse buying in the supermarket at night. In other words, it becomes harder and harder to get started on a difficult task the later in the day it gets. Helping your child work with this biological fact instead of against it can make life much easier for both of you where procrastination is concerned.

Nurturing Motivated and Productive Learners

Procrastination is something all parents have to deal with, but its impact can be minimised with the right structures and measures in place. 

At The Learning Lab, we are committed to working side by side with parents in helping children become motivated and productive learners. 

Through decades of observing and studying children's learning preferences, we realise that children don't tend to procrastinate as much on learning when they can find joy in the experience.