By Rita Emmett
Jason is a procrastinator. Before he starts his homework, he fusses and argues with his parents, sharpens every pencil in the house, calls his friends to see what’s up, spends 25 minutes searching for his books and still is not ready to settle down and get started.
Jennifer’s parents are so tired of her procrastination in cleaning her room, they’ve told her she’s not to come out until her room is clean … even if she has to stay there forever.
Jason never did complete his written homework and totally blew off studying for his test.
Jennifer just stood in the middle of her room and cried.
Both of these children feel overwhelmed. They’re experiencing something that many adults(maybe even you) have been through: that sense of dread when there’s so much to do, you don’t know where – and, therefore, aren’t able – to start.
According to research, people who procrastinated as children experienced poor self-esteem, low self-confidence, anxiety, guilt and a belief that other kids were born with something that they did not have: the ability to get things done.
They also described not having dreams or goals. When other children spoke of going to college or traveling the world, they figured that if they could not complete their homework or return a library book, they would never be able to become an astronaut.
Almost unanimously, they said that nobody ever taught them that there was a different way to do things. They believed that their procrastination was a personality trait or a character flaw that they were born with and could never change.
Where to Begin
You’ve taught your children how to eat with a fork, how to get dressed, how to color and many other skills. Teaching your children that there is another way to live besides procrastinating can be one of the greatest gifts you give them.
A great way to start is by explaining that procrastination is not something they were born with or an integral part of their personality. It’s a habit. And habits can be changed.
We all know that once we get started on something that we’ve been putting off, the hardest part is over. When kids put something off, it’s often because they just do not know where to start. You can teach children how to start a project by explaining how to break a large task down into smaller chunks.
Taking the Sting Out of Feeling Overwhelmed
Select one task. When your children are overwhelmed, help them learn the “secret” of breaking down an overwhelmingly large task into smaller parts and then selecting one piece to start on.
Homework – If your child is feeling overwhelmed, help her start by selecting just one subject. Within that subject, help your child identify the tasks. If the subject is spelling, for example, and your daughter has to learn the words and then write each word in a sentence, explain that she must select one of those two tasks and start there.a
Cleaning Up – If your child is unsure how to tackle a major room cleanup, help him get started by selecting one type of item. For example, he could start with clothes, putting the clean ones in drawers and the dirty ones in the laundry hamper. Next, choose another category to put away: books, for example. You can think of different ways to do it each time.
Time the task. Most children have a poor sense of how long a task takes. They tell themselves, “I don’t have time to do that. I’ll wait until I have a whole bunch of free time to do it.”
Here’s a great way to help children focus on getting a specific job done and develop a sense of time in general:
Set a kitchen timer for a specific amount of time to work on the one selected priority: one hour for kids age 12 or older, 30 minutes for younger children or children who start out with shorter attention spans, and just five or 10 minutes for preschoolers. (You can adjust these times for your particular child, taking into consideration not just age, but temperament and attention span.)
Point out to your child how much he or she got done in just this small amount of time.
Ignore everything else. Just do this one task while the timer ticks. Once mastered, the skills of ignoring everything else can be the salvation not only of procrastinating children, but of many adults as well. Have you ever set out, determined to accomplish one thing – say, cleaning all the clutter off the dining room table – but then, on your way to the dining room, you stop to empty the dishwasher, go through the day’s mail, then decide to make one quick phone call? By the end of the day, you have 15 chores started, but none of them completed.
No breaks are allowed while the timer ticks. Related to the “ignore everything” rule, the “no breaks” rule can make a huge difference in a child’s ability to complete a task. I, for example, was once a world champion break-taker. A 30-minute job used to take me two months because I took so many breaks.
Give a reward when the job is done. What do you do when the timer dings and the child’s time is up? Take a moment to feel the satisfaction of a job well done. Then, it’s time for a reward. It can be something that the child used to take for granted but now must be “earned,” such as TV, computer games, chatting on the phone or going out with friends. Or it can be a special treat, such as a trip to a movie or a museum alone with Mom or Dad.
Be patient as your child works on these new skills and be prepared to be the coach. A 180-degree turnaround is too much to expect all at once. But if you help your child achieve a notable degree of improvement, everyone wins. And don’t forget, as your children learn how to handle feeling overwhelmed, they’re learning techniques that many adults have never learned.
Rita Emmett is a recovering procrastinator and the author of The Procrastinating Child: A Handbook for Adults to Help Children Stop Putting Things Off.
Updated August 2012
By Rita Emmett