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Helping Your Young Procrastinator

Published on: April 01, 2007

Helping your procrastinating childHow many of you never, ever put off until tomorrow what you can do today? I'm guessing your closet isn't completely organized and your correspondence isn't entirely up to date. Yet, chances are when your child dillydallies over his schoolwork, your tolerance level is highly challenged.

We all practice the art of procrastination. But most of us have learned that ultimately, we need to get the job done. And we want to make sure our children figure that out, too.

Some parents size up their little procrastinators early on, when their kids take their sweet time making their beds, washing the dishes or moseying through other chores, notes Kirsten O'Malley, owner of The Learning Curve, a tutoring company in Issaquah. As these children grow older, they're often the ones parents can't pry from the Xbox, she says.

By the time they get to middle school, the young slowpokes find that old habits carry new consequences. "Assignments become longer and more complex, and teachers are less likely to accept late work," says O'Malley.

Frustrated parents resort to dramatic solutions such as nixing privileges or commanding them to "Just do the work!" she says. "They want to help their child succeed. From their perspective,their kids are shooting themselves in the foot. But the truth is, many of these kids have already tuned their parents out."

Why procrastinate?

What makes kids procrastinate in the first place? If the class work is too ho-hum, they get lazy and turn off to learning, says Karen Dickinson, associate superintendent for school support for the Tacoma School District.

Rote, mindless drills such as worksheets breed boredom, she says. So do uncreative teachers. "When students' passions aren't nurtured, they become flip and less interested in school," Dickinson notes.

Kids also dawdle if they don't think they'll do well at their work, Dickinson says. She calls this a "fear of learning." It comes from the child's lack of confidence, she says. When these students face academic obstacles, they withdraw.

They also withdraw when the work isn't appropriate for them, contends Joan Newcomb, learning coordinator at The Little School in Bellevue. "The tasks they're asked to do should match their developmental stage," Newcomb explains. When students study subjects they choose and care about, they're "less likely to drag their feet," she says.

Often, adults expect too much from today's youngsters, says Newcomb. "The amount of homework now considered necessary is a burden on most children." All that pressure can backfire, she says. "If a child makes it through a lot of work but never wants to read another book in his life, no one has gained anything."

What to do

How do you handle kids who just can't seem to get things done?

Help them build the kinds of work habits that will carry them through life, says Dickinson. "Teach them that this is the world we live in; that it's important to complete tasks that are given to you. Then be very intentional about creating routines."

What kinds of routines? O'Malley says it helps to break a project down into smaller chunks. "A student might look at the enormity of an assignment and not know where to start."

At The Learning Curve, instructors suggest students tackle the least appealing step of a project first. "Sometimes it's just a matter of gathering the research," says O'Malley. She also advises mapping out deadlinesand setting time limits for each step. "That way, they know the 'torture' will only last, say, 30 minutes." Then set up a reward system such as a short Internet hiatus, a five-minute telephone break or simply time to relax.

If things still aren't going well, get outside help. That may mean talking to teachers about the workload itself. "You have to help your child succeed," says Newcomb. "If you think the assignment is not appropriate, you should tell the school, and be clear about what you think is not a reasonable amount of homework."

Getting help might also entail hiring private tutors. "Simply showing up at a tutoring appointment provides structure and commitment in itself," says Susan Klastorin, owner and director of Basic Skills Tutoring in Seattle.

Klastorin finds many young students lack organizational skills in areas such as note taking, outlining or highlighting. Some kids need help in long-term planning. "They have to learn that a project might take 10 hours, not 10 minutes."

Above all, they should learn to feel good about themselves, says Dickinson. "Parents must instill the belief in their children that they can do anything. If kids have a healthy ego, they won't tune out."

Linda Morgan,
ParentMap's associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.

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