I remember the night I thought procrastination was going to kill me. I remember the year (seventh grade), the course, the teacher, and the Native American nation I was supposed to research. (Technically, the nation I was supposed to have already researched, which was the problem.)
My parents were less than thrilled when I mentioned, panicked, that my paper was due the next day, and I had done basically no work to date.
Much to my chagrin, my parents didn’t yell. They didn’t offer to write the paper and they didn’t get mad at the teacher or call to request an extension. Now I couldn’t channel my stress into anger at someone else, and I couldn’t learn what I was hoping to learn — that real consequences could always be avoided.
What my parents did, however, has stayed with me for all these years. They stayed up with me. They sat by my side. They supported me with love and left me with responsibility. I don’t think I thanked them. But parents rarely get thanked for parenting.
Now as a middle-school principal 20 years later, I realize how important it was that my parents handled that night exactly as they did. Almost all middle schoolers procrastinate to some extent — usually because they don’t know how to plan ahead. The antidote is time management, a skill middle schoolers are still developing. By giving their children the tools to plan ahead, parents can help without enabling bad habits.
Every child learns differently and every child procrastinates differently. Sometimes it’s obvious: Playing games and then starting one’s homework at 10:30 p.m. is easy to diagnose. However, to catch someone who is sitting in front of the computer every night for a week, ostensibly typing a paper but actually manipulating the font color requires that parents monitor progress more closely.
The red flag of procrastinators are students who complain that they work “all night” on their homework. This is usually a sign that they aren’t properly focused, or that they left a week’s work to the last minute.
How can you help?
For daily assignments, you may find that your procrastinator needs a more structured homework time. Does he work better immediately after school, knowing that free time awaits? Or does she prefer to unwind first and work after dinner? Understanding and following a homework schedule alleviates both the anxiety and the reality of many kids that homework will swallow up the whole night.
It also helps to look over the night’s workload in advance. Decide on a specific amount of time for each assignment, and move on to the next one when the time expires, even if it isn’t complete. Later, you can decide as a family whether to finish the uncompleted ones or to set up time to get further help from a teacher; there’s no point in staring for hours at a math problem you can’t solve.
Plan a location. The desk in your daughter’s room might not be the best place for procrastination-free work, especially if she has Internet access for instant messaging. And a cell phone for texting. And an MP3 player, radio or television. In fact, the kitchen table, even in the midst of the family, is often a better place to focus on work. Your son might be pleasantly surprised at how much less time his homework takes when he is actually working on it. If your child is using a computer, turn off the Internet (unless it is required for work, but that is likely to be rarer that your child wants you to think).
For students who procrastinate to the point of not turning in their work, institute a system of parental control: Require that assignments are recorded in a planner, and purchase a brightly colored homework folder. Each night, check that the folder contains everything that’s due the next day. Add an incentive: If your daughter goes a month without any late work, you won’t check the folder.
Longer-term projects become more prevalent in the higher grades. Getting used to this kind of planning requires practice, patience, and perseverance. Sometimes, it also requires parents.
The first step in a long-term project is to set checkpoints. Divide the project into smaller pieces. Then, working backward from the deadline, decide when each piece should be finished. This can be especially effective when it’s done with the child’s teacher — she will have information about classroom timelines that you might not know. Working as a team also helps eliminate excuses — and gives kids the confidence that comes with a strong support system.
If it’s a paper, set deadlines for choosing a topic, creating an outline or mind map, researching, note-taking, writing a first draft. If it’s a project, include tasks such as a sketch, a list of materials, and a shopping trip. As kids get older and more practiced, they’ll be able set their own checkpoints and eventually internalize the process.
Parents can play a powerful role in managing procrastination. Help build the support your child needs in a way that allows him or her to succeed, but doesn’t prevent failure when it’s called for. Believe in your child and in his ability to accept responsibility.
And if it comes down to it, hold your breath, bite your tongue, and make some coffee. Middle school kids often insist on learning lessons the hard way.
Wendy Lawrence is a Seattle-based freelance writer, the Middle School Head of Eastside Preparatory School in Kirkland, and a parent of a future procrastinator.