Procrastination can be one of the hardest behaviors to change. Everyone can relate to procrastination in some manner. Many of us procrastinate doing things we do not enjoy: taxes, cleaning out the garage, visiting challenging relatives, having a difficult conversation, preparing presentations for work, doing laundry. What we procrastinate varies from adult to adult. However, for children, many of them procrastinate homework, and it drives parents nuts. If the child has AD/HD or processing challenges, especially those that relate to transitions, initiating homework can be incredibly difficult. In many cases the homework is done at the very last minute, sometimes in the wee hours of the night, and sometimes procrastination leads to a job undone.
I was a successful student but a notorious procrastinator. Given I was highly motivated to succeed, I always said I would do all my homework Friday right when I got home from school. It NEVER happened. Inevitably, around 10:00pm Sunday night I would work myself into such a panic I had to start the work. This pattern persisted through college — writhing in anxiety about starting homework and pulling all nighters to get projects done and study for tests. We know this is not healthy or the best way to learn and retain information. Yet, I was baffled how to overcome my procrastination habit. I was really hard on myself. Procrastination led to self-loathing. It was like an addiction I could not kick.
The cure for procrastination unfortunately is different for every person. There is no medication or easy methodology to fix it. Parents may punish a child or refuse to allow them to play on a computer or go out with friends until their homework is done, but most of these children will not stop procrastinating after mom and dad are not around to enforce the rules.
I no longer procrastinate much. One of the reasons is that I am no longer in school under constant scrutiny and my frontal lobe which helps with planning and organization is fully online. Being very sensitive I could not stand being evaluated or graded despite regularly doing well. My fear of failure was debilitating. I wanted relief. I wanted to avoid engaging in the very tasks that put me in that vulnerable position of possibly receiving negative feedback or even constructive criticism. I was a perfectionist.
My desire to succeed and my desire to not worry were at odds. It was not until I reached my 40s did I begin to really believe that the only thing that mattered was what I thought of myself. Only in my old age did it not matter what grade I got, what degree I held, or how much money I was paid. In a wise and grounded state, the only way I could actually feel good about myself was to know that I did my best. That was enough. As this notion of my best being good enough settled in, something really weird happened. I started to genuinely like myself. Motivated by my revelation that I was indeed my greatest caretaker and cheerleader, I learned how to love myself. I began to care for my health and mind because I believed I was important, important to myself and to the people I loved.
One of the ways I realized I could care for myself and reduce my ever-present anxiety was “to be kind to my future self.” I regularly do the remaining dishes at night, (and there are quite a few given we have 5 teenagers foraging for food late in the evening) so when I wake up in the morning to get everyone off to school the kitchen is clean and ready to go. I do laundry every day so it does not turn into a mountain (which happens very quickly when all 9 of us are home). I break tasks down into small chunks so I am not overwhelmed. When I am writing, I dedicate time everyday even if it is only 5 minutes. This way I am always making progress.
I feel better when I do not procrastinate. For me, it took half a lifetime to learn to be kind to my future self. First, I had to learn to love myself and accept that not everything had to be perfect. This took a lot of work and dedication to personal growth. My story is not really encouraging to parents who want help now. No one wants to hear that it may take 30 years for their child to find their way past procrastination.
How to help a child avoid procrastinating requires understanding exactly why the behavior is occurring. For many children with AD/HD, their brains are not good at tracking time or transitioning from one thing to the next or initiating tasks they do not find novel or stimulating. They can easily start playing a favorite video game but to start their history paper might be a hurdle that they cannot get over by themselves. An adult might be able to look into the future and consider the consequences of procrastinating, however, a child’s brain lives in the land of now — immediate gratification. There are all kinds of interesting studies about how adolescent brains will almost always choose the what is easiest or most stimulating now, not what might be best for them in the long run. The ability to delay gratification is difficult for children especially those with AD/HD tendencies. There is no easy answer here. Overcoming procrastination can take years of modeling and coaching and patience. Every brain is different though and the only way to know what might help is to try and be willing to try for years, not days.
Here are some strategies to consider when working with a child struggling with procrastination:
Offer gentle guidance. Work to not react to the child’s struggle with procrastination. Avoid punishment, yelling, stonewalling (denying the child attention, love or support). Offer empathy for their struggle. Meaning stand in their shoes and understand what they need is to be seen and understood and accepted for who they are. Be gentle with suggestions and encouragement. Think about how you would like to be treated when you are struggling to accomplish something that you find challenging.
Encourage self acceptance (this is the self love part). The child needs to be educated why they are procrastinating and how their brain works. Their challenges do not mean they are not intelligent or valuable. Share the stories of highly successful people they are familiar with who have similar challenges (Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Charles Schwab, Tom Cruise, etc.) Once a child understands everyone’s brain is good at some things but not all things, they can learn to accept themselves and may become more open to support and suggestions.
Celebrate failure as our greatest learning opportunity. Failure is a neural fixative and is how the brain learns best. I always ask my children what they learned from something that did not go so well. Then I help them view that learning through a positive filter. After my oldest son tried to take the ACT and only survived filling out his name and questions about himself, he could have given up. Instead he said he learned that he needs to take the test over multiple days. When he did, he did very well.
Try to stand out of judgment. Even if you know your own parents would have really come down hard on you for not doing your homework, understand that we know this authoritarian approach to parenting is harmful and not effective. I have to work daily to manage the anger that rises in response to my daughter waiting to start her homework until 10:00pm at night especially after she told me she had no homework. This is her path, her journey, not mine. She can experience the consequences of procrastinating and that can be a good learning experience (or not — it is up to her).
Create an environment of safety. If children fear judgment and failure, they will try to avoid any task where they feel vulnerable. Many students would rather get a zero than try and possibly fail. Parents can help their children by sharing their own struggles and failures. Make it safe for the child to be themselves and know that the people who love them are also willing to help them in a kind and patient manner.
Be willing to be an accountability partner. Many parents believe children need to do things like homework on their own. However, when there is a neurological inability to accomplish such tasks, they require support. No different than you would support a blind child find his way around a new environment or assist a physically disabled child manage stairs or bathing, children with neurological challenges need the same loving support. Many children with attention issues benefit from having a parent sit with them while doing their homework so the parent can be the one monitoring the time and attention to the task. Gently redirecting the child back to the task once the adult notices the child’s attention wandering is invaluable. Also, the adult can recognize when the child needs a break or when it is time to be done whether the homework is done or not.
We must put the child’s emotional and physical well-being above schoolwork and grades. Schools are coming around to this understanding. We as parents must set aside our personal desires and challenges and be the scaffolding the child needs to thrive and feel self confident. The scaffolding will become more sparse as the child matures and develops, however, the child may never function like their age peers so it is best to avoid comparing.
Where there is love and safety there is courage to be vulnerable. Procrastination might then become an unnecessary protection mechanism.