Strategies for getting started (it’s harder than you think!)

I recently had a parent share with me that her child’s teacher wrote with a concern that her child “doesn’t care” about school. The teacher explained that the child sits without asking for help and doesn’t begin any work on her own. The teacher stressed that the child needed to care more and take more initiative or she wouldn’t do well in life. This teacher is describing a kid who spends three to four hours a night on homework, has a tutor on the weekends, and has at least three mornings where her anxiety over school gives her incredible stomach aches. I don’t think it’s possible for this kid to “care” more, at least not in a healthy way. The effort is there. The care is there. So where’s the breakdown?

Today we are talking about the art and science of initiating work, literally “just getting started.” The amount of brain processes that are involved in taking any first step will astound you. And, luckily, we can strategize to support many of them!

How many times have you run into this situation: you’ve explained a home or school task in detail and asked your child how well they understand… Your kid has repeated back to you what they are going to do. And….go? Ok, now? Why aren’t you starting? You told me what the task was, so do it!

Today I want to teach you that initiating a task is more than a regular challenge for students with EF deficits.  It involves holding the task in working memory, being able to understand the demands of the task, being able to chunk the task into doable pieces, and more, all while trying to dial up the focus juice the brain needs to get moving.  And, of course, we can strategize the struggle! But, it’s going to take some time and creativity.

I think it’s helpful to get a full picture of what initiating and sustaining work means for our brains with and without EF challenges. A student with strong EF skills will be able to naturally “chunk” an assignment into smaller, doable bits. A kid with weak EF skills may be so overwhelmed with the task that he becomes blind to the steps.

The kid with strong EF skills will use a memory strategy to keep the steps in mind, but a kid without these skills may forget all but a few steps, leading to their asking for constant help or trying to blend in, quietly doing nothing.

A kid with strong EF skills will make a mental movie of themselves doing the work, maybe including gathering what she needs and even turning in the assignment. A kid with weak EF skills, on the other hand, will have no or a very basic mental movie.

During the process of completing the task, a kid with strong EF will self-monitor, alerting herself when she becomes distracted or takes too much time on any one part, while a kid with weak EF may lose herself in one detail of the task, unable to recognize in the moment that her attention has roamed.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of the mental taxation of starting a task!

And here’s where we need to really check in with ourselves as adults. From the outside, we see two very different children: one who is “on task” and one who seems to be avoiding work. At first glance, it would be easy to express frustration with the kid not working, because hello? I just said it, like, 37 times.

Express the frustration in your head. Say as many potty words as you want, actually. Then take a deep breath and be better because you know better.

Prompting, nagging, threatening a kid who can’t get started won’t help much. Sure, you may create enough anxiety that she grabs a pencil and does her best fake out—because you’ve increased the stress hormones in her brain that she can use as focus juice. But, this hasn’t solved anything. Next time a long task is required, you’ll be doing the same yell-and-comply dance.

A more empowering, strategy-rich, effective way is to patch the holes in her brain highways. Talk with her about her understanding of the job and its requirements. “What do you see yourself doing?” is a great prompt to uncover if she can even make the mental movie to rehearse. You can ask questions to discover what the biggest hold up could be: does she avoid because it’s overwhelming? Or, is she distracted by other things when she’s trying to get started? Does she forget the steps? Or, is she unclear on what level of perfection is expected? Once you have an idea of the biggest issue in the way (and by the way, there could be many issues, but please just focus on one for now) then you can begin to strategize the struggle!

Here are some ideas to help get your child un-stuck when he or she is faced with beginning a task.

*Set the mood: Upbeat music and a game of “beat the timer” can sometimes be enough to get the focus juice boosted in our brains. If the task requires more quiet focus, then reducing distractions ahead of time is a better approach (like, no tv in the other room while you’re trying to force your child to focus on dreaded homework). Either way, matching the mood with the task—and sharing this strategy with your kid—can really help influence brain chemistry in your favor!

*Chunk: breaking a task down into small chunks is almost automatic when your EF game is strong. So, seeing someone who can’t do so can be difficult to understand. But, teaching your child to chunk tasks can be huge for his future! You won’t be able to talk this one through once and have it just stick. Instead, plan to support by asking questions like, which parts of the job are similar? Are there any parts that you need help on? Any parts that are quick and easy? Reflecting on the task components and characteristics will allow your child to find patterns in the task. This can be an effective way to chunk. Or, if it’s a sequential task, like doing laundry, you can help your child identify and label each chunk of activities, like “sort, wash, dry, and put away.” These four main chunks can then be broken down and supported further with strategies coming right up.

*Dole out bits: if a task is too daunting, it’s ok to lead the discussion about breaking the task into smaller bits, just be sure to include your child when you do so. With the laundry example, you would demonstrate and think aloud as you identified the four main chunks. From there, you can dole out one chunk of task at a time, planning for feedback after the chunk. (A quick, “what went right?” can help your kid reflect on positives…remember episode 9? We’re helping kids connect their choices with their results). After a chunk and reflection, you can dole out a new chunk/piece of the task. Is this clunky, with lots of starts and stops? Yes. But, remember how you learned to ride a bike? Or make a recipe? You learned in bits doled out to you. It’s the same here.

*Be a body double: we’ll talk about this in depth in a future episode, but here’s the main idea: there’s magic in working alongside someone. If you child needs to work quietly on homework, sit at the table and quietly work on your own task next to him. You don’t necessarily need to help or interact much, just being near to him, doing a parallel activity, can support his focus and initiation. I know this seems so simple that it would never work. But it does. I use it myself when I have an article or podcast to write but a bad case of squirmy avoidance. My husband reading or working next to me is enough to get me to focus in and get moving.

*Teach memory strategies: also worthy of an entire future episode, memory strategies empower kids to extend what they can hold in their heads or scaffold for times they can’t hold more than the usual 3-5 things at a time. Teach your child to write down the actions for each step so they can reference back to the list if they forget or get distracted.

*Illustrate repeated processes: if it’s a repeated task, like dishes or math homework routine, you can use illustrations or photos of each step as prompts. Your child can see themselves doing the job in the photo series, step by step, as a visual prompt. You could even laminate the steps so your child can mark off after each step’s completion with an erasable marker.

Grown ups, I feel like I’ve probably saturated your brains for the day. I tell you, this EF stuff runs deep, huh? Let’s get that kid over here for this week’s pep talk.

Hey kid!

What’s up? I have to tell you all about a kid I know because I bet you can relate. This kid tries SO hard at school. She listens to directions. She spends lots of time on homework. She even has a tutor on Saturdays. But, her teacher just complained that she doesn’t care enough about school?! Can you believe that? It turns out that the kid has such a hard time getting started, even right after listening to directions, that the teacher thinks she’s not trying. It’s a tough situation, and I bet you can relate. How many times have you heard the directions, thought you understood, then had a really tricky time getting started?

Today I taught your grown up some tricks to help you get started when you feel stuck. The strategies you try will depend on what’s the most tricky for you. If you tend to forget directions, then you may work on some memory strategies. Or, if you have a hard time breaking a job into smaller bits, then your grown up might help you learn to chunk your work. Or, if you just need some clues to use to stay on track, they’ve got an idea for that too.

It doesn’t matter which strategy you try. What matters is that you recognize two big things: first, getting started on anything can be really hard, and second, there is always a way to strategize the struggle!

You’ve got a big team that loves you and sees how hard you are trying! I’m on that team for you too!

All my love,

Sarah