For Families

How do we support our kids to initiate (and complete) tasks?

August 15, 2020

If a child learns through their interests and they are not forced, they will want to initiate more activities. Trust us.  

My child doesn’t start his task right away if it’s not highly interested in him.

My student who has learning difficulties does everything to avoid his tasks!

I’m so tired of reminding my child to do his task over and over again. 

Are these scenarios familiar to you? If yes, you have come to the right place. Today, we will talk about task initiation – why some children have trouble starting tasks, and what we can do to solve this problem.

Most children play and do stuff that they really like. Most of the time they could set aside play and leisure time in order to do important tasks, like chores and homework when needed. However, it’s not the same for all children. Some children have a hard time starting tasks that they are supposed to do or even at times enjoy, but unable to initiate the activity with a peer or family member. This happens when children struggle to initiate tasks.  

Task initiation refers to the ability to start tasks and generate ideas, responses, and problem-solving strategies. This involves overcoming procrastination, directly starting a task such as doing homework and finishing household chores. Task initiation appears to be an important life skill as there are various distractions around us and there are also many different chores and tasks that we should complete. Below are some examples:

  • Cleaning up the room even without prompts
  • Answering math homework after school
  • Starting a puzzle or lego project independently or with a friend 
  • Independently plans for the day
  • Taking a test right after the teacher hands the questionnaire
  • Many more 🙂 

Many children grow up and develop task initiation skills correctly, but for children who have challenges with executive functioning skills, the case might be different. 

Firstly, what is executive functioning? How does it affect the child’s ability to start tasks?

Executive functioning is a set of mental processes that help us to plan and organize, focus attention, remember instructions, and manage multiple tasks successfully. Executive functioning skills are important to filter distractions, attend to important sensory information, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and regulate impulses. 

Hence, for children who have challenges with executive functioning, doing tasks that they should do might be a challenge for them as they have difficulty filtering distractions and managing their tasks successfully. More often than not, children who are diagnosed with autism, ADHD, learning disorders experience difficulty in executive functioning.

As adults, teachers, therapists, caregivers, and parents, we can help facilitate the development of a child’s executive functioning skills. Here are some strategies to increase your child’s task initiation skills:

  1. Break down large tasks into parts.

Finishing a big task may be too daunting for children with executive functioning issues. They might be struggling to start a task because it might be too overwhelming for them. In turn, we can help them by breaking large tasks into smaller, doable tasks. Here are some tips:

  • Plan how you are going to finish the task. Identify each step and conquer one task at a time. 
  • Make lots of opportunities to practice the skill for the tasks.
  • Reward every successful attempt in a sincere manner that is appropriate for the current task.  
  • Model the behavior that you are expecting from your child. 
  • Prompt (support or help) when needed.

You can break down directions that you give to your child. Make sure your instructions are clear and concise. Do not use elaborate words and lengthy phrases. Stick to your main point. You can also use visual schedules. In this way, the child knows what to expect and it gives them a sense of beginning and end to their tasks. 

  1. Set up reinforcements to complete tasks.

Here we ask the question: what’s in it for them? Why will they do something that they don’t find intrinsically enjoyable? As adults, we can set up the environment in a way that the child finds it motivating. We can modify the tasks by:

  • Playing his favorite music while doing chores.
  • Using his favorite pencil while answering his homework.
  • Giving him access to gadgets after he finishes washing the dishes and also creating games when doing these chores (bubbles with the soap in washing dishes, for example).
  • Including his interests in his work (e.g. using cars to learn how to count, etc.).
  • Giving him a star for every completed work and having it exchanged for a highly reinforcing item, outing or activity. 

We can do a lot of things to modify the task at hand so they will be more motivated to do their work. This will decrease their motivation to escape the task, hence, lesser attempts of escape and more willingness to do the tasks.  We want our children to understand why they need to engage in these activities.  It will help them understand it’s not us wanting to “punish” them, but rather that we are trying to help them understand what it will provide them in the future.  

  1. Reduce distractions.

If there are a lot of things going on in their environment, it will definitely be difficult for them to focus on one thing. We must reduce distractions as much as possible. Limit the amount of visual material that they see. To keep their focus on the task, we can:

  • Reduce clutter. 
  • Turn off loud music. 
  • Give the child a time needed to process a response. 
  • Go to a less stressful place (perhaps a sensory room?).  
  1. Provide choices.

When we present a task to our child, it’s better when a choice is built into it. We are not providing a choice between desirable and undesirable activities. We provide choices of the things we can control and provide while meeting the goals of the task. The goal is to give the child a sense of control while still doing the task. We can provide choices regarding:

  • Which activities to do (cook or clean?)
  • Order of activities (brush teeth first or take a bath first?)
  • With whom to do the task (with mommy or with daddy?)
  • How to do the task (using a pink pencil or a blue pencil?)

Making sure that he or she is involved in decision-making will empower him or her and motivate him or her to do the task more often.

As adults, we play an important role in the child’s learning and development. We can improve executive functioning skills by establishing routines, modeling desirable behavior and creating a supportive environment for the child. It is also essential that we provide opportunities to the child to exercise these skills so they can make their way into independence.

Always remember that tasks should, as much as possible, be interest-based, fun and include many movement and/or sensory breaks.  Enjoy and please send us your activities and experience! 

Written by Felicia, a potential AIMS Global therapist