Have you ever received an email from your child’s teacher letting you know she assigned a project that would be due in three weeks? And have you then asked your child, “Is there anything you need for this project that I can help you with? Supplies? A trip to the library?” only to have your offers roundly rejected? Have you checked in periodically to see how the project was going and been assured it was under control, then bitten your tongue as you watched your child embark on said project at 9 p.m. the night before it was due?
If that scenario sounds at all familiar, you might be relieved to hear what Ann Dolin has to say.
“When our kids struggle with procrastination or study habits, it’s easy to read it as a character flaw,” says Dolin, author of “Getting Past Procrastination,” founder of Educational Connections Tutoring and a former Fairfax County, Virginia, teacher (she is also the mom of two boys). “But usually it’s that their executive functioning skills haven’t quite developed yet.”
Parents often come to Dolin with a familiar complaint: My really bright kid is doing just okay in school. He doesn’t study and gets by with passing grades, but I know he can do better.
“When kids struggle in school, there’s an underlying reason,” Dolin says. “It’s not that they’re not motivated — everyone wants to succeed — but as parents, we have to figure out where the procrastination is coming from in order to help them get past it.”
Categories of procrastination
To help decode and address this behavior, Dolin has identified three major categories of procrastinator:
“Bright but disorganized” students, who are capable and smart but scattered — not only in their materials but also in their ability to plan and think ahead. These kids do not know how to start the work because they have not written down the assignment and cannot find the materials.
“Swiss cheese kids”: “They sit in class and go in and out of paying attention. They have these holes in their learning. When they come home to do the work, they don’t know how to approach it, so they put it off for later and then get buried under a pile of missed work.” She sees this mostly with subjects that are cumulative — math, language or math-based science.
“Anxious perfectionists,” the kids who feel overwhelmed at the prospect of starting their work because they constantly feel underprepared and uncertain about the outcome. “When facing down an assignment, these kids think, ‘What if I can’t do this perfectly?’ so they put it off indefinitely.”
For students who suffer from more insidious procrastination issues, Dolin refers them to Rachna Varia, psycho-diagnostic testing specialist and co-founder of Mindwell in Chantilly, Virginia. Varia, who is also a mom of two teenage girls, says that when kids lack the motivation to get started on homework, sometimes ADHD is the culprit, and that clinical levels of anxiety can be particularly difficult for kids to work through on their own.
“The idea of starting something and not knowing how it’s going to look at the end sometimes causes kids to become paralyzed; they get almost stuck, or rigid. They get caught in a spiral in their head because they know they should get going but they can’t get started because what if it’s not good enough?” she said.
Even absent a clinical diagnosis, procrastination and lack of focus are common problems for today’s kids, Varia says. “Parents often tell me, ‘Oh, my God, that sounds like me!’ But for our kids, there’s a level of distraction and an expectation to multitask that doesn’t compare to even a generation ago. The need for instant gratification has been exacerbated by video games, Snapchat, Instagram.”
One low-tech way to combat this is to work on long-term family projects, Varia suggests. “I always try to have a project that we’re doing, like a 1,000-piece puzzle, so that my kids understand that sense of accomplishment that comes from working on something for days or weeks.”
Dolin encourages parents to learn different strategies to address each of these symptoms — starting with asking kids what they need. “When parents ask questions like, ‘What’s your goal for this semester?’ ‘How do you want to approach this project?’ it motivates kids more than telling them what to do.”
Kids need to develop their own homework hacks, says Dolin, such as figuring out what time of day they are most focused, or whether it is better for them to tackle the easiest or hardest assignments first. “Your brain hates change. If you’re doing something you love and don’t want to switch gears, you have to trick yourself into thinking that this thing won’t be so bad.”
There are apps for kids (and adults) who are easily distracted, including Forest, an app that discourages the user from checking their phone, and SelfControl, which allows you to blacklist distracting websites. And visual timers (such as Time Timer) can help kids break work down into manageable chunks. Whatever the solution, it needs to be kid-generated for it to be effective. “Don’t shove a timer at your kid or force them to use an app that you’ve picked out for them,” Dolin says. “Micromanaging kids doesn’t provide better outcomes; it only adds to the stress.”
Parents can, however, provide structure and make the environment ripe for accountability. “In elementary school, you can set a routine for doing homework or reading every night. As kids get older, it’s harder to enforce the routine, so instead you might ask, ‘What are your priorities tonight?’ That gets kids thinking about what they might do first, second, third. They can put together a mental to-do list and see that there’s an end in sight.”
For those bright but disorganized students whose homework problems start at school, one key strategy is to encourage them to recognize that the minute they do not understand the material, they need to ask for help. It is the cumulative effect of missing instructional pieces that leads to kids feeling overwhelmed, Dolin explains. “Also, parents can help kids advocate for themselves when they don’t understand something — to ask the teacher a question in class, at study hall or over email, depending on the kid’s and teacher’s communication styles and availability.”
Dolin also points out that previewing content can prevent “Swiss cheese” syndrome before it starts: “Giving kids a sneak peek at what they’ll be learning in class next, either through a parent or a tutor who’s more familiar with the subject, can be extremely empowering. When kids get into class and are presented with a new concept that they’ve previewed at home, they’ll feel like, ‘I know this!’ and are more likely to stay engaged.”
For anxious-perfectionists who tend to see everything as both immediate and important, Dolin suggests prioritizing work into three categories: “must do” (it is absolutely crucial I do this today), “should do” (I should do this today, but it is not due tomorrow) and “could do” (I would like to do this today, but if I do not, it is not a big deal).
Varia points out kids might not recognize they are procrastinating, but at some level, they know there is a problem — and it is important to address what they see as the problem. “If you say, ‘You seem like you’re overwhelmed,’ then wait for him to react, you might find out maybe he’s not overwhelmed; maybe it’s something else,” Varia says. “Then you can help address the feeling behind the behavior. You can offer help by saying, ‘Would you be willing to try to figure out how we can make it better?’ “
Varia also believes in empowering kids by letting them work out their own solutions. “As parents, we try to rescue our kids way too fast. We want to give them the tools to succeed, but we have to be okay with them struggling,” because that is where the learning happens.
Dolin, too, thinks parents need to cut themselves a break — and know when to outsource. “When your relationship becomes defined by academics, it’s time to try something different. It could be a decision not to check your kid’s grades this semester, or you may recognize that you’re an anxious presence and you need to remove yourself from the struggle.” In which case you might decide, as Dolin did with her own son, to hire a coach who can help your kid manage their time and study more effectively. “Because in 10 years, it won’t matter what your kid got in seventh-grade history. Your relationship with your child is more important than that.”