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OrganizingInitiating

Is Your Child Not Getting Started?

Young boy raising his hand.
Anna Kroncke
Anna Kroncke
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 21 Apr 2022
Published 16 Jan 2022

What is Initiating in Childhood?

Initiating is independently beginning a new task or assignment. 

Initiating can include daily activities like getting dressed or making decisions on what to have for breakfast. It can involve tasks in kindergarten like putting a lunch or backpack away and joining the group. 

Initiating is the first step in completing classwork, chores, homework, or job-related activities. “Taking initiative” refers to getting started independently rather than needing to be asked or reminded to get going on an activity. Some adults and teachers use timers to prompt children, teens, or themselves to initiate a task or set a time limit to get something done. 

”Initiation can be defined as…“the ability to independently start an action or activity” [1]

Some children have trouble getting started. They may sit and stare at the homework page like it is the last thing on earth they will do. You may find your child is constantly stalling on important tasks, busying oneself with chasing butterflies, telling stories, or simply staring off into space. Your child may sit down to read and suddenly realize that he’s thirsty or ‘starving.’ You may find yourself telling your child, “If you just would have gotten started when I asked, you would be done by now.”

Symptoms of Struggles with Initiation in Children

  • Slow to get started: you may notice your child sitting and staring at the blank writing assignment for 15 minutes while others are busily working. Perhaps your child struggles to the extent that they have a tantrum when reminded to get to work.
  • Taking a break before starting: your child must take a water break, go to the bathroom, get a new pencil and find the perfect eraser before they can begin writing a sentence. 
  • Refusing to get started: your child simply won’t start an assignment, even with support. They may yell or have a meltdown instead.
  • Procrastinating: your child may take forever to get started, avoiding the task at hand, often waiting until the last minute before an assignment is due
  • Struggling with group work: No one wants to be on their team. They may seem bossy or nervous. They may be worried that the outcome may not conform to the vision.
  • Taking forever on homework: your child says, “oh, wait a minute” when it is homework time or homework time is filled with yelling and crying.
  • Falling behind: since it takes your child so long to get started on a task, assignments are not getting done, and their grades suffer.
  • Behavior problems:  your child may get in trouble for underperforming, not paying attention, and lack of work completion

Causes of Initiation Challenges in Childhood

Clinically, ‘initiation’ is an executive function and refers to the ability to begin. This skill is critical for academics and life. 

Children may struggle with initiation for any of these reasons 

  • Deficit in executive function skills: difficulty with planning, organizing, working memory, monitoring, attending, shifting, and sequencing information.
  • Low academic self-efficacy: meaning that they do not think they can do the task. It can be challenging for a child to keep trying when they have such low confidence.
  • Overwhelm: Children may be overwhelmed by the task at hand. Depending on the child’s age and the progression of child development, sequencing and trying to complete tasks can feel really hard. This moment is when a child may meltdown emotionally.
  • Lack of interest: They also may find the task boring or uninteresting, making the parents wonder about their motivation. Tips for implementing immediate reinforcement or reward may help in this case. 
  • Misunderstanding the task: Finally, they may really want to do the task but just not know how to begin. Your child may not know how to plan out the steps to a task, may not know the steps or have the materials handy to do the task, and may not sustain attention long enough to get it done. Knowing that the task involves all these unknowns, your child may avoid the work altogether by not getting started. 
  • Difference in Brain Functioning: particularly in the development of the prefrontal lobe. Children with ADHD, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injury, or a recent concussion are likely to struggle with initiation due to an actual deficit, not to a lack of motivation or effort. Explore how your child learns, perhaps by assessing cognitive development. There are special education supports available when a child’s brain is wired differently or has an injury. 

What to Do about Initiation Challenges in Childhood

It can be frustrating to watch your child not getting started on tasks. You may feel like your child is moving at a snail’s pace. Your blood may be boiling as you remind your child to begin their homework for the 1 millionth time. 

Parents, take heart! This pattern is often very normal, and there is a lot you can do to help. Below are some suggestions you can try at home. 

DO A Gradual Release Approach: The gradual release approach is a well-known education method. Teachers start by showing the child how to do the task. Then, they actively do the task side-by-side together. Finally, they ask the child to do the task independently. This flow is affectionately called the I do, we do, you do approach. 

“The “I do”… “We do”… “You do” approach is a great way to get your child started on tasks.”

Here’s how to try this at home: 

First, you do it yourself and model the task explicitly. You might read your child a sentence, for example.

Then, you do the task together. Then, you read the sentence aloud together. (Be sure to encourage and celebrate the fact that the child is participating with you).

Finally, you ask your child to finish the task on their own. (Be sure not to expect perfection. Focus on the excellent ‘win’ that your child got started). 

DON’T Have Unrealistic Expectations:  Do not expect your child to initiate tasks independently at first. Help your child get started [1]. Do not ‘rush’ your child or engage in power struggles [6].

Assuming that it is a ‘won’t do’ problem when it is a ‘can’t do’ problem can be a big mistake [6], as this perspective reduces the ability to teach and nurture your child’s developing brain. Generally, if kids can do it, they will.

DO Build momentum and practice skills consistently:  as you practice, you can expect more initiation from your child. At times, this initiation may be much later than expected, or not nearly as independent as you may hope, if a disability is present. 

DO Provide persistent, patient support to give your child the maximum opportunity for success. Regardless of your child’s skills, it will be important to be patient and hold fast to your commitment to helping your child improve their task initiation skills gradually.

Tap into your child’s intrinsic motivation: If your child does not have a significant deficit or disability, the issues can be inconsistent and less pervasive. You may have a child that does well in most subjects but is at a stand-still on his research project. In this case, tap into your child’s intrinsic motivation.

Children who appear unmotivated are generally struggling with one of the following areas: competence, relationships, or autonomy [2].

Competence refers to your child’s belief that he can do it. If the task looks too hard or appears to be cloaked in frustration and failure, the child does not want to do it and will not get started.

Secondly, if the child feels little connection or relationship with the people involved in the task, whether a teacher, parent, or other students, they will not initiate that task. After all, what is the point if the child doesn’t feel connected to the people who care about this project or assignment?

Finally, autonomy. Children do not feel motivated when they have no choice about how to do things.

Parents, you have already been in 5th grade. Now, it’s your child’s turn. Let them stumble, just like you did. They will get started much more readily and learn the lessons more readily when you get out of the way. 

Stand by in a support role but do not remove your child’s sense of choice and ownership over their work. It is better to not complete the assignment at all than to do it ‘your way’ every time. Let your child take the lead in how the task will be done and when to call it ‘complete.’ It may not meet your expectations, but it is your child’s standards that matter. Remember that you are the ‘coach’ – not the ‘athlete’ on the field. This game is your child’s to play, not yours.

When to Seek Help

If your child is having trouble getting started, it may be helpful to consult with your child’s teacher, school psychologist, or school counselor. In some cases, school psychologists may test for this symptom.

If the problems are significant, it may be necessary to have a full evaluation with a psychologist to see whether or not emotional or cognitive differences are impacting your child’s abilities. 

Further Resources on Task Initiation Issues In Childhood

  • School Psychologist: to help with the learning problems or emotional issues at school that may be caused by poor task initiation skills
  • Psychologist or Neuropsychologist: to help with symptoms of aggression and depression, behavior and social skills issues that could be related to task initiation
  • Neurologist: to help with the diagnosis of a brain injury or neurological issue causing the problems with task initiation

Similar Conditions to Initiation Challenges in Childhood

  • Gifted: extremely smart kids often struggle to get started because they are not sure the task will go as planned. They think they will fail to meet their expectations.
  • Specific Learning Disability: poor initiation can impede progress in reading, writing, or math. Children who struggle with academic tasks often refuse to get started.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): difficulties with getting started are common in children with head injuries
  • Anxiety: worries over how to get started and performance anxiety may delay the initiation of tasks
  • ADHD: poor initiation may be due to disinhibition, hyperactivity, inattention, or poor executive functions in general
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder: may not get started due to poor processing speed, deliberate work style, perseveration on something else; rigid approach to problem-solving, or poor executive functions in general
  • Behavior Disorders (Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder): may not get started due to lack of respect for authority, defiance, or rule-breaking behaviors

References on Initiation Issues in Childhood

[1] Lewis, Ph.D., Jeanne, Calvery, Ph.D., Margaret, & Lewis, Ph.D., Hal (2002). Brainstars. Brain Injury: Strategies for Teams and Re-education for Students. US Department of Education: Office of Special Programs.

[2] Siegel, Daniel J. & Bryson, Tina Payne (2012). The whole brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind.

[3] Anderman, Eric M. & Anderman, Lynley Hicks (2009). Classroom motivation.

[4] Cooper-Kahn, Joyce & Dietzel, Laurie C. (2008). Late, lost, and unprepared: A parent’s guide to helping children with executive functioning.

[5] Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2009). Smart but scattered: The revolutionary “executive skills” approach to helping kids reach their potential.[6] Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado. The Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado is the go-to resource for help and services for survivors of an injury to the brain, their families and providers.

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