Kids and The Homework Procrastination Curse

Last updated on May 4th, 2016 at 11:11 am

girl lying on floor engaged in procrastinationWe have been living the reality of adolescent procrastination for some time now….late school assignments, messy room, nagging over getting the lawn mowed – even personal hygiene issues (really…when was the last time you had a shower??). Procrastination can be a problem at any stage of life, but for a tween or teen it presents very significant challenges and risks for the child and family. It can create serious anxiety issues, affect self-identity and self-esteem, and set a child up for issues later in life.

Although our son, Elliott, has still been managing to get good grades at school despite his homework procrastination – the process he’s been going through is quite simply unhealthy.  The stress and anxiety associated with leaving work until the bitter end, freaking out and asking for help at late hours, and pulling all nighters to get assignments done – while still in Middle School??!! Come on! Something had to change.  During my company’s performance review process this is what we call not just focusing on the “what” (good grades) but also the “how” (killing you and your parents!).

As a result we decided to get school skills coaching help for our son. There are a lot of reasons why adolescents might procrastinate – anxiety, perfectionism, lack of confidence, attention disorder, beginning to assert their independence, or simply feeling overwhelmed – and getting support from professionals can help to identify underlying causes. But one thing at the root of most procrastination issues in kids is the fact that the last part of the brain to fully develop – the frontal lobe – is the very part responsible for good judgment and self regulation (namely, the ability to overcome impulses and make yourself do something that you maybe would rather not).  It is not just a skill that is learned over time –but is dependent on brain wiring that isn’t finished until the mid-twenties.

A development that seemed to make Elliott’s procrastination worse was a change last year in his middle school’s policy about late homework. Elliott, like many kids, is reasonably motivated to get good grades, which usually requires turning homework in on time. But now at his school kids get an automatic 50% if something is not handed in – and no penalty when late assignments are eventually submitted. The rationale given to parents was that the school doesn’t want kids who hit a rough patch to end up with such poor grades that they can’t dig themselves out of the hole. But instead, kids who are struggling with self-regulation don’t have a true deadline and end up feeling overwhelmed with an endless list of current and overdue assignments to complete. I can’t help but feel this policy was instituted more to protect the grading of teachers and schools than to help students – but no matter the reason, beware if your school goes down a similar path.

Despite a brain that is still under construction, kids can make the most of the brain power they do have with a few tips and techniques which we have learned through our journey. Below are a few of the things we have learned from our son’s coach – or through our own trial and error:

  • Pick 2 or 3 small simple homework tasks to start on each evening – maybe even work these out on the bus home – starting with something simple can make the work less scary and get them into the groove
  • Set priorities for evening homework and share with/get input from parents – even if for older kids that means texting parents at work (that’s what our coach suggested)
  • Break assignments down into chunks – even write out a step-by-step list if needed
  • Work alongside a family member or friend while they do their own work – known as “body doubling” this can create some support and accountability
  • Use a timer to set goals for a duration of time to work
  • Take short, active breaks – even if this needs to be frequent – brainstorm with your kids what kinds of breaks they can do
    • Our son takes short breaks to do push-ups, wash his face with a cold wash cloth, get a snack or shoot some hoops
  • Don’t let them have electronics with them in their room if at all possible (other than a computer if needed for their work) – there are too many distractions online these days
  • Provide some incentives for getting work done early – particularly on the weekend (e.g. having friends over when homework is out of the way)
  • Help them be realistic about time to spend on an assignment – if your child is a perfectionist, you may need to help them limit the time spent rather than ask them how much time they need
  • Also help them believe in themselves – when things go well, REALLY celebrate that – and use that to help them develop positive self-talk (e.g. go from “I just don’t have the drive or motivation that other kids have” to “hey I can do this – I just needed a way that worked for me”)

Also, below are a few good articles on the procrastination topic, which reinforce and build on the list above. Good luck!

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited fourteen-year old boy. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global diabetes education programs as well as by her fourteen-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a member of the PedSafe Team

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