Helping kids who procrastinate on school workWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
“I don’t feel like it.” “I’ll do it tomorrow.” “It’s not due yet.” You’ve heard your child’s excuses time and time again, but do they ever seem to learn?
When the next deadline looms for a school assignment, will your child buckle down in good time on their own? Or will you be up late the night before deadline, trying to soothe your child’s panicky meltdown so they can finally get the work done?
Or is it more likely your child won’t break a sweat at all? They’ll simply throw something together at the 11th hour, handing in inferior work that’s far from what they’re really capable of.
A child’s habit of stalling over school work can drive their parents crazy. But what’s really behind all the dilly-dallying and delaying? Is procrastination simply laziness or lack of self-discipline?
According to Timothy A. Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, it’s more helpful to approach procrastination as an emotional issue – a matter of helping kids learn to deal with negative feelings.
“There are tasks that make us feel badly because they may be frustrating or boring or we resent doing them or we have anxiety about them,” says Pychyl. “We don’t like these feelings, and we learn that we can get rid of these negative feelings, at least temporarily, by avoiding the task, putting it off.”1
Some of those negative feelings are more than simple dislike for the task at hand; kids can be stalled by distressing doubts about their capability.
Low conscientiousness is associated with high procrastination for sure, notes Pychyl, but procrastination is also strongly linked with individuals who are highly anxious or perfectionistic, or who are depressed or tend to dwell on past failures.2,3 Children who lack confidence in their ability to do their work will also tend to procrastinate, even if they are conscientious students overall.4
What does all this mean for parents? It means that while a child’s procrastination may be vexing, perhaps we should also think of it as revealing.
When you notice your child dragging their feet, it may be a signal that you need to get involved, and do more than prodding or nagging. It may be your cue to explore what your child is thinking and feeling, to find out if there are hidden obstacles in his or her way.
Getting to the heart of procrastination, task by task
Kids may not be accustomed to talking about their feelings about why they procrastinate, but they can identify different reasons for their procrastination.
Joanne Foster, an educational consultant and instructor in educational psychology at the University of Toronto for over 10 years, suggests that parents have their child review a checklist of possible reasons for procrastination as a helpful way of exploring their child’s thoughts and feelings about the task they’re postponing.
A child’s reasons for dallying may not be at all what the parent expected.
In her book Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination Foster presents dozens of reasons behind kids’ procrastination, alongside plentiful suggestions for parents to help kids get unstuck.
Here are some common issues that might come up as you talk with your child.
When a child complains There's too much to do or There's not enough time, the parent’s first, most obvious step is to make sure their child has mastered the basic planning skills they need.
“Some procrastinators may never have learned the practical skills required to work efficiently,” says Foster. Can your child clarify instructions and expectations, organize materials, break tasks down into steps and allow reasonable time frames for each one?
Foster suggests kids be taught to ask themselves a simple set of key questions such as, Is the task really that awful? How long do I think it will take to complete? Is there some way to do it in small steps? Where can I get help if I need it?
You may discover it’s time to teach your child some self-advocacy skills, says Foster, such as how to politely ask the teacher for clarification of the assignment, or a completed example to review, or an extension of the deadline.
Stay alert, too, for the possibility of undiagnosed learning challenges. Children with ADHD, for example, have difficulties with personal organization and many can’t develop an accurate internal sense of the passage of time.
Distaste for the task
“Motivation is linked to a person’s view of his capabilities,” says Foster, so it’s important to ensure a child feels competent, successful, and confident that they can build on their skills to rise to the next challenge. Lack of enthusiasm for a task or subject might indicate a child is falling behind and needs extra assistance. “Students often delay, dally, and defer in areas where they have difficulty.”
Keep in mind that your child’s sense of competence develops from previous successes. “Remind them that you believe in their abilities so they will come to believe in them too,” suggests Foster. Pointing to your child’s past successes can be a confidence booster as well.
Fear of failure
Perfectionists are so driven to achieve excellence that their fear of a poor result can often paralyze them at the starting line. Some perfectionists will deliberately delay so they can save face later; if the result is inferior, they can blame it on a lack of time rather than lack of ability.
“Help children understand that they don’t have to excel all the time,” urges Foster. “They should not equate self-worth with achievement. . . . Parents can reinforce the concept that high but realistic standards are admirable.”
Consider whether your child is also feeling continually judged by others. “Parents should ask themselves whether their expectations are a factor in their child’s procrastination,” says Foster. “Is he postponing potential criticism and evaluation by you?”
Let your child know you want them to enjoy the experience of learning rather than fretting about results, and remind them that making mistakes is part of learning. Reassure your child that your love – and God's love too – does not depend on their academic performance.
Fear of success
“How a person thinks about success can lead to the fear of it,” says Foster. Kids can think, If I do well, I'll always be expected to do well, anticipating an exhausting grind ahead to maintain their performance. Other kids who have enjoyed success so far may fear that their skills will suddenly plateau out; they fear the next challenge will prove to be too much and they’ll lose their status as an above-average student.
Kids need to understand what failure is and is not, says Foster. “Reassure children by explaining that when someone is not able to do something particularly well it doesn’t mean he has failed. . . . We all start as novices.” It’s imperative that children understand that competence does not depend on intelligence but is built through effort and persistence – and that their hard work will pay off.
Foster warns that some kids will procrastinate – and find other ways to underachieve – for fear of what their peers will think of them if they do well. They worry that their friends will think they’re showing off if they excel, or that they’ll be teased or bullied.
If you start noticing that your child seems to be strongly influenced by friends who don’t value academics and who demonstrate worrisome personal values in general, make it a priority to read Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté’s book Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. You can read more about their book here.
Complaints about pointlessness
A child may procrastinate because he or she is content to just scrape by when it comes to school work – expending minimal effort makes perfect sense to them. Or a child may procrastinate because the assignment seems boring, repetitive or pointless.
“Two key findings in the literature on motivation and academic success are: 1) Tasks should be meaningful; and 2) Tasks and ability level should match,” says Foster. Kids need to perceive assignments as interesting, or relevant to their life or hopes for the future. They may need a parent’s help to think though how to make a boring task more engaging, or help to connect it to something they are interested in.
By the pre-teen years, parents may want to start talking about potential careers, pointing out how current academic subjects and assignments are building relevant skills.
Don’t overlook your own involvement in your child’s work habits. Are you enabling a pattern of delay? Your child might be putting work off because they’ve learned you’ll eventually step in to help, or you’ll offer a bigger reward.
“If something is left undone or put aside for another day, there may be consequences to pay. But sometimes that’s okay. That’s how kids learn,” says Foster. . . . Parents who rescue their kids are not doing them a favour.”
Some kids tell themselves I work better under pressure or I can get this done quickly, so there’s no rush. Studies in college students, however, consistently demonstrate that working under the pressure of an imminent deadline produces inferior results.5 Procrastinators, in general, also tend to be overly optimistic about what they’ll be able to achieve tomorrow.6
Parents can have kids plan backwards from the deadline, suggests Foster, to see if they really have allowed enough time for each step, and enough time to do a good job of the task overall.
Returning now to Pychyl’s work and some general principles to help with procrastination, Pychyl points to some recent – and fascinating – neural imaging research that hints at why we’re so happy to off-load work onto our future self. In essence, we have little empathy for our future self. “Our brains process information about our future-self more like a stranger,” says Pychyl.7
With this in mind, Pychyl suggests kids who are tempted to procrastinate use their imagination to “time travel” to the future to make a stronger emotional connection with their future self (a practice Foster also recommends). That means encouraging your child to spend some very deliberate time imagining both how good they’ll feel in the future if they make a start now, and how bad they’ll feel in the future if they procrastinate now.
Very often, once we get started on a dreaded task, we start feeling better very soon. At a minimum, there’s the relief of finally having made a start.8 It’s all about helping children see that they can replace those bad feelings with good feelings, if they’ll just get started now.
1 Gabi Morales, “Present self and future self’s battle: An interview with Tim Pychyl, PHD, about procrastination,” Psych2Go, October 25, 2017.
2 Timothy A. Pychyl, “How to use psychology to solve the procrastination puzzle,” Medium, April 26, 2017.
3 Timothy A. Pychyl, “How negative thoughts relate to procrastination,” Psychology Today, March 8, 2018.
4 Timothy A. Pychyl, “‘I’ll do it later – Children’s academic procrastination” Psychology Today, January 12, 2016.
5 Kelsey Butler, “6 myths you’ve been told about procrastination and productivity” NBC News, May 24, 2017.
6 Timothy A. Pychyl, “I'll feel more like it tomorrow,” Psychology Today, March 13, 2019.
7 Timothy A. Pychyl, “The tale of two selves: How future-self can help present-self to be more productive,” High Performance Institute, February 28, 2018.
8 Timothy A. Pychyl, “How to stop procrastinating, NOW,” High Performance Institute, September 19, 2017.
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