Let’s get started! 5 tips for helping kids get things done | Sharon Saline, Psy.D. | 7 Min Read

Do you wonder why some kids struggle with starting things, sticking with them, and finishing up? Whether it’s working on a school project or preparing for their birthday party, many children and teens struggle with getting started on tasks that seem important but can be tedious, boring, unachievable, or overwhelming. Sometimes it takes the urgency and pressure of deadlines to get anything done, and it’s often at the last minute. Motivation is related to many executive functioning skills simultaneously — initiation, focus, time management, organization, prioritization, sustained attention, and goal-directed persistence. Plus, starting something requires impulse control and emotional regulation: you choose not to do another compelling activity for the one at hand, despite any disappointment or frustration. For kids with ADHD who naturally struggle with many of these skills, summoning up the impetus to begin can be especially challenging. Why does this happen and what can you do to assist your child or student? 

Let’s face it, it’s harder to muster the energy to do things you don’t like or don’t feel immediate satisfaction from completing. Interest fosters motivation. There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic (also known as external) motivation means doing something to get something: it refers to an outside reward. You have to turn in your forms for a class trip to the museum or you can’t go. Intrinsic (also known as internal) motivation refers to goals that we set for ourselves. You want to reach the next level on your computer game or run a mile in eight minutes. Intrinsic motivation — doing something because it feels good — fully matures in neurotypical brains in the early twenties and in ADHD brains, by the mid-twenties. If something seems unappealing to a youngster with ADHD, they will probably turn away from it — even if the consequences are serious. Many of these kids have to rely on external rewards to rouse themselves. Whether they are neurotypical or neurodiverse, children and teens need help from adults in their lives to create meaningful external incentives to nurture the growth of internal satisfaction later. Do the dishes and then watch television; finish studying and reward yourself with an hour of gaming. There are no quick fixes for improving motivation, which can be frustrating for everybody. Instead, it’s all about establishing routines, being consistent more often than not, and noticing progress.

When kids are unmotivated, they often expect failure. They seem to have given up on themselves on some level. Maybe they have experienced failure too many times; maybe they’ve gotten the message that adults have given up on them; maybe they are deeply disappointed that a revered teacher, coach, or parent doesn’t understand them and can’t help them. Whatever the reason, they need our compassion: we have to hold the memory of times when they have begun and completed tasks and persevered in spite of extreme frustration. We have to remind them of their previous strategies and successes and apply those tools to this current situation or project. Motivation is about believing you can do something and having the skills to get there. It relies on acknowledging efforts as well as achievements, especially for alternative learners.

Our kids are part of an information-based generation. They are curious, want to understand things, and like explanations. To that end, we want to describe motivation and how it works so they can grasp why it can be tough to initiate, persist, and complete tasks.  Review the basic definitions of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, using relevant examples, and the role of interest in being able to start and finish things. If your child has ADHD, acknowledge that motivation can be especially challenging because of how their brain is wired. Many kids with and without ADHD will acknowledge when they struggle with focusing, what makes them feel overwhelmed, and regarding which tasks lack inherent interest or value for them. Explore what tools have assisted them in overcoming these challenges in the past and what would entice them to do them now. Write these strategies down and post them in the kitchen or bedroom.

Since children and teens frequently need tasks to be engaging and manageable (in their eyes) to accomplish them, you can improve their motivation by creating helpful incentives, adjusting the size of the task, paying attention to focus, identifying their individual challenges, and emphasizing progress.  Follow these tips to help your child or teen get things done:

  1. Helpful incentives are NOT bribes. They change the conversation from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I’ll take a small step’ and then earn the desired reward. Often incentives fail because parents don’t collaborate with their kids in establishing them or give up when they don’t get the desired results fast enough. Collaboration is the key to making this work. Kids have to be involved in choosing the incentives to get their buy-in. When choosing incentives, ask them ‘What do you love to do?  What privileges would you like to earn?’ No activity is too unimportant to consider. Whether it’s additional time playing outside, using electronics or social media, or going out for a special ice cream, these are all earned privileges. Spending time with you can be an incentive (yes, even for teens — especially if you do something together that matters to them). 
  1. Break it down: The size of the task affects initiation, a critical element of motivation. If a task seems insurmountable, it’s much more difficult to start it. This is especially true for neurodivergent thinkers. So, break things down into chunks and start small.  If they still can’t begin, then the task is too big. Make it smaller. We want the task to seem doable if somebody can’t begin because they are envisioning it as Mt. Everest. Work with kids to chart their course through the task too: together, identify where to start, what’s next, and so on. You are looking for small wins to build confidence and energy so kids keep efforting. 
  1. Direct the spotlight of attention: In addition to initiation, focus is another important element of motivation. Where is your focus and what are you doing? Describe how focus works to your child or teen. Focus is a dynamic process of what is critical to notice or do. It is the spotlight of your attention. You improve focus by noticing where it is and where it’s not. Most kids notice when they return from drifting off and those with ADHD really need a plan for recovering once they do. People with chronic difficulties with inattention have some areas where they can pay attention with no problem. They lack attention for uninteresting tasks. When you discuss focus without judgment and create effective strategies for dealing with natural distractedness, you reduce shame and improve cooperation.
  1. Talk it through: Set aside time in a calm moment for a conversation about motivation. We want to bring awareness and compassion to this issue. Together, make a list of what happens when your child or teen can’t get started.  Look for distractions in the environment, distractions online, or the daunting complexity of a task. Then take that list of meaningful incentives that they would like to earn and connect them to doing various tasks (homework, chores, morning or evening routines, etc.). By connecting, you’re showing them how to explore the ways that effort leads to a satisfying accomplishment. You are linking the ‘have-to’s’ to the ‘want-to’s’.
  1. Acknowledge effort and progress: Encouragement is fundamental to shifting low motivation to successful engagement. Although you may not understand why your child or teen simply can’t simply stop dawdling and avoid what clearly needs to be accomplished, it’s really important that you express your distress and manage it separately from them. It’s one thing to say “It’s Saturday afternoon and I’m frustrated that you haven’t started picking up your room since we agreed it would be done by noon. What do you think should happen now?” but it’s something entirely different to yell “Why haven’t you picked up your room yet? What’s the problem here? I’m sick of reminding you.” Kids who struggle with motivation benefit from cueing, agreements, and encouragement: if they could begin something distasteful and get it over with, they would. Notice whatever effort and progress is made so they feel encouraged to do it again next time. 

Good luck with your efforts and let’s get started!!

Learn more about Dr. Sharon Saline at www.drsharonsaline.com.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D.

Sharon Saline, Psy.D. is a top expert in ADHD and neurodiversity. Dr. Saline specializes in an integrative approach to managing ADHD, anxiety, executive functioning skills, learning differences and mental health issues in neurodiverse and 2e children, teens, college-age adults and families. With over 25 years of clinical experience, she brings a positive, strength-based approach to improving the challenges related to attention, learning and behavior. As a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northampton, MA, Dr. Saline helps people reduce frustration, develop daily living skills, communicate better and feel closer. An internationally sought-after lecturer, workshop facilitator, and educator/clinician trainer, she adeptly addresses topics ranging from making sense of ADHD and executive functioning skills to managing anxiety to understanding the teen brain.

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