“I’ll Do My Homework Later”: Helping Kids Battle Procrastination

It’s tough sometimes being an anti-helicopter parent, who seeks to help their children learn life lessons by not jumping in and taking over everything.  It’s like standing by and watching a train wreck, after you’ve warned the engineer several times of danger ahead.  To borrow again from the train metaphor, lately our house is like “Procrastination Station”, and even though I keep warning my kids, the trains keep wrecking. 

“Emmie, get your schoolbag packed before you go to bed,” we’ve told her many times, but no, she decides to do that two minutes before she’s supposed to leave for school in the morning.  Often, lunch money and/or needed supplies get left behind, and unless I happen to be going by the school during the day, I won’t bring the gear to her.  “Allison, break your reading assignment down into small chunks and do a little bit every day,” we tell her, but no, there she is a month later, the night before the book report and its accompanying poster and Power Point are due, panicked because she never finished the book, and staying up until 5 a.m. to try to complete the assignment (and true to Murphy’s Law, last-minute children will always have technical difficulties trying to load that Power Point onto a USB flash drive or print that report on the printer, adding to the panic). “Emmie, your science fair project is due in a month and you’ve got to get started now,” we tell her.  One week later: “Emmie, your science fair project is due in three weeks—don’t wait until the last minute, since your experiment involves people, and they may not be available when you think they are.” This week: “Emmie, your science fair project is due next Tuesday, and you only have a couple free days until then to conduct your experiment. I’m not going to buy your supplies until you’ve written down the procedure and invited your subjects to come over to the house.”  I’m mentally biting my knuckles.  Even our 17-year-old exchange student from France has issues with procrastination—she’d much rather text or go on Facebook than do homework, and she’s still putting off studying until late in the evening, then sleeping too late and having to rush almost every morning in order to make it to school on time.  What’s a parent to do?

I checked online to read what the “experts” have to say, and it turns out I have already been doing, or at least thinking about, some of the things they recommend:

Help Kids Break Things Down Into Small Parts.  Check. 

Model Positive, Self-Regulatory Behavior.  Also known as “Set a Good Example for Your Kids”.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this one lately.  Yeah, I juggle a lot of things in my life, and some people are impressed, but I’ve realized lately that my kids often see the downside of that: me running late to my own appointments, and being late in picking them up from school or activities; me having a desktop that can rarely be described as “organized”, me waiting until company is coming over before I do a major house-cleaning, then it’s an all-day, crazed and panicked effort; me being too busy to fill out parent paperwork on time and getting reminder emails from the teacher…yes, there are definite areas where I could be a better time and organization role model for my kids! 

Limit Electronic Media. Those who read this blog a lot know we already do that, and it just so happens that a few days ago we decided to set even more limits. Our house rules now include, in addition to “all Internet shuts off at 11”, more limits on TV watching and cell phones.  Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., who specializes in the study of procrastination and writes a blog called “Don’t Delay” at psychologytoday.com, calls the extensive use of electronic media by students “cyberslacking on the procrastination superhighway” and likens it to a serious compulsion, such as gambling. I agree.

One piece of advice I hadn’t thought of, at least lately, includes Help Your Child Set Up A Daily and Weekly Planner (I see hand-written schedules and To-Do lists often sitting around the kids’ rooms but I’ve never shown them other “systems” they might want to try, to prioritize and get organized).

Of course, as much as we parents may bite our knuckles, the best time planning teacher is a tough mistake.  Kids need to be able to feel the gut-wrenching panic and anxiety that are usually the outcomes of poor planning (and what it feels like to get a poor grade as a result) in the hopes that, on their own, they won’t want to repeat that and will be motivated enough to “plan ahead next time”.  (There are great resources to help them do that, which speak directly to them.  PBSkids.org has a section for older kids called It’s My Life, with lots of tips on time management.  A funny book for kids entitled See You Later, Procrastinator, by Espeland and Verdick, gives kids “20 Ways to Kiss Procrastination Good-bye”.)

But what if your child is, in the words of clinical psychologist Linda Sapadin, a crisis-maker? “Crisis Makers like to live on the edge, and tend to get bored unless they perceive an ‘emergency’,” she says in her book, Beat Procrastination and Make the Grade .“Crisis provides motivation, so Crisis Makers will frequently choose to wait until the last minute to meet deadlines, only to then heroically pull it off. They don’t like to tackle projects in pieces, over time. They prefer to do it all at once, and their ‘mad dash to the finish line’ can be very disruptive to family life.”  Umm, has she been spying on my family? I can think of at least one of my children who fits this description to a T. For this type of child, she suggests setting “fake” or “family” deadlines for a project, i.e. an earlier deadline than the real one, the point at which family members will no longer be available to help troubleshoot with the printer, answer questions, etc.  Or, the point at which the child must be done or else they don’t get to do something they’ve been looking forward to—an outing, a party—parents can fill in the blank. “Rather than fight your child’s need for an adrenalin rush… use it as a motivator,” she says. Expanding on this idea, I could even see purposefully scheduling something fun on the very night before a big project is due, so that the child will try hard to get their project done at least a day earlier in order to participate.  Sounds like something all my kids might like. 

But I think for next Tuesday’s Science Fair turn-in, I better make the family deadline three days in advance. Because Emmie has decided to do her project with a fellow classmate…who is also a fellow procrastinator, only with a busier schedule.

(Is that a train whistle I hear in the distance? )

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