Categories: Children

Is It an Initiation or “Getting Started” Problem?

If you are like most parents, one of your most common complaints is that you must nag your children constantly to take care of their responsibilities. If it is any comfort to you, research indicates there is a neurological component to poor initiation. Scans and many studies have implicated an underactive frontal lobe in children who just can’t seem to get started on their own. The child may know what to do but can’t translate that knowledge into action. It is as if there has been a breakdown in the sending and receiving of commands. The Nike slogan, “Just Do It,” makes initiation seem like such a simple skill, when actually it is not.

Possible Contributing Factors to Poor Task Initiation

Deficient executive functioning skills are usually responsible for poor initiation skills, and as with everything else, there are other contributing factors related to temperament, physical condition, environment, and the nature of the task itself. If your child has difficulty with getting things done, it is important to put on your detective hat and figure out what some contributing factors may be.

Some of the causes could be related to:

  • Lack of skill
  • Being easily overwhelmed by the number of things to do or the complexity of the task
  • Perfectionistic tendencies
  • Fear of failure
  • Poor self-concept
  • Poor concept of time
  • Distractibility and getting sidetracked beginning a job
  • Constant need for stimulation and boredom with mundane tasks
  • Poor working memory
  • Lack of motivation
  • Physical causes like lack of sleep or anemia
  • Oppositional, defiant behavior
  • Depression
  • Learned helplessness, which happens when a child does not feel his effort yields results, so he gives up and waits for things to be done for him

Looking at Solutions

Using your knowledge of your child, determine which of these factors are impacting your child’s task initiation and try to provide supports to help bridge the gap from being a reluctant participant to a willing worker. If it is lack of skill, of course you will provide instruction. If she is overwhelmed by the complexity of the task, break the job down into small, manageable parts. If it is related to self-concept or the child’s concerns about being successful, obviously there is no quick fix. Children who are perfectionists often seem to have that temperament from a very young age. Their expectations for themselves are exceedingly high. Often they don’t try things until they know they can be successful. For these children and for those with low self-esteem, it will take years of encouragement and opportunities for success to help them build their competence. Seeing mistakes as an important part of the learning process will be vital.

If your child’s poor task initiation has to do with his or her faulty sense of time, use calendars and timers to help the concept of time become more real. If your child is highly distractible, encourage him to try to think only about the job he is doing until it is complete and of course, try to make sure he is operating in a calm, structured environment. If she is easily bored, try to make the task as interesting as possible, but ultimately she will have to learn that all of us have to complete boring jobs at one time or another! For poor working memory, create visuals and supports as reminders.

The last three reasons children may have trouble with task initiation—defiance, depression, and learned helplessness—will likely require professional help from a mental health therapist or behaviorist. If you suspect any of these problems, get help sooner rather than later. These issues are much too involved to discuss within the scope of our book, The Impulsive, Disorganized Child: Solutions for Parenting Kids with Executive Functioning Difficulties.

By Mary Anne Richey, M.Ed., coauthor of The Impulsive, Disorganized Child: Solutions for Parenting Kids with Executive Functioning Difficulties


Mary Anne Richey, M.Ed., a Licensed School Psychologist, works for the school district of Palm Beach County and has a private practice. She also has experience as a middle school teacher, administrator, high school guidance counselor, and adjunct college instructor. Mary Anne has assisted many students with ADHD and their families over the years. She is the parent of an adult son with ADHD.

Jim Forgan, Ph.D., is an associate professor and Licensed School Psychologist. He teaches others how to teach and assess children with ADHD and other types of learning disabilities at Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter, FL. In private practice, he works with families of children with ADHD and other learning differences. Jim consults with public and private schools doing workshops on ADHD, dyslexia, problem solving, and accommodations for learning disabilities. He is also the parent of a young son with ADHD.

Mary Anne and Jim are also the authors of Raising Boys With ADHD: Secrets for Parenting Healthy, Happy Sons and Raising Girls With ADHD: Secrets for Parenting Healthy, Happy Daughters.

This article originally appeared as a guest post on author Penny Williams’s blog.


Reprinted with permission.  All rights reserved.


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