10 Strategies to Help ADHD

ADHD cropOctober was ADHD Awareness Month. Each year the media seems to do a bit more to publicize and educate but more can always be done.  There is not enough information out there geared to parents and children. So, I would like to help with some information my students find helpful.

First up, the acronym ADHD which stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder really shouldn’t be the category name for the three types of ADHD (impulsive/hyperactive, inattentive and combined). Teens are often in denial because they say they aren’t “hyper” and so feel that it doesn’t apply to them.

ADHD is a neurobiological condition – meaning it is the result of lower levels of neurotransmitter chemicals that are normally in the brain, which results in lower levels of stimulus in the brain. Non-technical definition: it is a chemical imbalance and not a personality/behavior or motivation problem. Just like near sightedness or hearing loss, it cannot be “fixed” at this point in time but it can be helped.

People of all ages with ADHD that I have met are often very smart, they just have difficulty showing it sometimes. That’s often a combination of the lower level of chemicals and the executive function skills that are slower to develop.

School challenges vary by individual but often ADHD can interfere by making it difficult to get started on a task, stay focused long enough to complete a task, remember when they have a task to do or find the task in their disorganization. It’s easy to see why homework and test taking is a challenge for these kids.

10 Strategies to Help with ADHD

  • Declutter your work space, set up materials you use often in easily accessible places. Rulers, scissors, pens and pencils fit nicely in a mug on the desk. (Organize it weekly to keep it that way)
  • Take everything out of the backpack and pile the “to do” items on the left and as you complete them move them to the right. Then put everything back in the backpack where it belongs.
  • Start with the end in mind. Sketch out what it will look like when completed and work backwards to determine the first few steps.
  • Write it down! Use a planner, smartphone app (Google Calendar, Color note, Evernote, Remember the Milk, etc.), or notepad to keep track.
  • Graphic organizers and mind maps using color, shape, and placement help the brain recall information. Great for study guides.
  • Create a 30 minute play list and reward yourself with a break if you work until the music ends.
  • Keep a notepad nearby and write down any thoughts that interrupt so that you can deal with them after the work is done.
  • Exercise or do something active to increase the dopamine in the brain before beginning (snacks and water help too).
  • Use a whiteboard and don’t erase the previous approach
  • If your child/teen is still struggling then try to change the environment, change the task or change the expectations.

In coaching, we often start by helping teens become aware of how their ADHD is showing up in school. Once they identify that it is really the way their brain functions that is making “x” or “y” difficult, then they are better able to look at it objectively and figure out a strategy that might help. If they continue to do things the way they have always done them, there can be no change. It is only when they start to think about their thinking, that they can really help themselves.

14 Things Your Kids Need to Know

clrtestAs an Educational Consultant for Deaf and Hard of Hearing students I have the unique opportunity to observe different grade levels, schools and districts. Although I am observing the student’s ability to access the curriculum being presented I also look around to identify those with ADHD and watch how they are accessing the curriculum, communicating with their peers and maintaining their focus.

Here’s what I have noticed:

  • Students are asked to focus for anywhere from 45-90 minutes without breaks.
  • Many adults cannot focus for that long especially if they are only listening
  • Often they don’t know what is important to focus on – so they try to focus on all of it
  • Students either do not take any notes or try to write down everything that is said
  • They wait for the teacher to say things like, “This is important.”
  • They trust that they can remember the information
  • They do not try to put the details together to get the bigger picture and end up trying to memorize random facts that don’t go together
  • They do not realize that studying for a test begins in class
  • Students do not know how to study
  • Teachers are providing study guides that have “fill in the blank” answers and students think that if they memorize the sentences they will do well
  • Students do not look at their textbooks unless specifically told to
  • Often students only get a few days notice of upcoming tests or quizzes
  • Students are shocked at how poorly they do on tests that they think they prepared for.
  • 90% of my students think that 20 minutes is enough time to study for a test
  • Students are not given the chance to learn from their mistakes
  • Tests are collected after 2-3 minutes
  • If no one raises their hand with a question about the test, nothing will be reviewed
  • Students develop an “I can’t” attitude rather than an “I need to do more” attitude

So how can you help your son or daughter learn how to focus?

  • Those with ADHD tend to get bored quickly and when that happens the brain shuts down or switches to other off task thoughts. Teach your child how to get themselves back on track by using examples that happen at home. Using a non-judgmental tone you can point out when you see them go off topic before you are finished with it.  Ex. “I can see how you might have thought I was done talking about “x” but I really wanted to say two more things ….are you ready to listen to me again?” Then ask them to summarize what you were talking about. Be sure to give them time to share their thoughts without interruption as often their working memory can only hold onto the thought for a short amount of time.
  • ADHD brains also shut down when there is too much information to focus on. Skip the details and give them the bottom line first so they don’t miss it.
  • Allow them to fidget with things and don’t insist they make eye contact as often that is too much distraction for them especially if they are being reprimanded.
  • Ask them how they stay focused in school and offer suggestions like taking notes, doodling related drawings to the topic, counting how many times they get distracted and pull themselves back or fidgeting quietly with something inconspicuous

We’ll combine taking notes and studying together. Here are ways to help:

  • Most information for tests comes from class lecture and discussion. Students need to realize that taking notes about the key points can help tremendously when it comes time to study. From 6th grade and up, students should be taking some notes. If they are given a copy of the Powerpoint presentation they should add to it.
  • Looking ahead in the text book can often give clues as to what will be presented in class. If the brain already knows what to expect it is better able to make connections and tie new information to old.
  • Students can create a study guide by writing questions in the left margin about the topic in the notes. If they can answer those questions without looking at the notes, they probably know the information.
  • It takes 4-7 exposures to the information before it can be “learned” so students should review the information (by asking themselves questions) at least three times over several days.
  • Reviewing class notes after homework is done especially in their weakest subject is a great way to get extra exposure to the information. Or choose to write the questions in the margins the same day as notes were taken.
  • Study guides don’t always have all the necessary information on them. Students should reread their notes and check the text. Turning the statements on a study guide into a question will help them understand the information better.

The biggest mistake teachers are making is to be more concerned about their test questions getting out than in helping students learn the information. Collecting tests 3 minutes after students get them back is a major disservice to students. I have heard about only one town that allows students to take the test home, correct all incorrect answers and receive added points.  That motivates students to find the answers rather than just hearing them reviewed in class (which doesn’t seem to happen often unless someone asks a question). Help your student learn better by developing as Carol Dweck says a “growth mindset.”

  • Teach kids that their intelligence is not fixed, it is malleable. Push them to roll up their sleeves and try again. Avoid saying things like, “you’re so smart” as it implies that intelligence is fixed and sends a conflicting message to them when they fail.
  • Build resiliency. Focus on the positive.
  • Level the playing field by helping students learn to use the tools, strategies and technologies that work best for them and not necessarily what the teachers want
  • Bottom line – do whatever it takes to keep your child’s self-esteem intact. It’s how they feel about themselves that will determine how well he or she succeeds.

Choices, Choices, Choices

CEleanor-Roosevelt-In-the-long-runhoices….choices are all around us. We make choices consciously and unconsciously all day long. From the
moment we wake up we are making choices about, what to wear, what to eat, where to pick up coffee, which priority to work on at work. Not to mention the choices in the media, on FaceBook, at the grocery store, etc. We are literally bombarded by choices.

What if you could reduce the number of choices you have to make? You would free up working memory space that just might help you make a better decision about something that is important to you. When your working memory is full (it can only hold so much), it lets go of information. We have no control really of what it lets go of. This is also why teens often think they have studied enough, but end up not getting the grades they are capable of.

If we look at all the choices we have we can suffer from decision paralysis, or making the quickest or easiest decision but not necessarily the “best” or “most right” decision for ourselves. Have you ever made a decision/choice that you later regretted or wished you had thought about longer? Is your willpower being drained? Are you moving in the direction of your dreams or are your ever-changing choices getting in the way?

Then it is time to discover your “non-negotiables.” Non-negotiables are those choices/decisions you have made ahead of time and will stick to. You no longer have to even think about them. It is easiest, according to Darren Hardy of Success magazine to start with the things you won’t tolerate or do. Make the decision/choice now before you need it and you can focus on the more important choices. If you made a New Year’s Resolution this year to lose weight for example, and have already given up, then maybe it’s time for a non-negotiable choice of no cookies or 30 minutes of movement a day, or make bedtime a non-negotiable, or being late a non-negotiable. You get the idea, think of how it would change your life and eliminate the drain on your will power. Isn’t time you kept those promises you make to yourself?

Think about how having non-negotiable decisions made ahead of time could effect your teen. What if not completing homework was just non-negotiable? Or studying for at least an hour was “non-negotiable?” You get the idea….we could all benefit from having some non-negotiables before we are faced with another choice.

What is Executive Function?

Thinking skill posterExecutive dysfunction or executive function deficit is defined by Web MD as a “set of mental skills that help you get things done.” It is a simplified definition but when you break a task down into all the components needed to complete it, it is easier to see how having one or more weak areas can stop the progress. Just take a look at the processes and skills that are needed for “thinking” in the graphic to the left. That does not take into account the other skills needed to actually get something done. These executive function skills develop in the prefrontal cortex of the brain which continues to develop until around age 25. However, these skills seem to be really important during the teen age years, yet are not quite developed enough to be depended upon.

Executive function skills help you:

  • Manage time and be realistic about what you can and cannot do in the time available
  • Regulate your emotions and behaviors to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing
  • Determine what you should pay attention to and what you should not
  • Switch focus based on the feedback you receive about the effectiveness of what you are doing
  • Plan and organize in a logical, methodical way to complete tasks and thoughts.
  • Remember what you need to remember at the right time
  • Allows you to make decisions based on your past experiences and avoid repeating your mistakes

In school, executive dysfunction can look like missing homework, forgetting to study for tests, doing poorly, spending hours on homework, or not being able to find things they know they have. One thing executive dysfunction is not, is the attitude of not caring. Most students really do care and cannot understand why they can’t “remember” things. They are frustrated and feel less capable than their peers. Self-esteem suffers and unless they get some help they can spend their school years continuing to do things the same way….and getting the same (lower than they are capable of) grades.

The worst part is that they may continue to think that they are not “smart” and avoid opportunities to stretch themselves for the rest of their lives.

What’s a parent to do? We often try to “show” our children how they “should” do things, or we wonder out loud how they could have done…x, y or z (how could you…what were you thinking…why didn’t you….etc). Although well meaning, these approaches are often met with resistance and your teen may internalize the guilt and judgment that you didn’t realize came across.

It’s time to take you out of the picture. Get students to take a deeper look at what is happening and then coach them to design strategies to work for the way they think. Traditional methods often do not work because the habits are not built into them. Teens are “told” what to do and often do not take the time to think about whether it works for them or not.

The most common executive skills that affect academics are:

  • planning/organizing thoughts, ideas and processes – difficulty writing essays in a thoughtful, organized manner, or completing projects, developing a study plan
  • working memory – holding onto all the information needed
  • cognitive flexibility- ability to shift thinking and or behavior when stuck
  • focus – determine what to focus on and what to ignore
  • controlling emotions – keeping them in check even when frustration builds
  • taking action – doing what you know needs to be done
  • getting started – taking the first step is often the toughest
  • task completion

If your teen struggles with any of these skills, it may be time to try coaching. Coaches believe that individuals have all the skills and knowledge they need to solve their own challenges by guiding them to think deeper and more creatively about them through guided questions. Teens often don’t take the time or feel they have the power to make changes that will work for the way they think. Isn’t it time they took back that power? Our group coaching classes help students become proactive, design strategies and test them, and learn about how they think with a small group of like-minded peers.

How to Remember

The first and most important skill in learning is the ability to remember. If you can’t remember the information you certainly cannot use it for problem solving, creative thinking or critical thinking. The graphic on the left is a representation of the “revised” Bloom’s Taxonomy. The lower green section used to be called “knowledge” when this first came out in the 1950’s. It was revised in the 1990’s and all the nouns were changed to verbs to show that learning is more action oriented. It progresses from the bottom and most basic of skills (remembering) to the top showing the most advanced or higher level thinking skill of creating (called synthesis on the earlier version).

The ability to remember is dependent on a number of factors.  Have you ever forgotten why you entered a room or the name of a person you just met? It could have been due to attention, motivation, emotion or relevancy. These are the same things that affect your son or daughter’s ability to remember also.


  • Get ready to pay attention – this tells the brain to focus on the important and disregard the unimportant.
  • Make sure basic needs are met (food, water, sleep, safety, belonging, etc.)
  • Make sure emotions are in check (emotions control the brain’s ability to remember)
  • What motivates? (intrinsic vs extrinsic)
  • Make learning personal (connect it in a meaningful way to your or your child’s life)


  • Manage the distractions – write down anything that interrupts your thinking and deal with it later
  • Visualize what you need to remember (often the crazier the easier to remember)
  • Use color, shape, placement, words and numbers to help the brain recall details (mindmaps)
  • Create mnemonics (riddles, acronyms, acrostics, loci, stories, etc.) for chunks of information
  • Take periodic, non-electronic breaks to allow the brain to process the new information
  • Use your learning style – it’s your preference for a reason
  • Take an interest – read ahead, research on your own, find other sources, make connections
  • Use your own words, rehearse, reflect and review to remember
  • Maintain a growth mindset – believe you can remember/learn anything. It’s effort not IQ.

Whether it is in the classroom, boardroom or living room, your ability to remember starts when you are first presented with new/different information – be ready.

Attention 101

October is ADHD Awareness Month, so let’s talk about attention. Does your child take a long time to complete their homework? Have you heard things from the teacher like, “your child needs to pay more attention in class,” or “he/she is distracted and needs to focus more?”  Well, it turns out that it is not as simple as “paying more attention.” There are actually three different kinds of attention (according to the all kinds of minds website). I’ve summarized the three types below and added some strategies that might be helpful below that. (I used the pronoun, “they” rather than “he/she” to simplify.)

1. Mental Energy is really about how awake the brain is and how consistent the energy level stays.

  • Alertness –can they concentrate when necessary?
  • Sleep habits – do they get a good night’s sleep and wake rested?
  • Mental effort- do they have enough energy to finish what they start
  • Performance consistency-is their work of the same quality from day to day?

2. Processing Energy is about how well your child can put the pieces together.

  • Can they separate important from unimportant?
  • Do they connect new information to what they already know?
  • How deep do they concentrate?
  • Can they concentrate until they get through the task?
  • Can they put the pieces together even when not interested in the topic?

3. Production Energy is about the consistency and quality of their work.

  • Do they think ahead to what the end result should be?
  • Do they consider different options before proceeding?
  • Is the quality of their work consistent?
  • Do they work fast, slow or just right?
  • Do they learn from previous mistakes?

Mental Strategies:

  • Clear their working memory (use our “brain dump” technique)
  • Get some exercise
  • Create a sleep routine
  • Have them do their homework at the same time daily
  • Help them find what is interesting about their work
  • Let them get creative

Processing Strategies:

  • Use different colored highlighters to separate multistep directions or to highlight important details
  • Use graphic organizers with topic headings so facts can be written in easily
  • Actively preview before getting started and ask why is this important?
  • Work in short blocks of time
  • Discuss what they already know about a topic before beginning (Use kwl charts)

Production Strategies:

  • Start with the end in mind. Have them sketch out what the finished product will look like and work backwards (consider at least two approaches)
  • Design a rubric for homework together and use it to review (students should rate and then explain their scores)
  • Create “strategy sheets” that show the steps of the process to free up working memory space
  • Use graphic organizers to plan
  • Review all work for errors and omissions (work from top down, don’t skip around)

If you’ve had success at using a different strategy and would like to help others struggling with the same challenges, please let me know below so we can learn from each other.

Homework Coach or Enforcer?

student-at-deskIs homework a battle in your home? If you find that it has become a nightly battle or that your child or teen has lost interest in school; then it may be time to try a different approach. I will admit I sympathize with teens trying to become independent when often the adults around them are inadvertently taking away their sense of control. If you find that you are constantly asking them if their homework is done or suggesting ways for them to get it done then here are five tips to take you from homework enforcer to homework coach. Remember the role of a good coach is to encourage problem solving skills, develop independence and provide support when needed.

  1. The first and most important step is to realize whether or not you are enabling your child/teen to feel helpless. If you are constantly reminding them to do their homework, get ready for school, pack their backpack, or go to bed why would they need to remember? The same thing applies if you are solving their problems for them or designing their notebook your way. All of these things take the pressure off of your teen and puts it on you. You’ll need to work together to figure out how much your teen can do independently and what he or she might need a little support for. I know it is often easier to keep track of it yourself, but teaching your teen to problem solve, keep track of assignments and get their work done independently are all skills they need to develop for a successful life.
  2. Ask questions that begin with the word, “what” rather than “did” or “is”. Questions that require a simple yes or no answer will only get you the one word answer. Ask a question that requires them to answer in a sentence that gives you some real information. For example, “What homework do you have left to do?” This sounds less judgmental and requires more than a one word answer to reply. Good coaches ask higher level questions that need explanations, rather than simple one word replies.
  3. Start with the end in mind, is a term that Stephen Covey used but is helpful for those having trouble with completing homework. Help your child visualize what that assignment or project looks like when it is completed. Then you can guide them to work backwards to include all the steps necessary to get it to that point. You can also help “backwards plan” long term projects with specific dates to work on the pieces of the project. If necessary, create the plan together and then have certain check ins rather than always asking if it is done.
  4. Discuss with your child/teen what kind of an environment is best for them to work in. Do they like it quiet and away from the rest of the family or do they like to be where the action is? Many younger students don’t like to be alone in their rooms, for them it is easier to work in the kitchen or close by. Use a trifold foam board to create a distraction free zone and keep the TV and radio off and let them use their own music with ear buds. I have read that music can “satisfy” the hungry ADHD brain by providing enough stimulation to help it relax. This is done by listening to the same playlist every day during homework time. It is not picking each song but pressing play once and letting the same music play lightly in the background for about 30-45 minutes. That is long enough to get some work done. Have them take a short break and then get back to their homework and play that list of songs again.
  5. Make sure your children have some “down” time. Everyone is entitled to relax after a long day. In fact, research says that having some down time after working, helps the brain to process what was just learned. Many students are not getting the 8-9 hours of sleep they need to do their best. Those with ADHD will benefit from designing a “routine” for sleep. Start with shutting down electronics at least 30 minutes before bed (the blue light stimulates serotonin the wake up hormone), dim the lights (good for increasing melatonin the sleep hormone) and relax. Add in the other bedtime get ready tasks and aim to have them in bed around the same time each night. Aim for at least 8 hours but 9 is ideal.

Parents, you are your child/teen’s life line.They may continue to need your support throughout school but as they enter middle and high school, it is time for them to develop their problem solving skills. That means they don’t need you to solve their problems or challenges for them but to work with them to come up with solutions together. Stay calm. When stressed, cortisol, the stress hormone, is released into the body and it can literally shut down the brain making it nearly impossible to think. Students cannot force their stressed brain to think at that point and it is best to take a break and go do something active. Exercise increases the level of dopamine and other neurotransmitters (good chemicals) in the brain that can help get them back on track. If the situation gets too stressful, it is best to just walk away. Homework is homework….let the teacher deal with it.

This article is from our February newsletter. If you’d like to sign up or pass this along to your friends and family so they can sign up directly just click on the link that goes to my website.

Thanks for reading,


Lights! Camera! Action! …..ACTION! 15 Steps to Get Going

frustrated student cartoonTaking action and following through on something that has to be done is often difficult for those with ADHD or Executive Functioning challenges. In most cases, students and adults understand the importance of completing something but find it difficult to actually “move themselves” to action. What is happening in the brain, in my understanding, is that the level of dopamine is not sufficient to reliably carry messages/signals from one side of the brain to the other or to provide enough motivation for action. That makes this difficulty neurobiological and not motivational. There is a big difference there as often we have seen things get completed before and feel that if it can be done once why not every time? Such is life with ADHD and/or Executive Dysfunction. Inconsistent ability to take action doesn’t occur alone, it often involves other executive functions like, organization, planning, working memory, task initiation, self-regulation, focus and time management. So rather than it being one simple cause, it is often a combination of things that is getting in the way. Also not learning from previous experiences plays into why this same thing continues to happen over and over again. If possible try to break it down to see what is really getting in the way and work on one piece of the puzzle at a time.

Here’s what it may look like in students:

Inconsistent ability to complete homework regularly (or long hours spent doing it)
Last minute approach to long term projects
Being late or last minute
May look like a lack of motivation, not caring, or teen age “attitude”
Failing tests due to inability to study enough (or up past midnight studying)

In adults:

Often late (but only by a little bit) or last minute on meeting important deadlines
Procrastination and/or lack of follow through
High energy and always appear to be very busy without actually accomplishing a lot.
“Paralyzed” when they don’t know how to do something or don’t want to do it
Inability to prioritize

Here’s what can help:

  1. Make a “must do” list that only includes the top two or three things you must get to
  2. Start with the most interesting task first
  3. Set false deadlines for yourself or be accountable to someone else for completion
  4. Break it down into manageable size actionable steps and use verbs for each step
  5. Set goals and behavior contracts weekly with students (too far in advance is worthless)
  6. Act as a body double for your student by being close by during homework time and doing your “homework”
  7. Teach your child to “talk to themselves” and ask questions to keep themselves on track
  8. Support them or provide supports for them but don’t do it for them
  9. Keep the end in mind – what will the homework look like when completed and what will I do after it is?
  10. “Suffer” through five minutes – it may motivate enough to keep going
  11. Exercise or do something active to increase the dopamine in the brain before beginning (snacks and water help too)
  12. Remind yourself and/or your student of past successes
  13. Change the environment, change the task or change the expectations
  14. Use timers and allow five minute breaks for every 30 minutes of work (minimize distractions)
  15. Use plenty of positive reinforcement that mentions specific actions you see your child doing

Motivating someone else or even yourself to take action often depends on how important the task seems (that adrenaline rush is actually raising the dopamine levels too). If someone else (usually your kids or spouse) is waiting on you to do something you may be more likely to do it. In school, students can often “force” themselves to get something done for a favorite teacher or subject but may feel it is torturous for their least favorite. Start small and put checklists, timers, notes to self (especially where you leave off on a project) and use the steps above that help. Having something to look forward to can often provide an extra push so be sure to reward yourself and/or your child. Now, get going!

Stuck? 12 Ways to Encourage Cognitive Flexibility

The best way to describe the executive function of cognitive flexibility is to think of Einstein’s definition of insanity. “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That would be cognitive inflexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to notice when your thinking process is not working or to notice when changes have occurred and to be flexible enough to adapt the thought process and to think differently about it. It may be that the goal of the project changed, something in the environment has changed, or the next step cannot be completed due to outside forces and thus the individual becomes stuck and can’t continue.

On the Behavioral Inventory of Executive Functions (BRIEF) there are two categories that relate to this skill; cognitive shift and behavioral shift. Together they can indicate a student’s ability to try different approaches to something whether it is in their thinking or in actually changing their behavior when they notice it is not working. Solving a math problem is a good example of this. The student knows what the answer should be and solves the problem. When the answer is not right, they erase it and try again. Often they are repeating the same mistakes without realizing it.

In students:

Stuck on a math problem but not realizing they are doing the same thing and are surprised the answer isn’t different.

Difficulty adjusting to changes in plans

Projects have various parts to them and when students get stuck on one piece they are unable to move forward.

Creative writing is a real challenge as they cannot generate new ideas as they get stuck in one frame of thought.

In adults:

Following processes that aren’t effective because “I’ve always done it this way.”

Easily “thrown off course” when conditions change

Difficulty providing multiple solutions or ideas or in synthesizing something new out of given information


  1. Give advance notice of changes with visual and/or verbal reminders (timers too)
  2. When stuck or when you see the frustration start to build, suggest a break to do something active
  3. Leave yourself a note explaining where you left off, so when you return you can pick it back up quickly
  4. Encourage brainstorming and generating multiple ideas before settling on a specific approach
  5. Start with the end in mind and work backwards
  6. Ask for help, Google it or use a website like www.khanacademy.org
  7. Use a whiteboard and don’t erase the previous approach
  8. Use stories of past successful approaches to remind them of other options/approaches
  9. Create a mind map (using colors and different shapes for key ideas)
  10. Have a backwards day where everything is done backwards
  11. Write down the approaches tried and list other options or give choices
  12. If they play video games, you can get them to explain the different strategies they used to advance to the next level and compare that to their school work

Helping your child brainstorm and learn ways to become more flexible in their thinking will help them become better problem solvers, creative thinkers and successful students. The world is not predictable and we all need to learn to adapt to the changes it may throw at us so that it doesn’t throw us off course.


Just Get Started!

procrastination-fortune-cookie-500x300The ability to get started on something is called “task initiation or activation” by the experts on Executive functions (Russell Barkley, Peg Dawson, Thomas Brown, etc). Executive functions are those skills that help us get things done.  Task initiation is just one of these executive skills and it involves the ability to START. Difficulties getting started can be the result of not knowing where to begin, what to do, how to generate ideas or how to problem solve to move forward on something. It differs from procrastination in that it is often not deliberate avoidance but a lack of understanding in knowing what to do to start. It can also show up as a difficulty with transitioning from one activity to another.

In children and teens, task initiation may show up as:

  • Difficulty getting started on homework
  • Struggles with generating ideas for writing
  • Problems with morning and evening routines (often needing excessive prompting to be ready for school)
  • Procrastination or being seen as unmotivated

In adults:

  • Procrastination followed by hyperfocus to meet deadlines
  • Projects that never get started
  • Unpaid or late bills, missed deadlines, and feelings of guilt

Removing the roadblocks:

1. Is the environment getting in the way?

If your space is cluttered or you can’t find what you need to get going on something then it is time to take care of that. You end up expending more energy just looking for what you need to get started that by the time you do that, you don’t have the energy or inclination to continue.
Declutter your work space, set up materials you use often in easily accessible places. Rulers, scissors, pens and pencils fit nicely in a mug on the desk.
Set up colored plastic folders or boxes to hold all pieces of an ongoing project.
Take everything out of the backpack and pile the “to do” items on the left and as you complete them move them to the right.

2.  Are you not sure what to do?

Get help understanding what is expected (call a friend or coworker).
Break it down into smaller pieces and pick one piece to start.
Work with a friend (use them as a body double to get you started).
Have someone tell you what to work on.
Use a graphic organizer.
Start with the end in mind. Sketch out what it will look like when completed and work backwards to determine the first few steps. 

3. Nudges, pokes and jabs:

Visual timers, alarms, and phone reminders all serve to designate a start time if you use them.
Set the sleep timer or automatic shut off on your TV, or use ifocusonwork.com to help shut down other distractions so you can get started on the important things.
Set false deadlines for yourself or have someone else set them for you. Put your cellphone in another room and don’t check it until you have worked 30 minutes. Use a timer here so you are not constantly checking how much time has passed. 
Make a deal with someone that you know has your best interests at heart and ask them to help you get started.

 4. Routines

Create a basic week plan so that you know what day you will do what.
Students set up a routine for your homework with a break, snack and start time. Then work for 30-45 minutes before taking another break.
Start with the easiest to build momentum.
Meet your friends at the library to do homework together.
Create a mnemonic that helps you get ready to begin and use it daily.
Create a play list for the length of time before you need to start and use it daily. The more you listen to it, the more your body and brain will get the message that it is time to get to work as soon as this is over.

5. If you still can’t….

Just start, after about ten minutes you will get into it.
Create a mind map or draw out what you need to do. Use colors and shapes to help your brain remember them and pick one.
If you are really procrastinating on something, stop and consider, “What is the worst that could happen if I don’t do this?” If it’s not too serious, then let it go or delegate it. 

Often times looming deadlines, promises to others and fear of failure will push adults to complete a task they have been putting off. Many students though are not motivated by deadlines, grades or loss of privileges. They need help in learning what is preventing them from getting started and help designing a strategy that will work for them.