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Jun 07, 2017

"Help! My child has senioritis — and she's only a freshman (or a 7th grader, or a 4th grader...)!"Frustrated female student holding a book isolated-275000-edited.jpeg

Has your child spent hours staring at a piece of paper, futilely attempting to start some dreaded piece of homework? Has your daughter declared that she is “so over school"? Does your son take a “break” that seems to last for the rest of the night? For many students that I coach, especially those in high school, their lack of motivation has been their biggest battle for the last several weeks. As a result, our focus has shifted to strategies to plan and prioritize work in a way that boosts task initiation and fosters completion.  

A strategy to deal with lack of motivation

One of my favorite strategies for helping to engage students struggling with task initiation, motivation, or sustained attention is a 5 minute goal. I have found that even the most unfocused or disengaged student can sustain their attention for 5 minutes. This is a simple exercise: pick work to complete and set a timer for 5 minutes. I encourage picking tasks that are concrete, easily measurable, and that are a relative strength for the child so it is easy to see progress quickly. For example, making flashcards, completing rote math problems, or reading simple texts are great places to start. After the timer goes off, I like to ask my students how much work they completed and reflect about their level of focus or engagement with the task. This reflection is important because it improves metacognition (or thinking about your thinking) and determining what works and what does not work. Many students report that they were focused and can continue to work for another 5 minutes. However, if he or she doesn’t feel able to keep working for another 5 minutes or is unfocused during the task, why is this the case? What might we do differently during our next 5 minutes? This change allows us to try a different type of task, which may yield more success.

An added bonus of a 5 minute goals is that it allows me to celebrate small victories with my clients. For example, I can congratulate a student for reading for 5 minutes without checking her phone. I can also celebrate that more problems were completed during this 5 minute interval than the last interval. These tiny victories work to change a student’s mindset because they are now more likely to use a strategy that they have deemed successful and beneficial. I've seen this simple method take a bite out of procrastination problems with many students.

Timer options to consider

It is important to include this side note about using timers to help manage and regulate attention because each student responds differently to this strategy. I have some students who feel anxious seeing the time counting down on a digital timer (such as you might see on a smartphone). In this situation, I may use a visual timer (one that conveys the passage of time by shading time on the clock) or I may encourage students to use smartphone assistants (such as Siri or Alexa on the Amazon Dot/Echo) to set a timer for them. This allows students to focus on their work instead of the time. I have another student who finds his attention wanders, so setting a looping or repeating timer nudges him back to work and increases independence. It is most important that that your child takes ownership over whichever strategy they use so they can be successful and increasingly independent.

Get to the end of school year finish line with less friction

If students need an extra push to the finish line, I often increase my weekly check-ins with them. In my experience, I have found increased push-back and frustration from my students when their parents try to check-in more frequently about work. One way for parents to avoid this battle is through the use of shared technology. Apps through the Google platform are especially conducive to sharing information. For example, your son could create a post it note on Google Keep and share it with you. Then you can see his plan or monitor as he checks off his completed work without having to nag him to do it. You may find yourself thinking, “What happens when my son still isn’t completing his work despite a shared post it note?” Through the magic of Google, if you are a collaborator on the note, you can set reminders for a specific time or place. If the reminder comes from technology rather than the parent, it may be less likely to provoke a fight. Think of it as kind of a digital parent!

Do the worst task first

My last tip to help students whose end of school motivation waxes and wanes is to tackle their worst assignments first. For students struggling with completing more mundane assignments, these tasks should be addressed first. For students avoiding tougher stuff, like studying for the SATs or finals, the study plan should have short, manageable steps that are their first things to be completed. Many of my students report feeling good when they can cross items off their list. When starting with the worst assignment, pairing this with a 5 minute goal increases the likelihood of success.

As your child counts down the days until summer break, put these coach's tips in your back pocket just in case your 6th grader comes down with a case of premature senioritis!

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About the Author

Lindsay Schelhorn

Lindsay Schelhorn, M.S., CCC-SLP is an executive function coach and a certified speech-language pathologist. She currently works as a speech-language pathologist at the Clearway School in West Newton, MA. After completing her bachelor's degree in Psychology at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, Lindsay completed a graduate certificate in Autism Studies at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. She graduated from Mass General Hospital’s Institute of Health Professions with her degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders. She feels passionately about guiding teenagers and young adults to becoming more independent by increasing their confidence in functional skills, and teaching them strategies to increase their understanding and awareness of the relationship between social skills and executive functioning skills.


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