Dear Dr. Fournier:
It’s mid July and my daughter is enjoying an unstructured summer, oblivious of the clock. I am trying to condition her now for the start of school, which is actually in just three weeks. To get her back in the habit of completing a task in a certain amount of time, or by a certain date, I have given her tasks to do around the house with deadlines for when they must be completed. My daughter has never done well on the “attending to task” and “done on time” part of her report cards.
I fear this will be the case again this coming school year. I know she can do the work just fine because we threaten her with punishment, especially spankings and to avoid this, she concentrates on her work and gets it done. Still, it’s been the same these last two weeks with summer tasks around the house. She’s missed a couple of deadlines so I have had to threaten her with punishment. How do I motivate her to work on her own and to initiate work herself? I am worried about the constant negative reinforcement here.
Many children have difficulty attending to tasks in school, especially in the early grades. Unfortunately, this leads to teachers and others, including parents, calling them “unmotivated” or “lazy” when they really only have a time management issue. If “attending to task” were a synonym for reading, then the solution would be obvious: Teach the child how to read. So, a child who doesn’t attend to tasks needs to be taught how to do this.
Consider the business executive who spends hundreds of dollars to take a professional seminar on time management. Is he unable to use time wisely? Is he unmotivated? Is he lazy? Is he punished for his deficiency?
The answer to all of the questions is, “No,” Denise. He simply needs to be taught time management skills and as an adult, he has the ability to recognize this and ask for or get help. When an adult recognizes weakness in his work habits, he or she remedies that by learning the necessary strategies to correct the deficiency. Most children cannot do this. And unfortunately, we don’t give children the same latitude in learning work habits as we do adults in the workplace.
If a child’s report card shows, “Needs Improvement” in one of these work habits, parents may resort to punishments or bribes to create motivation. If these don’t work, many parents have their children tested to try and find the source of the problem.
Report cards have two parts. One deals with academic subjects. The other, which causes much pain to family and children, deals with work habits. Those generally are:
e Follows directions
e Listens attentively
e Completes work neatly
e Uses time wisely
These are the skills that schools expect children to innately have. Since these are NOT skills present from birth, I call this “The Innateness Fallacy.”
Denise, when your daughter was a preschooler, how many times did you have her sit in a chair and carry out these instructions?
“You will take out your dolls and play with them. You will color in your coloring book, and color the circles red and the triangles blue.”
Probably never. You just gave her the dolls, the colors and the coloring book and let her do her own thing. You, like many parents, expected your child to do this by herself because much of this type of “work” is instinctive. However, the work habits that are listed on a child’s report card are schoolwork habits that are not instinctive and must be taught.
WHAT TO DO
Time and task are the two issues that make children unable to get the assignment done.
Many children are expected to know how to stay on task without knowing how to manage time. Without an understanding of time, a child cannot learn his own working capacity; such as knowing he can do 10 math problems in 10 minutes. Without this knowledge, the task easily overwhelms a child. This leads to fear, and fear leads to daydreaming (procrastination). What seems like a naughty child is really a stressed child who does not know “how.”
So, when school resumes, use homework to teach your daughter her own working capacity by following these five easy steps:
1. Have your child judge how much time each homework task will take.
2. Don’t be surprised when your child estimates that a five-minute task will take three hours.
3. Don’t correct your child’s estimates; simply write them down.
4. Don’t forget to set a timer – preferably with a digital readout and a buzzer – with the estimated amount of time your daughter said it will take her.
5. Place the timer in front of her as she completes the task.
Once the task is complete, stop the timer and show her how long it took. Ask her to write it down so she sees on paper that her three hours turned out to be only five minutes. She will then be able to realize how much she can do in small units of time. You can also do this now with the household tasks you are assigning her by following the same steps.
Next time your child gets a similar task, she will not have to fear it because she knows she can handle it in a certain amount of time. And then Denise, give her a hug that will go a long way.
CONTACT DR. FOURNIER
Have a question about education, education-related issues or your child’s schoolwork or homework? Ask Dr. Fournier and look for her answer in this column. E-mail your question or comment to Dr. Yvonne Fournier at [email protected].