Task initiation is the ability to start a task. It is something most people can just do. You want to do a task, so you just do it. However, if your brain has executive function issues, which often happens in people with Autism or ADHD, it isn’t so easy. Getting started with a task can at times seem monumental. For some reason, the brain with executive function issues just won’t let you do a task at times. As a parent, this can be one of the most frustrating things to deal with in your child. If your child struggles with starting tasks or even completing them, you may need to step in and help their brain deal with their stumbling block.
Sometimes the brain creates obstacles to getting started with a task. For example, I can’t start my math until I sharpen my pencil, but I can’t find the pencil sharpener. Then, they may not be able to use the pencil sharpener because their sensory system isn’t up for the irritating noise or their hand strength isn’t adequate, so they give up. “I just can’t do it!” They exclaim as you wonder what the problem is.
Kids don’t always know how to ask for help or understand why things are so hard for them. As a parent, you may need to step in and assess the problem. You can then find the pencil and sharpen it so that math can happen today. That isn’t bad. It is helping your child to do the important task of learning math. If they do the math, that was the point, right?
Sometimes, as parents, we get so tied up in wanting our children to do a task end to end, that we don’t want to help them. We become mad because they can’t get started on the thing we asked them to do when we asked them to do it. But the truth is, your anger doesn’t help anyone. Neither you nor your child is helped by your frustration.
Instead of just getting frustrated that your child isn’t completing their tasks, take some time to ask them what is going on. Let them know that they are safe to tell you about why they really can’t get going with a chore, school work item, or self-care task. More than once in the years of raising my children, I learned they weren’t brushing their teeth because they had misplaced their toothbrushes. The real challenge was that they didn’t want to tell me the toothbrush had been lost. How in the world did they lose their toothbrush? I have no idea. Really, it is a strange thing to lose. So, the child was embarrassed, and the easier thing to do was to not brush their teeth than to admit they needed help.
I suspect a few toothbrushes fell in the toilet or perhaps they tried brushing the dog’s teeth. I don’t know. But there are lots of reasons they may have actually thrown away a toothbrush, but the fact is they still didn’t tell me. For some reason, their brain just didn’t want to do the task of telling me the problem.
Changing the Situation
After dealing with this challenge a few times, I took to buying toothbrushes in bulk and keeping them in our bathroom cabinet. Now, the kids can just get a new toothbrush as needed. This is how we worked around the challenge of needing a toothbrush to start brushing their teeth. I also purchased bulk mechanical pencils to stop having the stumbling block of finding a pencil sharpener for school work. This way, my kids can do the task initiation of getting started on those things without the obstacle of finding what they need.
These examples of needing a pencil or toothbrush are simple items that really are critical to the task. What can be even more frustrating is when the brain decides it needs a task done before it can start a different task but it can’t do that thing on its own. An example of this is when you ask your child to make their bed, but their brain says they can’t make their bed until they find their teddy bear. But they can’t find the bear. The bear likes to sit on the bed, but he’s missing, and they don’t know where to look for him. Even worse, they don’t want to find the bear themselves, they want you to do it!
In this case, even though you KNOW the bed could be made without the bear, it is best if you just help find the bear. Their brain can’t let go of the feeling the bear must be found before the bed is made, and it can’t find the bear. It may be because they are not good at looking for things, but it could also be that their brain just really needs someone else to do that part of the task. You have probably found that bear many, many times. The child’s brain is just sure that is now a task only you can do. No matter how much you tell them they can do it themselves, if their brain doesn’t agree, it won’t happen.
This Is Difficult but you can help
It is very hard to explain when your brain won’t do what you want it to do. It isn’t fun to find your brain should be in drive but it is stuck in park until something happens, and you can’t make that thing happen.
When you find your child is given a task to do but cannot get started with it, ask them questions.
- Do you need me to do something to help you get started? Maybe they need you to do the first step with them. Starting a new task can be the hardest part. So, if you do step one, they may be able to finish the task.
- Do you have what you need to get started? Helping a child find the things they need can help them initiate the task.
- Do you need me to do this with you? Sometimes, a child needs a parent to just stay close while they do a task. They may need you to do the work of finding the pencil or the teddy bear. Their brain may insist some unrelated task be done first. It is important to let your child know that you will help them with getting started on their task even if that means you have to help them find their teddy bear first.
Is there a reason not to help them?
Is helping your child teaching them to rely on others too much? I hope not. I rely on my husband to help me all the time. I ask friends when I need help with a difficult task. I ask co-workers if I am struggling at work. The VERY important thing you need to help your child learn is how to ask for the help they need, even when it is weird. This is when they most need help— when the thing that needs to be done is something that doesn’t even make sense.
You can also teach them that buying things in bulk so you can just get on with life is an okay choice too.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.