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Stall Tactics: Helping Young Procrastinators

Seven-year-old Katie Trapani wouldn't start, and wouldn't start, and wouldn't start her homework. Her mom, Lisa, tried gentle guidance, then firm encouragement to motivate her dawdling daughter. Finally, she told Katie she would have to write the teacher a note about the problem. "Katie got very upset, and I felt like a mean mom," says Trapani, a public relations consultant in Westminster, MD.

Many parents of grade-schoolers can share similar tales. Procrastination is widespread among children ages 5 to 8. For some, "it's an expression of a child's budding independence and ability to test limits," says Judith Wagner, Ph.D., professor of child development and director of the Broadoaks Children's School, at Whittier College. By "forgetting" to do a task or putting it off, a child may be conveying his desire to create a different structure for his day than his parents or teacher demands.

Sometimes, children dally because they're absorbed in another activity that's equally important and productive, at least to them. "What looks like purposeful procrastination could just be a child engrossed elsewhere," Wagner says.

A parent and child may experience a different sense of time  -- "soon" might mean something very different to a dad than to his 5-year-old. And some tasks are so overwhelming, kids put them off simply because they don't know how to get started on them.

Without intervention, procrastinating kids could grow into procrastinating adults, says Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at DePaul University. According to Ferrari, 70 percent of college students report they procrastinate sometimes, and many adults describe themselves as chronic procrastinators. To help break the cycle of dawdle and delay:

HAVE YOUR CHILD HELP CREATE THE DAILY SCHEDULE

Allow her to decide, for example, when homework time will start  -- as soon as she returns from school, say, or after a half-hour TV break.

USE SPECIFIC TIME MARKERS

To define when a task must be completed, say, "You can get dressed during the next three songs on your tape player, then you'll need to be done." Or use a five-minute timer. Make it a game, but don't nudge your child along. "What parents think of as gentle reminders, kids perceive as nagging," Wagner says.

DIVIDE BIG TASKS INTO SMALL ONES

One mother recalls her first-grader had two weeks to create an alphabet book for school, illustrating each letter with drawings related to a certain theme. Once he understood he could do five letters per day, he finished the book before it was due.

LET YOUR CHILD EXPERIENCE CONSEQUENCES

This is especially important when it comes to homework. If she doesn't finish it, don't warn of dire repercussions or do the work for her. The teacher will discipline her appropriately for putting off the assignment.

ACKNOWLEDGE THE DIFFICULTY OF A TASK

Then, offer to help in a limited way. If your son needs to make a messy bed, assist by tucking the sheet in the corners, then let him complete the job on his own.

OFFER PRAISE WHEN A JOB IS FINISHED ON TIME

You might also consider an occasional simple reward, such as a trip for ice cream or a round of a favorite game.

SCRUTINIZE YOUR OWN BEHAVIOR

Though no research suggests that there is a genetic component to procrastination, it can be learned from parents. Does your child see you staying up all night to finish an overdue report for work or scrambling to declutter the garage before company comes? If so, don't put off cleaning up your own act a minute longer.

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