By Denise Morrison Yearian
Most parents want their children to aim for academic excellence. But for some students obstacles such as procrastination and perfectionism get in the way. When children dawdle or nitpick to the point of obsession, it can hinder their academic progress.
That’s what Wendy King found. When her daughter Madeline began receiving assignments in elementary school, procrastination set in. “She knew what she needed to do, but she would dilly-dally around and then rush to get it done. Now that she’s in middle school, the workload has escalated and the expectations have increased, and at times, Madeline feels overwhelmed,” says King of her 11-year-old.
Rita Emmett, author of The Procrastinating Child, says children procrastinate for a variety of reasons. “Some students may feel overwhelmed or disorganized with their work and not know where to start. Others could lack motivation or find themselves easily distracted,” she says. “Once you determine the root cause, steps can be taken to help your child break the habit.”
Licensed social worker and parent educator Vicky Kelly agrees. “If your child feels overwhelmed with a task, be proactive on the front end,” she says. “Teach him to break down large projects into smaller, more manageable ones. Don’t assume he knows how to organize information; he may need help with that too.”
Encourage your child to create a plan then check on his progress to make sure he’s staying on task. Gradually increase your expectations while still providing coaching and encouragement.
For a younger child, it may be helpful to provide two or three specific directions, have him repeat them aloud and then report back to you when he is done. Setting a timer may also move kids into action.
“Make it into a game,” says Emmett. “If your child has a short attention span, start with ten minutes. If he’s older, go longer. When the timer goes off, give him a short break or reward then set the timer again.”
Emmett warns, however, that using a timer with preteens could elicit a power struggle. “As kids get older they want some control, so consider offering your older child flexibility with parameters: ‘Your homework must be done before you watch TV,’” she says.
King believes incentives are powerful motivators. “Whenever Madeline finishes an unpleasant task, I’ll let her do something she enjoys,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘If you complete this, you’ll get ten minutes more on the computer.”
Natural consequences can be another potent teaching tool. Rather than chastising your child for being late for school or getting a poor test grade, suggest he implement strategies so the consequences aren’t repeated.
Another obstacles to academic success if perfectionism which, at times, is tied to procrastination. Perfectionist children often push themselves with immense fervency, avoid activities for fear of failure or vacillate from one extreme to another.
This was the case with Gabriel Hurd. “When Gabe started school, he focused so much energy on writing and forming letters flawlessly that he lagged behind the other students,” says Heather Petit of her now 9-year-old. “But sometimes he moves in the other direction and avoids or procrastinates doing something new for fear he won’t be able to do it. Or he’ll try something once and, if it isn’t done to his satisfaction, give up altogether.”
Alexandra Robbins, author of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kid, says the fear of not living up to their own or others’ expectations is stifling and can keep kids from moving forward. “Most perfectionist children aim to please someone in their life and become overly focused on activities or tasks they deem important and in doing so, set unreasonable goals for themselves,” she says.
Kimberly Taylor, 28-year elementary school education veteran, agrees. “For many of these children, achievement is closely tied to self worth, self esteem and approval. They may think, ‘If I do this well, Mommy will love me more,’ or ‘If I do that right, the teacher will really like me,’” she says.
If your child has an unhealthy view of perfectionism, Taylor suggests you consider your own personal expectations, as well as ones you place on your child. “If you’re hard on yourself or . . . you’re flying off the handle with every little mistake your child makes, he may not understand that blunders are a part of growing and learning,” she says. “Communicate perceived failures as opportunities for growth. Let him know trying his best is not the same as being the best, and that’s OK.”
“Praise your child for his efforts and remind him he doesn’t have to be perfect or get things right on the first try,” says Robbins. “Rather than just focusing on the end goal, celebrate small levels of success. Also offer unconditional love so he learns to accept himself based on who he is, not on his performance.”
Most important remember there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to tackling procrastination and perfectionist habits. Try different strategies to see what does and doesn’t work, and provide continual coaching and encouragement. Finally give it time. For most people it takes twenty-one days of consistent effort to make or break a habit.
Denise Morrison Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children and four grandchildren.