It can be hard to get started on a piece of work, or hard to keep going until a task has been properly finished. This can be true for all of us, and especially so for students with learning and/or attention challenges. If a child often struggles to complete their work, here are some recommendations that could be useful when tackling weekly spelling homework, putting in necessary maths practice, writing an essay or report, or revising for an upcoming exam.
Tip 1: Set up a conducive work area
Before trying to start work, have a look at the proposed study area and evaluate how well set up it is. Some things to consider:
- Is the lighting adequate? Or is it too bright, making it hard to focus?
- Is there a table and chair of the right height? (Try to avoid studying on a bed).
- Does the noise level of the surrounding area allow concentration?
- Is there anything distracting nearby (e.g. toys, food, a screen)?
- Are all of the necessary materials to hand?
Make sure the study area is comfortable and well-organised. Get rid of anything unnecessary or potentially distracting. On the desk should be stationery, writing materials, and reference materials, not toys, snacks or unrelated workbooks. If background noise is distracting, eliminate as much as possible, such as a noisy clock, a TV, or siblings playing in the same room. If using a laptop, close any tabs that aren’t needed for the task at hand, especially sites that are likely to hijack attention such as YouTube and social media. Put any phones on silent and out of sight. By preparing a place to work that has everything needed – and nothing else – getting a task done becomes a much quicker and smoother process.
Tip 2: Use a visual aid to help with planning:
Once the workspace is ready, the next step is to plan what needs to be accomplished on a certain day. Think about:
- What are all of the separate tasks that need to be done?
- How many tasks is that altogether?
- What extra equipment or materials are needed for each task?
- How much is a realistic amount of work to attempt before having a break?
Visual schedules are a helpful tool for all children to use so that they can see how many things they have to do, in what order, what they will need for each one, and when to expect a break. A list of steps to follow can be made on a whiteboard, and then each step erased after it has been completed. Picture cards can make a schedule easy to understand without the need for reading. For added motivation, a reward can be agreed upon, and included in the schedule as something to work towards.
For older students, a homework diary can be used to record tasks given, their due dates and any additional instructions or information. Students can make a checklist, write their tasks on post-it notes, fill in a planner, or use a school app to manage their tasks and keep track of their workload. Planners come in daily, weekly, monthly, and even yearly styles, and it may be helpful to use more than one type. For example, a daily checklist can be created to show what needs to be done today, and a monthly calendar can be used to plan time in advance and keep track of upcoming deadlines.
Develop a system that suits the student and encourage using it regularly, so that it becomes a habit. Be prepared to persevere, even if it seems like doing extra work at first! Choose colours to represent different subjects or activities, highlight important dates or additional items needed, and indicate scheduled break times. It’s important to allocate time for breaks and to know when to stop, whether that’s after completing a minimum amount of work, or at a set time. Having a clear picture of what to do before jumping in makes it less likely that anything will be accidentally forgotten.
Tip 3: Put tasks in order
So how to decide which of a number of competing tasks gets done first? Setting priorities is an important skill that ensures that deadlines are met and nothing is overlooked. Some questions to consider when deciding what to start with include:
- When is the due date for each piece of work?
- How long will each task take?
- How hard is each task expected to be?
- Which subjects / activities are the most and least enjoyable?
- Is anything needed for the task that is not currently available (e.g. a study partner, a certain book or piece of equipment, a teacher’s input)?
Of course, work due soon should be started first and completed before the due date, but tasks with a longer deadline can’t be ignored until the last minute! These are often more complex and need to be split into sections and worked on bit by bit. Knowing how much time a task will take means it can be allocated enough time on a schedule and finished without being rushed. However, judging this accurately can take some practice. Start by overestimating how long things will take, and any unused time can be put towards another task, a longer break, or an earlier finish to the day’s work.
It may take some experimenting to find a way of working that suits an individual student. Alternating favourite subjects or activities with less enjoyable ones can be preferable to leaving all of the least liked ones until last. Some people prefer to alternate shorter and/or easier tasks with longer or harder ones, some like to get all of their simple tasks done first and use the momentum to carry on with more complex ones, and others prefer to tackle challenging tasks first while fresh and finish off with those that are less demanding. Find the pattern that gets the best results, and follow it each time.
Tip 4: Decide how to tackle each task
When the plan is settled, it’s time to start on the first task on the list – after:
- Reading all instructions carefully
- Working out what needs to be done
- Recognising what are the steps involved and deciding in what order to do them
- Agreeing how long to work or what to achieve before taking a break
Sometimes it’s clear how to approach a task, understand what needs doing, and realise when the end has been reached. Other tasks may require a bit more planning, for example writing an essay or report, revising for an exam, or designing and carrying out a research project. These longer pieces of work can be analysed and broken down into smaller sections, to be completed separately and in succession.
Even more simple tasks can be partitioned to accommodate the shorter concentration spans of younger children or those with attention or learning challenges. Spelling lists can be cut into groups of 3-4 words, a page of maths problems can be divided up to appear less intimidating, reading passages often have natural break points (subsections, chapters etc) and writing tasks can be split into individual sentences or paragraphs. Find a way to break up an assignment into easily completed pieces and get going with the first. One small piece at a time is easier to deal with than a large load.
Tip 5: Overcome task avoidance or procrastination
Everyone procrastinates at times. However, it can become a problem that needs addressing if it happens too often or has a significant effect on a person’s ability to accomplish their goals. Even with a comfortable place to study, everything set out ready and a plan to follow, sometimes it’s still hard to get going. If children are clearly reluctant to start work, find out why. Here are some questions to consider:
- Is the child hungry or thirsty?
- Is the child tired?
- Is the task too easy – and therefore boring?
- Is the task too hard?
Giving children a snack and drink before they start work is a good idea to help them feel settled and ready to go. Children also have times when they are more or less able to concentrate, so knowing when to schedule study sessions is important. Times to avoid could be straight after school or a tuition class, after demanding physical exercise, or late in the evening, too close to bedtime.
However, it can be more challenging to solve the problem of “I don’t WANT to do this!”. In this case, it may help to ask a different set of questions, such as:
- What is the learning goal? Is it to complete a written worksheet or assignment, or to learn information (spelling, vocabulary, maths facts, science formulae etc)?
- How can the goal be achieved in a way that interests the child?
- How, or how much, can the task be adapted without a teacher objecting?
- What reward can be offered to help with motivating the child?
It can be helpful to provide a memory aid to reduce the amount of work that a child needs to do independently. For example, if the goal is to produce a piece of writing, a child can be given a list of useful words from which to copy, so that they can focus on expressing their ideas rather than thinking about spellings. If the goal is to answer maths word problems, a child can refer to an addition square or multiplication square, so that they can look up the answers to calculations and save their mental energy to plan and follow all the steps needed to solve the problem.
To make a task seem more attractive and less daunting, find a way to add a twist or an element of fun. Some simple ways to engage children are to include manipulatives, add a sensory element, add a movement element, or bring out something new or unusual that they can use in some way to complete the task. Children often enjoy the novelty of writing on whiteboards or chalkboards instead of paper. Maths calculations and word problems can be tackled using a set of manipulatives such as counters, buttons, cubes, or small edibles like Cheerios or M&Ms (which can then be eaten once the work is done!).
Reducing the amount of reading or writing involved can make a task more manageable. For example, learning spelling words can be done using magnetic letters, letter tiles or letter stamps, writing words in shaving foam or sand, or “splatting” letter cards placed on the wall or floor in the correct order. Other writing tasks can be made more approachable by building sentences with word cards, dictating ideas to a scribe, using drawings in place of words where possible, or merely offering a choice of writing materials. Reading can be shared with a partner, or the child can be given a special bookmark or page marker to show their progress. Be creative in making tasks more enticing and achievable, so children want to participate and feel they can finish them.
Tip 6: Don’t forget rewards and break times
An added motivation to get something done, no matter how unattractive it seems to be, can come from working for the reward that was promised when creating the day’s schedule. Rewards can be frequent and instant like stamps or stickers, or awarded once the task is completed, such as time to spend on a favourite activity, or screen time. Older children can earn points for finishing each task (or section of a task) each day. They can have the option to redeem their points once they have earned an agreed quantity that shows they have been consistently able to work well.
It is important to schedule breaks between tasks, to reward progress and allow time to rest and regain focus. Appropriate frequency and duration of break times depends on a child’s age and attention span. When designing a schedule, brainstorm a list of enjoyable activities that can be completed within allotted break times. Children can choose between a variety of sensory or movement activities (playdoh, jumping), quiet time (reading, drawing), playing a short game or with a chosen toy, or having a snack. Try to move away from the work area. Have a timer at hand to signal the start and end of break time, to help with sticking to the schedule. Having something to look forward to makes it easier to keep going, and to feel good about having done it.
Tip 7: Make use of these materials
Finally, think about getting hold of some or all of the items below. They are easy to find and can be extremely useful when designing and creating schedules, planning and managing time, keeping track of tasks and successfully getting stuff done!
- Pens, pencils, an eraser, a sharpener, a ruler, highlighters or coloured pencils
- Post-it notes, index cards, and scrap paper for extra ideas or workings
- Maths materials – a calculator, a protractor, manipulatives (counters, cubes etc)
- A timer or a clock
- Picture cards for a visual schedule
- Memory aids e.g vocabulary lists, spelling mats, a times tables square
- An age-appropriate dictionary and thesaurus
Using some or all of the tips above can help with planning, working on and finishing tasks or assignments, without stress or missed deadlines. For further reading and ideas, please see the list below:
Further reading and references