Why kids with executive function challenges have trouble starting tasks

By The Understood Team

Why kids with executive functioning issues have trouble starting tasks, girl laying on a couch

At a glance

  • If a task isn’t highly interesting, it’s hard for kids with executive function challenges to get started on it.

  • Kids who also have learning differences may avoid starting tasks because the tasks are difficult.

  • There are ways to make it easier for your child to initiate tasks.

Most kids have things they’d much rather be doing than homework and chores. But they also have the ability to put those things aside and buckle down to do the task at hand when they have to.

That’s not the case for many kids with executive function challenges, which includes kids with . For them, starting a task that’s not highly interesting can be tough. And in some cases, it’s next to impossible without extreme effort and incentive.

Here are some reasons why kids with executive function challenges may have trouble initiating tasks.

Both the task, and paying attention to it, are hard.

Kids with executive function challenges often have other learning differences along with trouble paying attention. So certain tasks can be doubly difficult.

Imagine if a child with both attention issues and gets an assignment to read a chapter in a book and answer questions about it.

The task is already a challenge. But the child also has to pay sustained attention to start it and see it through to completion. That can be a painful prospect — and one most kids would want to avoid for as long as possible.

Low interest level affects how the brain works.

Kids with executive function challenges and ADHD often have a hard time firing up the energy to do tasks they have little to no interest in. It’s not laziness. It happens because their brain functions differently.

The brain uses electrical impulses to carry messages from one neuron to the next. These messages help us to notice things, pay attention, and take action. The release of certain brain chemicals helps make those connections.

In some kids, the brain doesn’t always release enough of those chemicals. But when something comes along that’s really interesting or exciting, their brain releases a larger amount. This helps them get started and stay engaged with that task. (That’s why some kids can focus for hours on video games but not on homework.)

Kids don’t have voluntary control of that chemical release, however. They can’t just tell themselves to get started on the task and make it happen unless it’s genuinely interesting. Or if they fear that something very unpleasant will happen if they don’t take care of this immediately.

It’s hard to remember there is a task.

Many kids with executive function challenges have trouble with working memory and attention. Working memory lets us hold one thing in mind while doing something else. Kids with weak working memory skills tend to live too much in the here and now. They find it hard to keep future rewards or possible longer-term consequences in mind.

Imagine this scenario: A child with executive function challenges is very engaged in building a Lego construction. She also has math homework that she should have done a while ago.

Not starting the homework might be a matter of interest level and brain chemistry. But if she has weak working memory skills, she may not even be aware that she has math work. She might not be able to concentrate on her Legos and also keep in mind that she has something else she needs to do.

Also, working memory problems may affect how well she can follow directions and sequence tasks. She may avoid cleaning up her room because she can’t remember where to start or what to do next.

Past failure makes it hard to try again.

Kids often avoid starting tasks if they think the experience or the outcome will be bad. If their work is always seen as inadequate, or if it never seems to get easier, why keep trying? Without even thinking about it, they avoid the task just to avoid more disappointment or failure.

How you can help

You may not be able to make the task easier or more interesting. But there are ways you can encourage your child to get started on it:

  • Acknowledge that the task may not be very interesting even though it’s important.
  • Ask if you can help your child get started (but not do the work yourself). Showing empathy teaches your child that we all do things we don’t want to because the consequence of not doing them can be worse.
  • Help your child keep track of homework materials and deadlines, and figure out the time needed for each task.
  • Avoid nagging or arguing about your child doing the task. Try to keep emotion out of it.
  • Provide an incentive when there isn’t a natural one. After your child has sat down and started working, bring over a snack. Say you’re glad to see your child doing the work, and that you know it’s hard.
  • Normalize the behavior. Tell your child about your own struggles and desire to avoid certain things.

Knowing why your child has trouble starting certain tasks can help reduce frustration for both of you. Learn about ways to help kids improve focus and how ADHD medication might help.

Key takeaways

  • Differences in how the brain functions make it hard to fire up enough energy to start a task.

  • Problems with attention and working memory can also factor in.

  • It can help to empathize and tell your child you understand the task is difficult or not interesting.

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    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Thomas E. Brown, PhD is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.