Why Kids With Executive Functioning Issues Have Trouble Starting Tasks

By The Understood Team
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At a Glance

  • If a task isn’t highly interesting, it’s hard for kids with executive functioning issues 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 functioning issues, which includes many kids with ADHD. 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 functioning issues may have trouble initiating tasks.

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

Kids with executing functioning issues often have other learning differences and trouble paying attention. So certain tasks can be doubly difficult.

Let’s say your child has both attention issues and dyslexia. She gets an assignment to read a chapter in her history book and answer questions about it.

Not only is she faced with a task that’s already a challenge for her, but she 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 in her shoes would want to avoid for as long as possible.

The same thing goes if your child has trouble with social skills. She may put off calling her grandparents to thank them for her birthday present because she’s not sure what to say. She avoids doing it because it’s hard for her to do.

Low interest level affects how the brain works.

Kids with executive functioning issues and ADHD often have a hard time firing up the energy to do tasks they have little to no interest in. But that’s not because they’re lazy. It comes from an inefficient chemical process in the brain.

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 help 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 which 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 right here, right now.

It’s hard to remember there is a task.

Many kids with executive functioning issues 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.

Let’s say your child is very engaged in building a Lego construction. She also has math homework that she should have done a while ago. Her not starting her homework might be a matter of interest level and brain chemistry. Or she might struggle with math. And naturally she wants to avoid what comes hard to her.

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 the fact 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 something she’s enthused about even though it’s important.

  • Ask if you can help her get started (but not do the work for her). Showing empathy teaches her that we all do things we don’t want to because the consequence of not doing them can be worse.

  • Help her keep track of homework materials and deadlines, and figure out the time needed for each task.

  • Avoid nagging or arguing about her doing her task. Try to keep emotion out of it.

  • Provide an incentive when there isn’t a natural one. After she’s sat down and started working, bring her a snack. Tell her you’re glad to see her doing her work, and that you know it’s hard for her.

  • 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. Get more information about executive functioning issues. Also, learn about ways to help her improve her focus and how ADHD medication might help.

Key Takeaways

  • An inefficient chemical process in the brain makes 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 it’s difficult or not interesting to her. But she still needs to do it.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

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.

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