My daughter is bright, able, and enthusiastic about learning, but has a really hard time initiating a variety of tasks - even those she enjoys. Admitedly, I am not unlike her. It is almost as if a "warm-up" is needed before the task can happen. As an adult I can understand what I am doing and sort of give myself a pep-talk and I can plow forward and get the job done.

My daughter on the other hand. . . As a seven-year old on her way to eight, I understand that some of this is developmental, but whether the task is going to read a book she loves, or writing a paragraph for school, she often gets distracted with other things along the way.

For example, when told to get dressed and ready to go to Tai Kwon Do, she might get her pants and a tank-top on, but forget to put on the shirt because she can't find it (even though it is hanging in the closet right where it belongs) and in forgetting she might start re-packing her gear bag (even though it is unnecessary for the forms class she is headed to). Then, she might also need to be reminded to fill her water bottle and pack it as well (despite the checklist I've made up and attached to the bag for her to use so she doesn't forget anything that she used to use successfully).

This kind of stuff is especially a problem when it comes to getting school work done. She'll sharpen her pencils, realize she needs an eraser and take 10 minutes to find one (even though there are about twenty in the spot in the desk drawer right where they belong), and then follow that up with some other "need" like going potty or grabbing a drink of water, "because I'm thirsty mom" - "but what about the bottle of water you already have on your desk?". . .

For the longest time, I've approached the problem as though it were simply either a forgetfulness or a behavioral issue, but I'm realizing that although it doesn't affect me when she struggles with this even during activities she enjoys, she does in fact, have trouble even when it is an activity she enjoys. For example, she might have trouble finding the book she wants to read, forget she was going to read and start playing with dolls instead (of course, this is of no consequence unless she is specifically supposed to be reading because it is "quiet time before bed or something).

I realize, this is an executive function skill, and is one of those symptoms often associated with ADD/ADHD. I am suspicious she has this challenge and am working on getting her evaluated, but in the mean-time we still have to limp along and get through school work as well as the logistics of any given day. I think it is beginning to affect her confidence, and my patience is beginning to wear on the thin side on this one. Since I don't really feel it is a problem related to motivation any more, I'm wondering if others have found an answer that was successful for them with their Elementary-School-aged-child.

  • If it is ADD, which would be my first guess too, some coping skills that can help are: routine (stick to it as best you can) and task lists (such as a chalk board) to follow.
    – DA01
    Commented Feb 13, 2014 at 19:45

5 Answers 5


You might try drilling: repeatedly doing the same sequence of steps in a task as fast as possible. The repetitions don't have to be back to back, but pick a couple of rote daily tasks and do it every day or every other day for a few days or as long as it might be enjoyable/acceptable.

We do this with my eldest (as a fun game) to see how fast he can get ready for school. We use the same order every day. Timing it seems to help him stay focused on what he's doing, and it seems to have helped his focus in general. We also started doing this for my youngest for eating too—not to rush him, but just to remind him without having to say "eat your dinner" eight hundred times in twenty minutes.


I think this is a fascinating question because I know I do it and my 6-year-old does it as well. I think we all do this to some extent. But, you're right, the difference is that, as an adult, you can identify the problem and deal with it.

The guidance counselor at my son's school recently did a talk on this topic geared more for older elementary students, but I did get some very useful information from it for my son who is only in kindergarten.

First, it is VERY normal for kids at this age to have this exact problem. Especially with the whole, "Oh, I need a drink of water" "I can't find my pencil" "Now this pencil needs to be sharpened" etc. issue. They also have a problem of becoming distracted in the middle of a task or an assignment. Here are some solutions she recommends which may or may not help when it comes to school work:

  1. Getting down to business. Since I know you homeschool, you probably this, but she keeps one of those rolling plastic 3-drawer deals wherever her kids do homework (near the kitchen table, dining room table, whatever) loaded down with every school supply her kids could need. Colored pencils, extra glue sticks, scissors, extra paper, etc. If one of her kids needs something, there's no need for them to go tracking down their backpack or wandering around the house looking for something because it's all right there. Granted, you and I both know how much stuff a kid can get in to in the span of a walk across the kitchen, but it at least keeps them contained and limits their interaction with other stuff in the house (toys, TV, video games, etc.).
  2. If it's time to work, it's time to work. No parent likes to do this, but sometimes you have to step back to a level of supervision you haven't had to do in awhile. It's hard because it's a step backwards, but sometimes kids (and parents) become too comfortable and relax a bit much. Kids need to be reminded. So, you might have to become her checklist for awhile. Before it's time to sit down to work, just ask, "Do you need to potty? Do you have water? Do you have all your materials? Because once we start, we are not stopping for anything until we're finished." It stinks, but I find that my son HATES it when I have to supervise him doing something that I haven't had to supervises in awhile.
  3. Distraction during work--especially work she doesn't really care for: Your mind is going to wander. It's normal--especially when you're doing work that you don't really like. Our guidance counselor stresses that it's ok. The key is learning to recognize when you're mind is wandering and pull it back into focus. It's ok to wander for 10 or 15 seconds periodically, but some kids need a little reminder to refocus. She will place little red round stickers on desks (or some teachers have other things) which she calls "reminder dots". Basically, the job of the dot is to remind the child that when their mind wanders they need to bring their focus back to the task at hand. She also stresses that kids DO need breaks much more frequently than we tend to give them. She suggested that if your child has three worksheets to do then they really need a 5 minute break in between each worksheet. Set a timer and stick to it so kids don't try to sneak off and do something else. Also if your daughter says, "Mom, I need to potty" in the middle of her work, you can say, "Finish up that sheet and you can have your 5 minute break like usual." When I say it like that it almost sounds prison-like, but I don't mean it to sound like you should make her sit there in agony to finish a worksheet when she REALLY needs to go to the bathroom. But I am saying that she's capable of holding a little tinkle for five minutes while she finishes up something she's working on.
  4. Finally, I have found that, for me, the times I procrastinate the most are when I'm facing a project or a task that seems so big to me or complicated that I almost don't know where to start--even if I'm excited about the project. This might be a problem for your daughter for some tasks. I wish that someone had recognized this in me when I was younger (because I certainly couldn't have articulated it to you then) and taught me how to work through it. How to make a plan to tackle the job step-by-step and follow through on it. Usually what happened though is if I had a project to do my mom did all the planning and I was just a long for the ride. Thus, I had zero insight into how the planning process worked. It would have made my life SOOOOO much easier sooooo much earlier if I had!

I recognize this problem, both in myself and in my eldest son. Both of us have been found by one of our parents, a sock on one foot, the other sock in our hands, hovering near the other foot, reading a (comic) book.

As you said, it's not a problem of motivation. And although your patience is beginning to wear thin, what I found that does help is a constant reminder, up to the point of sounding like a broken record.

Keep reminding her of the task at hand, or, at a higher level, keep reminding her of the checklist to follow.

And go ahead with that ADD/ADHD evaluation. That may very well be the cause.

What you could also look into, is Pomodoro or a variant. The idea is that you timebox tasks, breaking them up into smaller tasks of about 25 minutes worth, with 5 minute breaks inbetween and longer breaks after a couple of cycles. Of course 25 minutes is too long for tasks such as getting dressed, but the important part is breaking it down in parts you can grasp — not necessarily task-wise, but time-wise.

When you have an hour and a half to get up, wash, get dressed, eat, play a little, gather your stuff, and get ready for school, it seems as if you have forever. You (well, I) tend to underestimate the time each task takes. Dividing it into little slots adds a sense of urgency, just the right amount needed to get started now instead of "in a minute".
I think it's important to keep all pomodori the same size. If the task is too big for a single one, break it up, if it's too small, add another small task. But having them the same size helps you get a feel of how long something takes.
Another benefit is getting little senses of acomplishment, each time a pomodoro is completed.

There are all kinds of Pomodoro timers available, physical or as an app for a smartphone or tablet, but a simle stopwatch will suffice.

  • Thank you and I often do use this technique for a variety of things - including the get up and go routine (which is set to music and broken down into 3-5 minute chunks where each change in music represents a change in activity and each piece of music signifies a particular task). However, she'll use up 25 minutes picking her nails if I let her and then shrug her shoulders and say, "I guess I'll do it now" when it is something she doesn't like like writing - however, that does have a motivation problem, I don't think she'd do that if it meant missing out on something she likes. Commented Feb 15, 2014 at 0:04

There is an iPad app called KidToDo (kidtodo.com) that might help. It is a photo based todo list for kids. You can take photos to create visual lists of the routine things that she needs to do to get ready for school or sports or bed. Each time she needs to execute on any of those she can refer to the app. The kid receives a well done message and a sticker once complete. My kids too are absentminded professors and we found that this worked like a charm. It has helped them get organized without the app too. My son loves creating his own todos when he needs to tidy his room. Good luck!

  • What a cool idea! Bet it would work great if she had an iPad to look at and remembered to check it. I have checklists at the house (computer desktop notes program and a bulletin board) They work when she remembers to look and we are at home (at least when I broken record the phrase, "Check your list." Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 13:12

This is a very interesting question, I know those issues quite well from our 6-year-old son and I often see parallels to my own behavior..

I think that this kind of "absent-minded-ness", "daydreams" and "getting lost in details" might to a large extent be normal for children and exactly what makes the difference between their way to approach things and our "adult" way:

I don't have a solution for you, but one hint that might help finding information: many of those issues you describe sound very similar to me to a phenomenon called procrastination.

Definition of procrastination from Wikipedia:

Procrastination is the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time, sometimes to the "last minute".

This is not exactly the same, as for our children I have the impression that they're just easily distracted and quickly loose/forget the focus on something they just had. As you also state, for the children it is not only to "avoid" things they did not like to do, but also prevents them from things they would like to do (we suppose).

Nevertheless I think that there might be some parallels where it makes sense to have a look at.

I also think that getting lost in details like we observe it here might go together with perfectionism (see also at wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Procrastination#Perfectionism )

Psychology Today says about procrastination:

Everyone procrastinates sometimes, but 20 percent of people chronically avoid difficult tasks and deliberately look for distractions—which, unfortunately, are increasingly available. Procrastination in large part reflects our perennial struggle with self-control as well as our inability to accurately predict how we'll feel tomorrow, or the next day.

Crosslink: The topic of procrastination is also often discussed in "Personal Productivity Stack Exchange": https://productivity.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/procrastination

  • 2
    Unfortunately, procrastination is facilitated by Stack Exchange :)
    – SQB
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 7:58
  • yes, very true - but at least sometimes with positive side effects ;-)
    – BBM
    Commented Feb 12, 2014 at 8:51

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