help students start work

Help students to start work

August 11, 2015

It can be tough figuring out why some children have trouble starting and completing work. Are they tired, bored, hungry, preoccupied by something going on at home, or maybe they don’t fully understand the task? Or it might be something a bit harder to spot like anxiety. One in five children and adolescents have elevated symptoms of anxiety[ref] Barrett, P., (2014) Treatment guidance for common health disorders: Childhood anxiety disorders. InPsych, The Bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society, October, Melbourne, VIC: Australian Psychological Society [/ref], so this is an important issue to consider.

For most anxious children it tends to be fear that stops them getting started or completing tasks. They might worry they’ll get the answer wrong, or that they won’t be able to produce ‘the best’ or ‘perfect’ work so they don’t even begin. Having thoughts such as, ‘It’s too hard.’ ‘There is too much to do. I’m going to fail’ or ‘I won’t be able to do it perfectly so I won’t even try’ can interfere with getting work started.

The three strategies below may help to change the way some children think about tasks.

  • Encourage every child to attempt a task even if they don’t feel they can complete it on their own. To help some children get started, it might be necessary to modify the task, or help them to break it into achievable steps. For older children, it might help to have them commit to doing just 5 minutes of work and then taking a break. Set the timer. Often this will be enough to get them going, and many will continue working and complete the task.
  • Promote mistakes as valuable learning opportunities. Rather than focusing on errors as ‘wrong’, or to be avoided, encourage students to see making mistakes as a natural part of learning.
    • Speak regularly with the class about how mistakes can assist us to learn. It may be helpful to use the analogy of losing ‘lives’ when playing a new computer game, or reminding them most people fall off many times when learning to ride a bike. Clips such as Michael Jordan’s Nike failure commercial could serve as a discussion starter on the topic.
    • Make some deliberate ‘visible’ mistakes each week, such as spelling or calculation errors on the board. Point the error out and talk through your thought process aloud. ‘Oh no, I made a mistake. I’ll just put a line through it and try again. Oh, yes it’s spelled like …. or no 7 times 8 is not 64, it’s 56’
  • Encourage a ‘growth mindset’. People who believe that intelligence, skills or talents can increase with effort are more able to bounce back and persevere through stressful events, than those with a ‘fixed mindset’ (who believe intelligence, skills or talents are fixed traits).[1]Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House: USA. Encourage a growth mindset by praising:
    • Strategies used successfully to get started and/or complete tasks.
    • Progress with tasks.
    • Hard work and effort put into starting or completing work.

Praise strategies and effort rather than a child’s natural abilities or the end result. For more information see Can praise cause students to underperform? or watch Carol Dweck’s TED talk ‘The power of believing you can improve.’

Let us know if any of these strategies help students in your classroom, and share any other great ideas below or on our forum. Keep an eye out also for the forthcoming Psych4Schools ebooklet, Working with children who are anxious.

by Zoe Ganim and Murray Evely, Psych4Schools Psychologists