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Why Kids Procrastinate and How to Help

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Updated on Mar 5, 2009

If you’re a parent, the likelihood is you have a child who procrastinates. Why? Because procrastination is part of the human experience. Most people procrastinate because they are not enthusiastic about a task, or because there’s no shortage of more interesting, exciting, or pressing things to do.

“Everybody procrastinates, but not everybody is a procrastinator,” says Dr. Joseph Ferrari, Professor of Psychology at DePaul University. For 20 percent of the population, procrastination is a chronic problem. “These are people who have a maladaptive lifestyle,” Ferrari says, “individuals who are chronic or habitual procrastinators. They don’t pay their bills on time, their refrigerator is empty, they lose jobs because they don’t get their work done on time.”

The good news is that when it comes to children, procrastination is only worthy of attention from a therapist or psychologist when it permeates every aspect of their lives—“when they’re doing this at home, at school, with their friends,” Ferrari says.

Dr. Sean McCrea, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Konstanz in Germany, recently released findings from his procrastination study that show the significance of the way in which tasks are presented: people act in a timely way when given concrete tasks, and they dawdle when they view the tasks in abstract terms. “The focus of much of my research is on examining reasons why people undermine their own performance,” McCrea says. “I think the most interesting aspect of the findings is that subtly putting people into a more concrete mindset has such powerful effects.”

Perhaps parents can help their children by presenting tasks in concrete terms (for instance, picking up the balls versus cleaning the playroom). More importantly, though, parents can help by recognizing that parenting style is significant. Ferrari, who has been researching procrastination for more than 20 years, says there is no gene for procrastination; it is learned. “We have found that chronic procrastinators report having parents who were cold and demanding—authoritative,” Ferrari says. “It’s the child who can’t really rebel, so the only way to rebel is to delay doing what the parent is asking them to do.”

Ferrari suggests that parents reward their children for being early rather than punish them for being late. “We often expect 100% or 0%,” Ferrari says. “No, no! If the child meets 80% of the goal, you reward them for that!”

Dr. Timothy Pychyl, Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, agrees that parents have to be careful not to be too hard on children who procrastinate. “We understand that there’s a certain amount of cognitive development that has to go on,” Pychyl says. “We see a young person that’s not regulating his or her behavior very well, and we become so punitive.”

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