Signs & Symptoms


Is your child not getting started?

Some children have trouble ‘initiating’ their actions. They just don’t get started. Homework time can be filled with yelling and crying at your house.

Teachers may get frustrated because your child drags her feet in class. Your child may be a procrastinator. You may say he is unmotivated. You may feel that she has a poor work ethic. Your child may get frustrated, anxious, and overwhelmed.

You may be annoyed with your smart kid who just doesn’t apply himself. You may be tired of hearing about missing assignments and poor grades.

You may find yourself telling your child, “If you just would have gotten started when I asked, you would be done by now.”

It may be that once your child does get going, the work isn’t all that challenging from there. Alternately, your child may have difficulty getting started and with other skills, such as sustaining attention, planning, and executing a plan to complete an assignment.

In that case, your child may be struggling with multiple skills needed to get started on tasks.

What do challenges with Initiating look like?

Is your child:

  • ‘Stuck in the mud?”
  • Refusing to get started?
  • Saying, “Homework time? Oh, just a minute!”
  • Falling behind?
  • Procrastinating?
  • Taking forever on homework?
  • Slow to get started on tasks at school?
  • Crying, refusing, or hiding when she is supposed to start a project?

Making excuses?

Why is Initiating happening?

Clinically, ‘initiation’ is an executive function and refers to the ability to begin. This critical academic and life skill. Children who do not initiate well often struggle with homework and may fall behind in class. If you talk to your school team about difficulties in initiation, you are likely to hear the term executive function, which refers to tasks of initiating, planning, organizing, shifting and sequencing information.


Children may struggle with initiation for other reasons. 

  • Overwhelm: First, children may be overwhelmed by the task at hand. They may have ‘low academic self-efficacy,’ meaning that they do not think they can do the task. 
  • Lack of interest: They also may find the task boring or uninteresting, making the parents wonder about their motivation. 
  • Misunderstanding the task: Finally, they may really want to do the task but just not know how to begin. 
  • Executive Functions: This difficulty is a problem of planning, organizing, monitoring, or attending. 

Your child may not know how to plan out the steps to a task, but may not know the steps or have the materials handy to do the task, and may not sustain attention long enough to get it done. Knowing that the task involves all these unknowns, your child may avoid the task altogether – not getting started. 

How can I manage Initiating at home?

If your child struggles with initiating, he or she is likely to need some support.

First, children with poor initiation tend to fall behind and may have behavior problems. They may get in trouble at home and at school for not getting things done.

Secondly, children with poor task initiation often struggle in group-work. No one wants to be on their team. They may seem bossy or nervous; they may be worried that if they get started, the final outcome may not conform to the vision.

Poor initiation often results in a lack of task completion in school. Sometimes, children with these challenges get in trouble for underperforming and lack of work completion.

If your child is having trouble getting started, it may be helpful to consult with your child’s teacher, school psychologist, or school counselor. In some cases, school psychologists may test for this symptom (see list below).

Your child’s struggles with taking initiative can be due to a difference in brain functioning, particularly in the development of the prefrontal lobe. Children with ADHD, Autism, Traumatic Brain Injury, or a recent concussion are likely to struggle with initiation due to a true deficit, not to a lack of motivation or effort.

If the problems are significant, it may be necessary to have a full evaluation with a psychologist to see whether or not emotional or cognitive differences are impacting your child’s abilities. If true issues in brain functioning are present, it is very important that your child not be blamed for his or her weaknesses.

You will have to provide lots of support, encouragement, and a gradual release to teach your child. A gradual release approach looks like: “I do”… “We do”… “You do.”

First, you do it yourself and model the task explicitly. Then, you do the task together. Finally, you ask your child to finish the task on his or her own.

Do not expect your child to initiate tasks independently at first. Help your child get started [5]. Do not ‘rush’ your child or engage in power struggles [6].

Assuming that it is a ‘won’t do’ problem when it is a ‘can’t do’ problem can be a big mistake [6], as this perspective reduces the ability to teach and nurture your child’s developing brain. Generally, if kids can do it, they will.

“Do not interpret passivity as a lack of interest. Be prepared to provide a jumpstart for your student by modeling, using physical cues, and being actively involved with her” [5].

Once you have a chance to build momentum and practice these skills consistently, you can begin to expect more initiation from your child.

At times, this initiation may be much later than expected, or not nearly as independent as you may hope, if a disability is present. However, provide persistent, patient support to give your child the maximum opportunity for success.

In other cases, your child’s brain may be okay, but he or she has a lack of motivation for the specific task. This challenge would look different.

If your child does not have a deficit in initiation skills, the issues can be inconsistent and less pervasive. It may be that your child has always kept up in math but now is refusing to get started on the long division math homework.

You may have a child that does well in most subjects but is at a stand-still on his research project. In this case, it is important to tap into your child’s intrinsic motivation.

Children who appear unmotivated are generally struggling with one of the following areas: competence, relationships, or autonomy [2].

Competence refers to your child’s belief that he can do it. If the task looks too hard or appears to be cloaked in frustration and failure, the child does not want to do it and will not get started.

Secondly, if the child feels little connection or relationship with the people who are involved in the task, whether it is a teacher, parent, or other students, he will not initiate that task. After all, what is the point, if the child doesn’t feel connected to the people who care about this project or assignment?

Finally, autonomy. Children do not feel motivated when they have no choice about how to do things.

Parents, you have already been in 5th grade. Now, it’s your child’s turn. Let him or her stumble, just like you did. He or she will get started much more readily and learn the lessons more readily when you get out of the way.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Initiating?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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Our Free Discovery Session is a 20-minute consultation where we can talk one-on-one about the concerns and questions you have about your child.

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Our Initial Consultation allows us to get a deeper understanding of your child’s needs and determine if an assessment is appropriate.

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Our Assessments allow us to determine your child’s specific strengths and challenges. We can use this information to develop a customized support plan which includes: referrals

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Once we understand your child’s needs, we will help families get connected to the right specialists. No more guesswork, no more wasted time and resources.

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Our Coaching Packages allow us to continually support families as they continue their journeys. Parental coaching, life-skills practice, and school advocacy are just a few examples of ways we help.

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