“Initiating an assignment is often more difficult than the assignment itself. Understanding the struggle behind initiation can lead to personal growth and academic success.”

Initiation of Work: Stuck in Park with Nowhere to Go

We all know that familiar dialogue that takes place about homework:

Parent: “Do you have any homework tonight?”
Student: “Yeah, I have to write my rough draft for my research paper.”
Parent: “Sounds like a big assignment!”
Student: “Nah, it’s all good. I got it.”

Fast forward two hours and your child is still sitting on her floor, with a growing look of terror and frustration on her face. She’s been perched in the same spot, staring at the same line of her computer screen, its empty content mocking her for her lack of productivity. What ensues is a night of angst-filled desperation and heated discussion that toggles between why she didn’t ask for help and strategy for completing the task at hand. Several hours later, the midnight oil is all but extinguished and both parent and child are seriously considering putting each other up for auction on eBay.

What causes our students to get stuck, and more importantly, why don’t they ask for help before it’s too late? To better understand this common set of circumstances, we must peel away the layers. There are multiple reasons a student cannot initiate their work. To begin with, sheer exhaustion is enough to stop a kid dead in his tracks. After a long day at school, a grueling workout with the team, or a few restless nights of sleep, a student’s capacity to focus is severely compromised. Even the simplest of assignments can seem insurmountable under these conditions. One strategy that may increase productivity is taking a break from all things school-related when the student gets home from a long day. If it’s too early to have dinner, enjoy a favorite snack, drink plenty of water, and relax. Or if they still have lots of energy, take the dog for a walk, run or walk around the block, shoot some hoops at the local park or on the driveway, or go for a bike ride. Take a shower and clear your mind; do some mindfulness meditation or yoga; or chat with a friend to reflect on the day.

What really stumps parents is when a student is particularly strong in a specific subject area, but they cannot complete tasks, particularly long-term assignments. For example, a student is a whiz at American history: they can identify and explain the causes of the American Civil War with their eyes closed. Furthermore, they have analyzed the repercussions of this historical event and can connect some of our country’s current socioeconomic issues back to this period of time in our history. With such a strong and well-developed understanding of this time period, why in the world is it so difficult for this same kid to initiate a research paper about this topic?

In talking with so many of my students, I have come to realize it is not necessarily the material that enables or prevents a student from successfully engaging in an assignment; it is the anticipation of doing the assignment that halts their ability to even think about the task at hand. So many students have shared with me the wave of panic they feel when they look at the blank page or the empty white computer screen prior to committing their thoughts to some form of written record. The longer they stare into the writing abyss, the more overwhelmed they become. With every moment of terrifying anxiety that passes, the ability to access their words becomes more and more elusive. As they get swept further and further away out to the sea of lost thoughts and composition mutism, they lose their bearings and don’t know how to ask for help.

Further exacerbating their sense of ineffectiveness is a fear of failure. Many students cannot bear the thought of failing at a given task. The threat of being “discovered” as anything other than a strong, successful, and competent student is often too much to bear. The stress of potential failure becomes insurmountable, and the student shuts down. It is in this same spirit that he will not seek help. After all, he should know how to get this assignment done, right? Any attempt to seek help is a sign of weakness, and he cannot let his teachers, peers, or parents know he can’t live up to his potential. In these circumstances, the student may opt to let the assignment go, hoping that with the passing of the due date, no one will notice that he did not do the work, his secret safely hidden from those around him. The problem with this approach is similar to that of the ostrich’s dilemma. Our enormous, feathered friend gets overwhelmed. Desperate for relief from his angst, he sticks his head in the ground, thinking the problem is solved and he has managed to successfully escape from the terror that torments him. The problem with this strategy is that, not unlike our poor student’s dilemma, the problem did not go away, the ostrich and our student have just chosen to look the other way. But the challenge is still there, and eventually it will become a bigger issue.

I have found that talking with a student about their concerns related to an assignment is one of the most valuable problem-solving steps they can take to not only address the source of their angst, but to also avoid future similar incidents. The following questions can help to unpack the angst behind the initiation of tasks:

  1. How are you feeling about this assignment overall?
  2. Do you feel comfortable with the material?
  3. Do you have all the information you need to complete this assignment including directions, materials, and content?
  4. Do you understand what is being asked of you?
  5. Is it just the prospect of the assignment itself that concerns you?
  6. Is there a particular part of the assignment that concerns you more than the others?
  7. Do you have a plan of action to complete this assignment?
  8. Do you want to break it down into chunks and calendar those chunks as daily assignments, or do you want to sit down and complete it in one sitting (and is that realistic?)?
  9. What are the obstacles you may encounter on your path to completion?
  10. What strategies can you use to address these obstacles?
  11. If all else fails, who can you ask for help?

Once a student understands what is causing their anxiety about a given assignment, they can strategize, creating a plan of action that will enable them to approach the assignment with confidence. The struggle with initiation is very real. By demystifying the assignment, students can gain perspective, feel more confident, and more at ease about engaging in their work.