Task Initiation and ADHD – Strategies and Support for Getting Started  

Task Initiation- ADHD and Getting Started On Classwork

Task Initiation is the ability to begin an assigned task whether interested or not. This is a core executive function and can be problematic for many children with ADHD. Chronic difficulty with task initiation is frequently misunderstood as work avoidance, laziness, procrastination and defiance. 

How do I get the child to just do their work, they have the ability?

In the classroom difficulty with task initiation looks like: 

  • The student is unable to begin activities without procrastination ie. bathroom trips, pencil sharpening .
  • The student requires a “personal invitation” to start schoolwork .
  • The student requires frequent reminders to get out materials and get started
  • The student does not independently initiate new activities
  • The student is the last one done (usually rushing right before times up) 
  • The student is not spontaneous in conversation.
  • The student does not seek and search for information.
  • The student has difficulty generating ideas, persisting, and completing all parts of an activity.

Why Getting Started is So Difficult for Students with ADHD 

Task Initiation is difficult for students with ADHD, because getting started takes significantly more energy than it does for neurotypical students. And in some cases , getting started on a non-preferred, uninteresting task is nearly impossible without extreme effort and incentives. 

Differences in how the brain functions make it hard for students with ADHD to fire up enough energy to start a task. Studies indicate that individuals with ADHD exhibit hyposensitivity of the dopamine neurons in the ventral and dorsal striata in response to rewarding stimuli.  The importance of a task does not trigger enough neurotransmitter activity like it may in other students. Some research describe this differences as having an ” interest based nervous system”.

ADHD and the Interest Based Nervous System

School, like life, is filled with important tasks that we must initiate day in and day out to function. Adults with ADHD commonly report that the problem is way beyond procrastination and describe it as “ADHD Paralysis”. The only way they can get started on a task, even a task that they deem very important to them is when it becomes an acute emergency. Only then do they have enough dopamine to begin the task. However, this habitual over-reliance on urgency comes at a significant cost to health and self esteem.  

Evidenced Based Strategies for Supporting Students with Task Initiation Difficulties 

Chronic difficulty with task initiation is a significant barrier to education. School based therapists can support the occupational performance of both students and teachers by providing evidenced based caregiver education , strategy selection and environmental modification that will lessen the effort needed by the student ( and their teacher) to get started on school related tasks alongside their peers. 

Caregiver /Teacher Education

Reframe Problem Behavoir

Therapists can assist the teacher/caregiver in reframing the “behavior” as the performance problem it really is and provide performance building support and strategies . When faced with performance deficits that can easily be misunderstood as misbehavior, teachers need to use a different model of intervention. Very often teachers/ caregivers unknowingly just repeat the direction without supporting the performance.

Unfortunately, repetitively prompting is not going to teach or develop the skill. It may now and then create the sudden urgency needed by the nervous system to get the task done, (especially as recess gets closer) but by no means is this a habit we want to build .

When designing an intervention to improve performance , we teach the strategies and support the performance until it is improved. For example, when teaching a child to ride a bicycle, we show them HOW. When the child falls off, we don’t repeat the direction, “ ride the bike”. We scaffold the process of riding the bike and provide feedback at the point of performance while gradually removing the support.

With the executive function based performance deficits related to ADHD we need to teach and support how to get started. Teachers will need updated education on executive function, ADHD and collaborative support to reframe the subtle differences between a skill deficit or a “will deficit” .

Four Steps to Improved Performance in Task Initiation

Step One: Validate and CoRegulate

The first step is to validate by naming the problem. “Looks like you are having trouble getting started‘, using a non-judgmental soothing yet curious tone.

Typically the child is well aware of the expectations but is having difficulty performing the expectation. They typically do not know why they can’t get started and are aware of the peers going ahead all around them. In addition, they probably have plenty of experience getting in trouble for not starting their work.  They are stressed, the teacher is stressed and that stress will interfere with learning.

Teachers can coregulate by simply using a regulating calm tone of voice.  Using a soothing voice is described by Stewart Shanker, as “ touching the ear drums” and promotes the stress response switch to turn off. 

We want to validate and co-regulate , not co-escalate.  Reminding them of the consequences will further stress the child. 

Step Two: Collaborative Obstacle Identification

Invite the child to help determine what is holding them back from starting. Use a visual to further decrease stress and improve communication. Often, other EF deficits may be impacting this child’s ability to get started on their work. Teaching them to problem solve is an incredible use of time.

ADHD and Task Initiation - Interventions for Difficulty Getting Started with Classwork

Step Three : Collaborative Option Exploration

Provide the child with a choice of two strategies to address task initiation. Eight are listed below. Keep in mind, while we want to invite collaboration ,using open ended questions or providing too many options is counterproductive. Offer a choice of two strategies to try.

Getting Started- Effective Classroom Strategies for Task Initiation

ADHD and Task Initiation - Interventions for Difficulty Getting Started with Classwork
  • KISS” – Keep it Super Simple teach the child to break down a task to find the most simplest part of first step to beginning the task. Ridiculously simple. So simple , so tiny, it is almost unavoidable and provide immediate performance specific praise for completion of the first step.
    • Ie: Write your name on the paper. Great job getting started, what’s next?
    • This is chunking but the difference is we are teaching them to chunk it, not doing it for them.
    • With KISS- we are collaboratively breaking the task into manageable parts and using behavioral momentum.
    • Kids tend to remember this strategy because it’s “ gross”.
ADHD and Task Initiation - Interventions for Difficulty Getting Started with Classwork
  • Provide an Interactive Checklist:  Providing a checklist for the task helps see the beginning, the end and makes it less HUGE .
  • Provide a Chunking Folder: File folder with cut windows that breaks a worksheet into manageable parts . This prevents the visual overwhelm , from a task that appears like it will take forever. 
  • Countdown – Invite the child to use a countdown, like a rocket-ship. It works for many kids. 5-4-3-2-1- Blastoff .
ADHD and Task Initiation - Interventions for Difficulty Getting Started with Classwork
  • Timer: Invite the child to try using a timer to race against in a fun way, to start the task.
  • Attack Choice: Providing a choice on how they are going to get started, this gives them power and autonomy. Two highly effective starting choices are Eat the Frog” , in which you start with the hardest part first or Climb the Ladder, in which you begin with the simple part.
ADHD and Task Initiation - Interventions for Difficulty Getting Started with Classwork
  • Body Double- this is where the child is paired with someone doing the same task. They can come sit by you, or a positive peer. It is the proximity of a working person that gets them started.
  • Spice it Up: What can you do to make this task doable right now ?  This one engages the interest based nervous system. Small changes to the task can have a huge impact. Can they listen to music, change the environment ( sit somewhere new) , use a special colored pen etc… Kids have incredible ideas.
ADHD and Task Initiation - Interventions for Difficulty Getting Started with Classwork

Step Four: Reflect and Empower 

Reflect: It is important that the therapist or teacher encourages the child to name the strategy and provides a tangible visual representation of the strategy that worked. ADHD is chronic, many adults are struggling to initiate tasks, by naming the strategy it becomes real and increases the likelihood that the student will use it again.

We can use powerful questions like:

  • ” How exactly did you do it? “
  • What worked for you this time ? “
  • What is that strategy called?

Empower: Support generalization of strategies. Next time the student is having difficulty getting started, the teacher can ask “What did you do last time to get started? “. Due to poor working memory and difficulty with generalization, children with ADHD may not be able to retrieve a strategy without support.  Naming the strategy and providing it on a card, sticker or anchor chart, helps them retrieve the memory of how it worked. Support generalization of strategies by providing external representation of strategies, and by communicating and sharing strategies to parents and other teachers. 

Environmental Supports for Task Initiation

Student performance does not exist in a vacuum, therefore therapists must consider the context including the environment and occupation to determine the appropriate level of support to begin with. Teachers and caregivers can place supports in the environment that reduce the energy required to get started on tasks by using predictable routines, reducing distraction, clutter, friction and using choice architecture to improve performance.

Environmental Supports for Task Initiation
  1. Predictable Routines: Routines are strings of tasks but after significant practice they become one task. If every single time a child is handed a paper, they write their name on it, writing the name eventually becomes anchored to receiving a paper. Eventually…. 😉
  2. Reduce Distractions and Clutter: The ADHD brain has significant difficulty with regulating input. Due to difficulty with prioritization, another lagging EF skill , input can appear to be all at the same importance level. For example, the buzzing of the AC is processed at the same volume as the teacher’s voice. A clear desktop with only needed materials around will make the task much easier to start. Directions need to be clear and concrete.
  3. Reduce Friction: Friction is anything that can get in the way of doing the preferred task. The location, proximity and availability of materials can impact task initiation, as finding them becomes additional tasks to initiate. I call them Gremlin’s. Providing a visual of directions, plenty of sharpened pencils and a charged Chromebook can reduce cognitive load and keep the Gremlins at bay.
  4. Choice Architecture: Setting up the room to nudge students towards expectations helps. As adults we all have spaces that we can work better in than others. Seating students near positive peer models, providing explicit directions , broken down visually, and using visual schedules will all help support task initiation from within the environment .

Scaffolding improved performance takes time, and time is at a premium in the general education classroom. My hope is that through the use of scaffolded performance interventions and environmental supports, teachers and therapists can free up valuable time spent with ineffective prompting, refocusing and redirection.

Chronic difficulty with task initiation is a significant barrier to education for students with ADHD. School based therapists can support the occupational performance by providing evidenced based caregiver education , strategy selection and environmental modifications to lessen the effort needed by the student ( and their teacher) to get started on school related tasks. Using performance based interventions with supports and scaffolds that promote generalization can significantly improve performance in task initiation for life. ❤️

Download the Free PDF for Obstacle Exploration By Clicking the Image Below

ADHD and Task Initiation - Interventions for Difficulty Getting Started with Classwork

Check Out OT4ADHD On Teachers Pay Teachers to download a one sheet quick print for teachers, visual supports or the entire intervention.

ADHD and Task Initiation - Interventions for Difficulty Getting Started with Classwork

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