Procrastination, on-task behaviour and task completion

Time is a real problem for almost everyone with ADHD. Not telling time, but estimating time.  Russell Barkley write extensively at the problem of time estimation and it's relationship to estimating effort. Children, adolescents and even adults with ADHD have a great deal of difficulty estimating how long a task is going to take. Yes, this is true even with adolescents and adults who can tell time, that's not the issue. The issue is really about being able to "understand it" and have an inner feeling about how long something will take, how much effort I should put in, and when it's going to end.

This is one of the reasons we often suggest, especially for those who procrastinate, have a hard time starting a new task, switching to a new task, or sticking with a task, to fully understand when something is going to start - how long it will take - when it's over and what happens next.

Remember, a non-preferred task should always be followed by a preferred task. That might be a break, getting something to eat, taking a walk....something pleasant and reinforcing. We always want to reinforce on-task behaviour, right?

Back to "telling time."  With students who have a hard time getting into a task we often start with a pivotal question, such as, "How long do you think this will take?"  Another simple suggestion is, "What do you need to do to start?" or "What do you need to get this going?"

An initial question like this helps the individual "switch mental sets" and start the new, different task. Asking "How long do you think this will last?" helps them think about the task as a whole, something with a beginning and an end. Something that will actually have a finish point!  And individuals with ADHD often have serious problems understanding when something will actually be finished. So, specify it.  That's what the clock is about.  There are a number of timers out there, including a really neat one called a "Time-Timer" but they all cost a lot, and are not appropriate for classrooms or work settings. They point out the student's deficits and make them more anxious.

My easy solution, which costs approximately 15 cents, is the colour clock (a sample is below). I quickly made one to show you for this post, so I only had three colours. Usually I have four different colours, and sometimes the clock is divided into 15 minute segments, sometimes 10 min.

Now, when a student answers, " It will take 15 minutes, it has a little more real meaning. Yes, we can all read the clock, but to have a very specific, physical, external prompt that creates a beginning-middle and end ....makes it very easy for a student to understand how long something will take.  Often I would say, "Work until blue, then see me..." It's clear, has an end, and automatically brings the student to me at the end of the segment to be observed (Is the work too hard? Too easy? Totally confusing? Is he or she staying on task? Do they need more reinforcement and supervision?) and reinforcement of on task behaviour happens automatically!

That's another thing we need to remember, yes, with students, but also with adults. We need to reinforce and reward "ON TASK" behaviour, not "TASK COMPLETION." If we only reward students for task completion we are setting our students with ADHD up for failure, and a strong dislike for the classroom and school.  Figure out how long a student can stay focused - and it's different for different types of work - and reinforce on task behaviour based upon their abilities. Use this simple -and cheap - external visual prompt to help them clearly quantify how much work they need to do. Students who are off task, procrastinate and have trouble remaining focused do better when there are external visual prompts and cues to help them. Next time I'll write more about procrastination, especially with adults with ADHD. But the first thing we need to do is make the tasks we are asking them to focus on and work on tangible, concrete, things with beginnings and ends. And put an emphasis on reinforcing what we want to see more of. Always ask yourself, "Is what I'm doing providing a better opportunity for me to reinforce what I want to see more of?" Punishment, reminders (nagging) and lack of success (non-completion of tasks) don't do that. What you reward will happen more often, it's as simple as that!

Posted on January 8, 2012 and filed under "ADHD", "Procrastination", "concentration", "focus", "on task".