Why can’t he “Just Do It”? The Art of Initiation

child daydreamingAs adults, we sometimes become frustrated seeing kids not “doing” as they are supposed to.  I find it helpful to recognize that the problem is often not one of “Doing”, rather one of “Getting started”.

When I teach teachers and parents about Executive Function skills, the skill I always begin with is Initiation.  I know that many children (and adults!) have a hard time just getting started.

What I have learned through the years is that we are more successful “Getting Started” when we have a Trigger or Routine that anchors us to begin.

A Trigger is a consistent sound or signal that tells your brain it’s time to Transition – Stop your current action, Move physically or cognitively to the new activity, and Start the new activity.  As long as our brain knows to associate that Trigger with a necessary action, we will have a greater success rate in complying to it’s message.  For example, a fire alarm signals people to take immediate action to find safety, the credit scroll on a TV show signal an end to the show, a chime rung in a classroom alerts students to focus on the teacher or take an action.

Routine is a ritual that allows our muscle memory to assist in our actions.  By doing the same steps each time, we don’t have to rely as much on our Working Memory (another Executive Function skill), and we don’t rely on our “feeling” or “mood” as much to do the next steps.  For example, brushing teeth, washing face and combing hair might all be done together as a morning routine.  Twyla Tharp, prolific dancer and choreographer, says that she begins each day with the same routine.  In her best-selling book, The Creative Habit, Tharp discusses one of the secrets of her success:

I begin each day of my life with a ritual; I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirts, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st street and First Avenue, where I workout for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.

 It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning, habitualizes it — makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about. 

Good habits are not created through motivation to do, rather, they are grounded in the action of Getting Started.  In fact, often when we rely on Motivation to get us started, well… we frequently end up will rationalizations telling us why “later” will be better.

We often look to get kids “motivated” to do what is expected of them.  The reality is, kids are often not innately “motivated” by our agenda, by what we think they should be doing.  Logic often guides parents to provide incentives in the form of rewards or punishments, however, the sustainable impact of these options will often do little if the child makes no emotional connection to why they will derive benefit from the doing.  That emotional connection will develop as kids mature and as they feel successful as a result of taking the action.

I propose that we will achieve more positive change if we focus on being willing to BE children’s Trigger or help them non-judgmentally pay attention to the Trigger or be an active part of their Routine to get them started. Allow them to develop their muscle memory and feel successful.  Help them recognize how they can “Start their Engine”.  Motivation to perform a behavior often develops AFTER one has achieved a level of success.  Just like beginning an exercise program.  The first few times are so much harder, but as you feel yourself getting stronger and more fit staying with the routine becomes easier.

Children’s feeling of success is likely to be a greater motivator in helping them become willing to create or attend to their own Trigger or Routine as they learn to Initiate for themselves.  Patience, growth happens.  Meet them where they are and “Parent the Child you Have.”

2 thoughts on “Why can’t he “Just Do It”? The Art of Initiation”

  1. Fantastic advice! I tend to think in terms of motivating my students or my stepkids. This gives me a new perspective to consider. You are right– many of my kids are not internally motivated yet. Finding a new approach is a good idea. I like this! Thank you!


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