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How to Build Initiation Skills

Starting a task requires strong initiation skills. Students who struggle to begin their work may have weak executive functioning skills. Initiation of task is a key executive functioning skill and utilizes other executive functioning skills such as planning and organization. Some students who struggle with initiation are overwhelmed by the multiple possible solutions they envision, causing them to get stuck trying to pick which solution is the best; while other students are unclear on the instructions for the task and don’t fully understand what they are supposed to do, preventing them from being able to start the task. Below is an example of parent struggling to help her child with initiation skills.

I wonder if you could help me. After various tests my son (7, grade 2) was diagnosed with ADD (inattentive) and anxiety last year. He’s on Ritalin and though it helps a little, he still has major issues at school. One example: yesterday he needed to write 8 sentences with words like in, on, you etc. It took him over an hour to write. He would then first need to figure out which line to use, then where to start and then realize that the word needs to start with a capital (2 – 4 minutes have now passed). By then he needs to be reminded what the sentence is again. His handwriting is poor so he has the tendency to try and fix it (which obviously makes it worse). By the time he’s written the first word, the whole ritual has to start all over again. And if someone says just one word his concentration is completely off and he needs to be reminded from scratch. He has the ability to do everything that is expected, his reading is the best in his class and he remembers what he reads.

His math verbally is very good, but when writing, he makes careless mistakes. He also needs a couple of seconds before answering a question, which he will do but when he’s expected to write or come up with his own ideas, his mind is a blank. Do you have any advice or ideas into which we can look further?

I recommend the use of a visual prompt that can be displayed whenever the students go “blank”.

We use the STOP, THINK, PLAN, DO prompt.

stop think plan do jpeg

Using the STOP, THINK, PLAN, DO prompt you can start to build metacognition skills (thinking about thinking) so that your child has something to start with. ADHD (inattentive, hyperactive or combined) can make it harder for students to STOP AND THINK. The key is to stop and think long enough to create a plan that can be broken down into steps. It is then easier for the child to follow the steps without getting lost along the way.

We have had students create stop signs that the teacher can use when the student loses focus and needs to re-engage in the task. For Initiation you may need to write out the steps to follow, in detail, for each activity. Then teach the child to follow the list.

Here is an example for a writing assignment:

Add steps to the list until every time the student is stuck the next step is on the list ready to guide him.

Students will need help to learn the procedure, so prompting will be needed to remind the student to follow the checklist. Gently prompt the student by asking, “What do you do next?” whenever he loses focus or disengages in the task. You can tap the checklist to remind him that the answer is right there waiting for him.

It will take quite a bit of repetition for students to begin to internalize this system. So be patient. I also recommend building flexible thinking skills to help with initiation difficulties. Starting a new task requires analysis and problem solving to figure out the best way to do the task. For some students that is overwhelming. Building flexible thinking skills enables students to become problem solvers and active thinkers which is what is required for initiation of new tasks.

In the case of the student above there are more specific intervention that can help.

  1. Use wide ruled paper and number the lines.

  2. Use a ruler to mark which line he is going to write on.

  3. Check with teacher if the student can write half of the sentences and dictate the rest.

  4. Have him dictate the sentences and then copy them in his own handwriting.This breaks up the cognitive load by separating the thinking part of the task from the doing (writing) part of the task.

  5. Start learning typing skills to decrease the handwriting portion of his work.

  6. Consider a program that builds his fine motor skills, like Retrain the Brain, or occupational therapy.

  7. Build his cognitive processing speed and attention, a program like Pay Attention!  or PACE: processing and cognitive enhancement program, something that uses a timer or metronome to keep him on pace. Even simply clapping along with music can help.

  8. The Think, Talk, Laugh Program is designed to increase Verbal Processing Speed.

  9. Build his working memory with a program like Cogmed.

Building new skills takes time and patience. A step-by-step approach with constant reinforcement will allow students to develop and grow towards their potential. It is important to pick one aspect to work on at a time so that the child can be successful. Success builds confidence and confidence builds motivation. Motivation and desire to achieve drive students to work hard and learn.

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