• Dr. Thom

Understanding Academic Procrastination


Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”


My oldest son says this so much that Bridget and I have joked that the phrase will show up on his tombstone. It is a variation of a common response to a range of requests from taking out the trash, emptying the dishwasher, to starting his homework.


“I’ll do it later.”


Maybe your teen is like ours, always putting off tasks and chores until just before they must be completed. Along the way there is cajoling and bargain making, setting of deadlines, and pleading. Some yelling may be involved. Maybe like us, this kind of routine can drive you bananas.


When it comes to academic procrastination, in which the student is putting off the completion of homework assignments or delaying studying for an exam, there is the added stress that comes with an impending deadline, probably best summarized by Tim Urban’s hilarious Ted Talk of procrastination.


From a psychological development point of view, procrastination is a form of boundary testing for early adolescents (ages 9-13). Once a young person has figured out that they can’t really outright refuse a request by a parent or authority figure, they start to assert their independence by stalling in their compliance with that request.Essentially they are saying, “I’ll do that chore, but I get to choose when I do it, and I choose later.”


The problem comes when that same young person grows older and things have shifted from “You [authority figure] can’t make me do my homework right now” to “I cannot make myself do my homework right now.” They know there is a consequence for putting off the assignment, but the effort required to adjust their habits and routines seems greater than the pleasure of whatever leisure activity they might prefer to be doing.


For some students, procrastination functions as a means of boosting their own focus and mental energy. When an assignment is one week away, there are all kinds of competing interests to sift through and the consequences of procrastination are perceived to be minimal. When that assignment is suddenly hours from being due, with the fear of failure imminent, the student is forced to prioritize the completion of that assignment. Do this enough times, and a pattern will solidify.


So what can you do with a teen who habitually procrastinates on their assignments?


Step one: Provide them boundaries, but allow them to experience natural consequences.


By all means, advise them on methods and schedules that often worked for you when you were a student. Set clear boundaries about when the work must be done (e.g., “no staying up late to work on this homework”) so it is not a free for all. But it is important to allow them to experience the negative outcomes that result from their choices. If they waited to start an assignment, and because of that delay they missed key details, and their grade reflects that, it’s better they learn from that now when you are there to help guide them.


Step Two: Focus on process over outcome.


The modern culture of achievement oriented parenting seems to emphasize outcomes over process. So long as the student gets an “A,” or first prize, or even an offer of admission to a top college, how they got there doesn’t really seem to matter. But to raise resilient, resourceful, and self-motivated teens, the conversation has to start and end with the “how.” So you got an “C” on that math test, what did you do that lead to that result?” “You tried out for the soccer team and made it? Wonderful. You put in a lot of hours of practice and it clearly paid off.” Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck has long noted the benefits of focusing on effort over talent as a means of helping young people develop a healthy growth mindset.


Step Three: Empathize and share your own experience.


When your student comes home from school and tells you about an assignment that didn’t turn out the way they wanted, try to resist the urge to jump right into solutioning. Take a moment and let them know that figuring out how to do this whole “growing up thing” is not easy. You would be amazed at how much more your teen will listen to you, and share their own failures and successes, if they know you won’t judge them for it, or worse, lecture them on how they “can do better.” Even better, let them in on your own struggles with procrastination. Surely you haven't always been this organizationally brilliant.


Becoming an adult is hard, that’s why many of us procrastinate on doing it.


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