Helping your child with Time Management
There are 24 hours in a day. Yet some children (and even adults!) struggle with managing their time effectively. For example, they might always be late for school in the morning, or procrastinate before starting their class assignment. Why do some kids have more difficulty than others when it comes to organising their time?
It’s actually because of the physical makeup of our brains. The brain is responsible for everyday functions such as planning ahead, completing tasks, staying focused and ignoring distractions (Diamond, 2013). These processes help control our behaviour and are called executive functions. When children experience problems with their executive functioning, making productive use of their time can be a significant challenge.
Consider attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example. ADHD is not a behavioural problem, but a cognitive impairment related to difficulties with executive control (Brown, 2008). This explains why children with ADHD often have poor time management and difficulties with planning and organisation. Keep in mind that individual differences in executive function are generally genetic in nature (Friedman et al., 2008). In other words, although skills such as working memory and self-control continue to develop throughout childhood and adolescence (De Luca et al., 2003), a child’s executive function abilities are largely predetermined by the genes inherited from their parents.
This means that if a child forgets to do his chores or takes forever to get dressed, they are not necessarily being defiant or disobedient. But if you find that these behaviours happen repeatedly, it is likely that their brains are operating differently, resulting in problems with starting or finishing tasks on time.
The good news is that time management, like any other skill, can be improved. Here’s how:
1. Use a timer for preferred and non-preferred activities.
Some children struggle with their internal sense of time (e.g. Barkley et al., 2001). As such, the use of external reminders can help them learn and gauge the length of different time intervals. While regular verbal reminders can be helpful, the use of devices such as kitchen timers are more convenient and also teach children to self-monitor their performance. For example, you could set a timer for how much longer your child has to engage in a preferred activity (e.g. playing on the iPad), or how long you expect her to take to complete her maths homework.
2. Help your child break down a complex task into smaller steps.
Let’s say your child has a school assignment due in a month’s time. If it’s particularly challenging, they may need assistance with planning and dividing a lengthy task into more manageable steps (Barkley, 2013a). Prior to starting the task, help him or her break things down into small daily steps. For a writing task, for example, ask your child to write a single paragraph the first day, another paragraph the following day and continue in this manner until the assignment is completed. This allows them to make progress regularly and ensures that the task will be completed on time, while minimising the likelihood that they will leave it to the last minute before starting.
A variation on this strategy is something called the Pomodoro Technique (Cirillo, 2003), which can be used to reduce the perceived difficulty and complexity of tasks that are particularly lengthy and time-consuming. This method involves setting a timer for a given interval (e.g. 20 minutes), where the child is expected to fully focus on the task at hand, for example, studying for an exam, with no distractions or interruptions, When the timer goes off, the child is allowed to have a short break for 5 minutes. Once the break is over, the timer is set for the same interval and the process is repeated. A longer break is permitted after a number of intervals. This strategy may help your child be more motivated and productive by systematically scheduling breaks into a task.
3. Establish a reward system to motivate your child to complete tasks on time.
Children and adolescents may not see the value or purpose of doing things promptly and efficiently, especially for less preferred tasks. Perhaps they lack the internal motivation to get ready for school in the morning or to clean their room. Some children may just be less responsive to social praise and attention (Barkley, 2013b). Either way, systematic rewards can be used as a source of motivation for behavioural change, including managing one’s own time. These incentives could be in the form of a tangible item (e.g. a tasty snack), special privileges (e.g. a later bed-time) or points/tokens towards a long-term reward (e.g. a visit to McDonalds). Discuss with your children what rewards they find motivating and make sure to deliver them consistently if they are able to demonstrate good time management!
Written by: Jacky Au, psychologist at ACPC
Barkley, R. A. (2013a). Taking charge of ADHD: The complete, authoritative guide for parents. Guilford Press.
Barkley, R. A. (2013b). Defiant children: A clinician's manual for assessment and parent training. Guilford Press.
Barkley, R. A., Edwards, G., Laneri, M., Fletcher, K., & Metevia, L. (2001). Executive functioning, temporal discounting, and sense of time in adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Journal of abnormal child psychology, 29(6), 541-556.
Brown, T. E. (2009). ADD/ADHD and impaired executive function in clinical practice. Current Attention Disorders Reports, 1(1), 37-41.
Cirillo, F. (2006). The pomodoro technique (the pomodoro). Agile Processes in Software Engineering and, 54(2).
De Luca, C. R., Wood, S. J., Anderson, V., Buchanan, J. A., Proffitt, T. M., Mahony, K., & Pantelis, C. (2003). Normative data from the CANTAB. I: development of executive function over the lifespan. Journal of clinical and experimental neuropsychology, 25(2), 242-254.
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive functions. Annual review of psychology, 64, 135-168.
Friedman, N. P., Miyake, A., Young, S. E., DeFries, J. C., Corley, R. P., & Hewitt, J. K. (2008). Individual differences in executive functions are almost entirely genetic in origin. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 137