Executive Functions Training, Great for All Ages, Motivating the Unmotivated, School Advice, The Happy Student Podcast

#94: Just Get Started

It can be really hard for kids to start writing a paper or to work on math problems because “They just don’t know how”. But one of the best ways, is to just get started! That is a surprisingly tough lesson to teach. Fireborn’s got a few tips to make it a little easier!


This episode focuses on the executive function skill called initiation, which involves  just getting started.

I struggled with writing when I was young. I didn’t understand the usefulness of outlines and I would often get overwhelmed because there was so much stuff that needed to go into a paper. I wouldn’t know where to start. I’d look at a blank screen and that certainly wouldn’t help. But that thought process – that “I don’t know where to start” thinking is the problem. Because you just have to get started anywhere so that your brain starts thinking about the problem and without knowing it, you’ll finally realize that you’ve been writing your paper. Or at least getting some productive thoughts out.

So how can you help your kid just get started writing? I…

  • read the instructions and as I read them, on my blank page, I made a to do list of things that the paper needed.
  • wrote a simple thesis on the page: “This is a paper about ________”.
  • wrote an outline.
  • talked or wrote down my first thoughts that maybe don’t mean much, but that just got my brain started thinking about what I needed to write about. Often, you may think that these thoughts aren’t useful, but you can usually use them somewhere in your paper – intro, conclusion, as part of an argument or evidence. Or maybe you can’t, but it at least gets you started thinking about what you want to say and that’s the goal.

When you give these suggestions, make sure they come across as suggestions. Kids prefer to have the ability to choose how they go about doing things. They don’t like to be told what to do – they get enough of that. So it can really be helpful if you just give options. They may not take those options right away, but they will always be there in the back of their minds and eventually you will get through to them!

So I had a hard time in general with standardized testing especially with math problems. I would read the word problem and if I didn’t know exactly how I was going to figure it out, I would just kind of stare at it for a little bit, not write anything down, and look at my tutor and say, “I don’t know.” It was very similar to how I handled chemistry problems that I didn’t understand. I wouldn’t write anything down and I’d move on to the next question.

I was advised to just start doing some math – whatever math you think is right. Try it out. Even if it doesn’t get you to the right place, it will get you somewhere and that will give you information about where you went wrong. And so despite my protestations and because of my tutor’s patient insistence, I would start trying the math that I knew was going to be wrong.

Just getting started by writing the problems down helped me figure out the right answer eventually. By thinking about the problem only, I was denying myself the opportunity to think more deeply about the problem and figure out where my thinking was off track. But by writing down my first thoughts and reviewing my work and just giving my brain time to think more about the problem, I was able to figure out the answers. Just getting started, even if you start in a place that isn’t right, gets your brain thinking about the problem and helps you solve it.

The best way you can help your kid get started is to sit with them (if they are happy to have you sit with them) and to just gently encourage them to try anything and review their work. By patiently sitting with them, you also show them that it’s okay if it takes time to figure out a problem. By patiently sitting with them, you free them up from that need for speed.  You’re essentially giving them the gift of time to really work on a problem. You are showing them that sometimes it takes time and that’s okay. You can also try telling them about how their brain works.


Executive Functions Overview

The Happy Student #15: It’s Paper Time!



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