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The Joy of Executive Functioning…5/9 – Getting Started – or Initation and Motivation.


Initiation and motivation

Many children with executive function deficits appear to lack motivation. They seem to take forever to get started on something, and they procrastinate. However, it may be that they aren’t being lazy or difficult, but they genuinely lack the ability to initiate or start a task. They just don’t know how to begin.

When a child can initiate a task, he is goal- directed; that is, he has the ability to see the goal in his mind and begin work so that he can accomplish it. But, if he has working memory deficits, he may not even be able to hold the goal in his mind so that he can initiate the task.

To teach a child to initiate, we should reinforce his or her attempts at beginning things, because any behaviour that is reinforced is likely to continue. For example, if Margo is unable to get started, her teacher could prompt her and say that she sees that Margo is thinking about what to do first, and that’s a good thing, so she is going to put a sticker on her chart. Other helpful tools to initiate a task could be a task organiser- a list of steps the child should follow to begin a task or using a memory tool such as ‘ TWINK’.

T- Think about the task

W- Write three steps to begin the task




I-  begin or Initiate the first step

N- begin the Next step

K- Keep going


Motivation is also an executive function, but it is intricately intertwined with the ability to actually do the task. When examining motivation, is it important to consider if the task and the demands needed for the task is suitable for the age group. There are two types of motivation to consider when assessing one’s motivation to do a task:

Intrinsic motivation describes a child who is motivated to get good grades, to complete the task to the best of his ability, or to improve his own personal performance. He may feel competition from peers and desire to be the best. He may want to please his teacher or his parents. His motivation comes from inside of him.

Extrinsic motivation describes a child who is unwilling to work unless he gets something for doing it. Maybe his parents have promised to buy him the latest technology device or another tangible reward. His motivation comes from outside of him.

As parents or teachers, it is important to evaluate at which of the two levels your child is working from and then to meet them at that level. For extrinsically motivated children, reinforcers could be helpful.  Sit with your child to discover their preferred reinforcers. If your child is sensitive to praise, then this could be helpful. Different things you could do are:

  • Giving a high five
  • Giving a knuckle bump

And the things you could say are:

  • Great job getting it done
  • Fantastic effort
  • Exceptional work
  • You worked really hard on that
  • I am so proud of you
  • Whoo hoo

However, the timing of the reinforcer is important. This means that in the beginning one needs to make it easier to earn reinforcement, realising that some children need to have reinforcement after every correct response to stay motivated, others can wait longer. When we see an improvement in motivation to get started, we can then reinforce at irregular and increasingly longer intervals. Keeping an element of challenge (not too easy, not too hard) in when and why a child gets reinforced is critical to the reinforcement working.

For more information about executive functioning check out our previous blogs. You will be well rewarded:)