Is my child lazy?

By William B. Daigle, Ph.D.

I frequently get asked how to distinguish between the symptoms of inattention often observed in the Predominantly Inattentive presentation of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and “laziness.”  This question is often followed up by questions about how best to help such children with homework completion. For many such children, the “motivation” to complete their work is seemingly lacking. This blog entry will explore these issues and hopefully guide you toward a helpful approach.

It is important to note that it is rare to find children who are truly “lazy” as a reason for underachievement.  Most of the time, children who appear to be lazy behave that way due to other factors.  Think about children between 3-5 years old.  They are usually excited to show accomplishments to adults.  They are usually eager to learn new skills, such as cutting with scissors, tying shoelaces, coloring pictures, or riding a 2-wheeled bike, etc.  Some children with underlying anxiety might avoid such tasks our of fear of failure, but rarely out of actual laziness.  In other words, most children are not lazy by nature. Therefore, appearing to be lazy regarding schoolwork is often a cover for other issues.

Attention disorders, such as ADHD, can mimic laziness.  Attention disorders have a “motivation” component to them.  In lay terms, the attention centers in the brain are not fully functioning (not fully turned on), which causes children to struggle to focus on tasks that are not interesting to them.  Think about a ditch that runs through a yard.  If the ditch is narrow, it is easy to jump across it without getting wet.  If the ditch is wide, it is more difficult to jump across and requires much more energy to do so.  An interesting task is like a narrow ditch, easy for children to find the initiative and energy to complete the task.  A boring task is like a wide ditch, requiring much energy to initiate and sustain, especially when the attention centers are not fully functioning.  This leads children to avoid jumping across. 

Oftentimes, schoolwork feels like “busy work” that offers little in the way of excitement.  For children without attention problems, such boring tasks may not be fun, but such children usually have enough energy to push through and complete them anyway.  For children with inattention, the task of completing a worksheet may require more energy than perhaps they can muster at the time.  If left on their own, many such children fall prey to the infamous “I’ll do it later” traps of procrastination and avoidance.  They are also vulnerable to the many other “more exciting” temptations around them, such as playing with the rubber band they found on the table or fooling with their shoelaces, etc. This pattern may become even more pronounced as children get into higher grades and the workloads increase. 

The key to helping the children with inattention to complete non-exciting assignments is to help them to build a bridge over the wide ditch so that they can muster the energy to jump across.  These bridges consist of “structure,” which can include such support as sitting next to children while they work, helping children organize and plan their work more efficiently, teaching children how to divide assignments into smaller, more manageable pieces, teaching children time management and how to “schedule” breaks, etc.  

The next step would be to build a “bridge” to help children learn how to provide their own structure so that you can eventually pull away.  This step may require a substantial amount of your time and energy to teach the skills of time management, task management, self-awareness, attention control, memory, etc. (It can take months to years).  Nevertheless, if children cannot focus or get sufficient energy to tackle assignments, then you will have to teach these skills one way or another.  However, providing the structure creates a “bridge” to help children jump over the ditch.  During this process, children discover that the work is not so daunting anymore.    

A useful internet search to further explore these supportive strategies is that of “tips to help build executive functioning skills.”  The strategies you teach your child today can have a lifelong impact on your child’s independent functioning.