The 9-Year-Old Dawdler Dilemma7 min read

Many years ago, I received a letter from a distraught mother. She wrote:

Dear Nicholeen,

I’m in need of some help with my nine-year-old son. He is a major dawdler, and always has been. I am a very efficient person and try to get things done as quickly as possible. See the conflict already? It takes gobs of time for him to do simple things like get dressed, brush teeth, eat breakfast, read his books, and other things that are very simple. He’ll start the task, but then literally just start walking around the house in circles, just doing nothing in particular except dawdling. I don’t think it’s entirely intentional — most of the time it seems like he just can’t help it. But it’s such a point of frustration for me, I just don’t know what to do about it. Sometimes setting a timer and giving a reward at the end works, but sometimes nothing works. I remind, encourage, nag, yell (bad mommy!), beg, plead and incentivize, but I just can’t stand over him and keep him on task every second of the day. Do you have any experience with this? I would just love and appreciate any possible suggestions! I’m nearing my wit’s end with this problem. We need a good, lasting solution.

— Sarah

I told Sarah at the time that I had a nine-year-old daughter and she’s also a dawdler. I’m also a very efficient person. In my situation I have to be, or I won’t get done all the things I need to.

The very first thing you need to ask yourself is, “When he does something on task, what do I do? Do I simply go on with my day because I’m still so focused, or do I stop and praise him like crazy?” I bet he follows through sometimes. It probably feels like never, but sometimes you ask him to do something he likes to do, and he does it perfectly. Look for those times and praise, praise, praise.

Secondly, remember how I teach that 99 percent of all behaviors can go back to The Four Basics? Your son doesn’t know how to follow an instruction. The last step we teach in following an instruction is checking back. There have been times over the years when I haven’t remembered about checking back. It takes extra time, but sometimes life gets going so fast that I honestly have forgotten to remind the children to do it. When this happens, my children don’t get praised nearly enough for what they do right. This creates problems focusing, which encourages dawdling.

Have your kids practice following instructions daily at a set time. Make the instructions fun so that the children will have a good time following instructions. Make it like a game. During this game, constantly review the steps to following instructions and praise them for each exact step followed.

“You followed my instruction to skip around the room fantastically! You looked at me when I spoke to you. You kept a calm voice and a calm face. You said ‘Okay’ when I asked you to do something. You skipped immediately and then you checked back. You’re so great at following instructions. Yay for [CHILD’S NAME]!”

If he doesn’t follow instructions, including checking back, he should earn an extra chore or something. Don’t just dwell on the negative consequences though. Sometimes positive consequences can teach more than negative ones. Maybe have a counseling session on this behavior. Explain why this behavior is hard for the family and what that means to him. All rationales must be something the youth cares about, or they will not have a desire to change.

Then set up a plan like this: “If you can follow instructions and check back all day today, then you will get something from the snack bag. Or, if you follow instructions and check back this whole week, then we’ll go for a date on Saturday and get shakes, just the two of us. We’ll use this chart to mark a happy face for every time you check back and a sad face for every time you don’t. I will try to remind you to check back, but you have to try too, Okay?”

You may want to do some oral SODAS, or problem-solving exercises, about situations you often find him in. A solution might be something like, “Mom gives you an instruction to clean the bathroom sink. You say, ‘Okay,’ and go to do the task. On your way to the bathroom, you notice your sword in the hall. You really want to play with it. What are your options?”

There are exact steps to staying on task — if you want to use them. Boys Town came up with these. These are obvious but could prove helpful. I actually once taught them to a foster youth who had a severe challenge focusing on tasks. It was helpful, but I think the basic following instructions is where to start. Following instructions also applies to so many other things. If he knows that one, it will be easier for both of you.

Here are the steps for following instructions (ideal for dawdlers!):

  1. Promptly begin work on the task.
  2. Focus your attention directly on the subject.
  3. If your attention wanders, instruct yourself to concentrate on the task.
  4. Ignore distractions or interruptions by others.
  5. Remain on task until the work is completed.

My oldest son had a focusing problem when he was nine, but three years later he didn’t have as much of a problem. When he started focusing, my daughter — who was always so focused — started not focusing. Some of this behavior has to do with the age. Children are naturally curious at this age, which is why they love to learn just about everything.

Life is exciting. Be careful not to have such a rigid agenda that you take that excitement away. Have times daily when your children will be completely free. That way they know they only have to focus for a short time, and then they’re free to explore. This will help with their anxiety. Nine-year-old children shouldn’t be required to focus on tasks the entire day. This behavior comes with time.

Be careful about getting utopian ideas in your head that are destructive for children. Many of these are great, but compounded ones like: “We WILL arrive at the party on time and my child WILL look perfect and I WILL come home to a completely clean house,” can be overwhelming, unrealistic and destructive. If you have a child that moves slower than others, you might need to temporarily set aside your goal to arrive at the party on time and let the other two objectives get done when you can. Don’t let yourself get stressed over silly things. Yelling drives the spirit of love and unity away from your home. At that point, who cares if everyone did what you wanted them to on time? One of your main goals as a parent is to create a home of joy.

If it’s time to go and your nine-year-old didn’t finish all he should, leave it and give an instruction to get in the car. Once in the car, calmly explain that he will have to do the tasks when he gets home and another chore, because he didn’t stay on task (after explaining the steps he should have done, of course). If he did stay on task, but is slow, as my daughter is, then you can do nothing beyond letting them resume the task when you get back home. You should also praise him for staying on task even when he might be slow. Love his difference. He will grow up to more like you than you think.

And always remember —Praise, Praise, Praise!