Laziness Is a Myth

The easiest thing to do is to succeed. More precisely, success is the easiest path if one feels that he has the tools to succeed and that meeting the metrics for success is possible. If a child believes he can complete academic work to the standards of teachers and parents, he will do the work. After all, adults’ disapproval, having to re-do assignments, and poor grades are things children generally like to avoid. Children also learn fairly young that long-term work avoidance is a difficult strategy. They know that most school courses are cumulative and that successfully covering up unfinished work is itself a laborious project.


Every behavior serves a purpose. Even behaviors we describe as “mindless” —like fidgeting or over-eating—have a reason behind them, such as self-stimulation. A toddler’s tantrums are exhausting for everyone, the child included. However, at an age where ability to communicate effectively and with nuance is limited, a tantrum meets the child’s needs for communication and/or attention. Idleness is not a purpose. In fact, people tend to feel best in the long term when they believe they are useful and accomplished, though our definitions of such may vary.


Of course, procrastination is an observable phenomenon that certainly exists. Researchers have come to understand that procrastination is primarily an emotional issue. I often share the articles “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)” and “Procrastinate Much? Manage Your Emotions, Not Your Time” with parents of my students for more background on what motivates procrastination and what to do about it.


All of this means that when I see a student who avoids work over the long term, my belief is not that the child simply won’t do the work; my belief is that there is a reason the child feels he cannot do the work. Avoidance can have a simple cause, like a deficit in a specific academic skill area, or it can have a complex cause, like anxiety. While it is easier to ascribe a student’s long-term academic struggles to laziness, it is not a diagnosis that points to effective solutions. After all, anyone who has children or who works in education has, at one time or another, resorted to motivational techniques and lecturing without much success. However, those failures do not spell doom for modifying student behavior. A child’s family, teachers, and outside service providers can collaborate to become behavior detectives. With better understanding of what motivates a student’s avoidance, we can often find effective interventions.

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