Inside: Task Avoidance Behavior (lack of task initiation skills) is often associated with Autism and ADHD. Here are some IEP goals and strategies to assist in developing this skill set.

Task initiation is such a struggle for me. I get these weird mental blocks about things. I know it drives some of the people who work with me crazy.

If you’re reading this article on Task Initiation IEP goals, chances are you’re a teacher. So you may want to know that I’m working on an IEP toolkit for teachers. I have a teacher helping me put it together. I just have such a mental hurdle to doing my part of it. It’s task avoidance at its finest.

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task avoidance behavior
Even a small task can feel like a punishment if you have task avoidance behavior.

My VA gives me the content to work on, but I ignore it.

Task Initiation and Task Avoidance

I know once I start the task, I’ll be fine. But this task initiation struggle, or task avoidance, is an issue for many with ADHD or executive dysfunction.

In recent years there has been a major thrust toward self-direction for academics and behavior management. It is important for students to “own” their academics and their behavior. While some students may arrive at this innately, many need instruction and direction to master these skills.

This is especially true for our special education population. So where do we start?

What is Task Initiation?

The Peter Clark Center for Mind, Brain, and Education is highly effective in implementing research-based strategies for self-direction and regulation. “Task initiation is the moment when someone selects and begins a task.” (Bennett, Kalio).

Task initiation refers to the process of starting or beginning a task or activity. It involves the ability to recognize that a task needs to be completed, to decide to begin working on the task and to take the initial steps necessary to get started.

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Task initiation is an important executive function that is necessary for accomplishing goals and completing tasks in a timely and efficient manner. Difficulties with task initiation can result in procrastination, avoidance of tasks, and poor time management.

People with conditions such as ADHD or executive function disorder may struggle with task initiation and task avoidance. However, with practice and support, individuals can improve their task initiation skills and become more effective in accomplishing their goals.

If you have difficulty initiating tasks, you’re exhibiting task avoidance behavior. They go hand in hand.

What is Task Avoidance?

Task avoidance refers to a pattern of behavior where an individual actively avoids or postpones completing a task or activity. This can occur for a variety of reasons, including anxiety, fear of failure, lack of motivation, or feeling overwhelmed by the task.

Task avoidance can be problematic, as it can lead to procrastination, missed deadlines, and poor performance. It can also result in feelings of guilt, shame, and self-doubt.

Individuals who struggle with task avoidance may benefit from identifying the underlying reasons for their behavior and developing strategies to overcome their avoidance. For many of our kids, the reason they avoid a task is that they lack the skills to perform the task. (read that again!)

Teachers were attempting to give directions and steps to accomplish tasks that students were already familiar with accomplishing. However, many students still struggled with “where do I begin?”

They are struggling with task initiation and task transition and task avoidance. 

Even when the teacher gives directions and is confident that the students know what to do, they still may need direction on task initiation skills.

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An idea that was used based on Mind, Brain, and Education strategies was to talk to the kids first. Ask them what they felt was the best way to tackle certain tasks.

Some students verbalized wanting to do the hardest part first; while some opted for the easiest part first. Other students felt breaking a task into smaller parts and “rewarding” themselves helped them not to be overwhelmed knowing a reward was within reach.

Some classes actually had names for these particular strategies and all were shared with the class. There were so many layers as to why this was successful. First and foremost, they all had a strategy as to where to start.

Secondly, it gave them autonomy as to what worked better for them on an individual level. Thirdly, it promoted self-direction and self-regulation. Finally, it gave the students a sense of pride in “owning” their work.

Procrastination and Task Avoidance

Does your child procrastinate? Do you? Procrastination is both a form of task avoidance behavior and a symptom of task avoidance.

As a child, my skill deficiencies were treated as a character flaw. And the damage that did to my self-esteem took years to fix. YEARS. The truth was, I wasn’t lazy. I didn’t “wait until the last minute” on purpose. I simply did not know how to initiate tasks.

There are several factors that can contribute to task avoidance, including:

  1. Anxiety or fear of failure: Individuals may avoid tasks that they perceive as difficult, challenging, or outside of their comfort zone due to a fear of failure or anxiety.
  2. Lack of motivation: When individuals do not see the value or relevance of a task, they may be less motivated to complete it. In particular, this will apply to the infamous “non-preferred activities.”
  3. Executive dysfunction: Executive dysfunction, such as difficulty with planning, organization, and time management, can make it challenging for individuals to initiate and complete tasks.
  4. Perfectionism: Individuals with perfectionistic tendencies may avoid tasks for fear of not being able to complete them perfectly or meet their own high standards. Many people with ADHD and autism struggle with perfectionism.
  5. Overwhelm or feeling stuck: When individuals feel overwhelmed or unsure of how to approach a task, they may avoid it altogether.

It’s important to note that task avoidance can also be a symptom of underlying mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety disorders. If task avoidance is persistent and interferes with daily life, it may be helpful to seek support from a mental health professional.

Task Initiation Strategies

Teachers and students can get creative as to how to remember these strategies; it can be on a poster, an index card on the desk, or written words or images.

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Here are ten strategies for improving task initiation:

  1. Break tasks down into smaller steps: Breaking tasks into smaller, more manageable steps can make them feel less overwhelming and help individuals get started more easily.
  2. Set specific goals and deadlines: Setting clear goals and deadlines can provide motivation and a sense of urgency for completing tasks.
  3. Use a timer: Using a visual timer to set a specific amount of time for working on a task can help individuals get started and stay focused.
  4. Create a routine: Establishing a consistent routine for starting and completing tasks can help make task initiation a habit.
  5. Use positive self-talk: Using positive self-talk can help individuals overcome negative thoughts and beliefs about a task and feel more confident in their ability to get started.
  6. Reward yourself: Setting up a reward system for completing tasks can provide motivation and reinforce positive behavior.
  7. Find an accountability partner: Having an accountability partner can help individuals stay on track and committed to completing tasks.
  8. Use visualization: Visualizing oneself successfully completing a task can help boost motivation and confidence in task initiation.
  9. Practice mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, which can help them overcome obstacles to task initiation.
  10. Practice self-care: Taking care of oneself by getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in physical activity can help improve overall energy levels and motivation for task initiation.

Task Initiation IEP Goals

Task initiation goals are important for individuals with Autism. These students struggle with executive functioning. Executive functioning is the brain’s way of planning, focusing, remembering, and multitasking.

IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals for task initiation should be tailored to the specific needs and abilities of each individual student.

Here are ten examples of IEP goals for task initiation:

  1. Student will initiate and complete 3 out of 5 assigned classroom tasks with minimal prompting from the teacher.
  2. Student will independently initiate and complete daily personal hygiene tasks (e.g., brushing teeth, washing hands) with 80% accuracy.
  3. Student will initiate and complete homework assignments within 24 hours of being assigned with 70% accuracy.
  4. Student will initiate and complete social interactions with peers during unstructured time (e.g., recess) with 60% accuracy.
  5. Student will initiate and complete transition tasks (e.g., moving from one activity to another) without disruptive behavior in 4 out of 5 instances.
  6. Student will initiate and complete 2 out of 3 self-advocacy tasks (e.g., requesting accommodations, asking for clarification) independently.
  7. Student will initiate and complete daily household chores (e.g., making bed, setting table) with 75% accuracy.
  8. Student will initiate and complete a daily exercise routine independently for 5 consecutive days.
  9. Student will initiate and complete problem-solving tasks (e.g., following a set of instructions, identifying possible solutions) with 80% accuracy.
  10. Student will initiate and complete a vocational task (e.g., preparing materials for a job, completing a job application) independently with 70% accuracy.

Let’s also talk about some replacement behaviors for task avoidance.

Replacement Behaviors for Task Avoidance

Here are some replacement behaviors for task avoidance. While some of them overlap with the task initiation strategies, some are new behaviors rather than interventions or accommodations.

  1. Break tasks down into smaller steps: Instead of avoiding a task altogether, individuals can break it down into smaller, more manageable steps that feel less overwhelming.
  2. Use positive self-talk: Instead of allowing negative thoughts and beliefs to take over, individuals can use positive self-talk to encourage themselves and build confidence.
  3. Focus on the benefits: Instead of focusing on the difficulty of a task, individuals can focus on the benefits of completing it, such as feeling accomplished or reaching a goal.
  4. Establish routines: Instead of struggling with initiating tasks each time they arise, individuals can establish routines and habits for getting started.
  5. Use timers: Instead of procrastinating, individuals can use timers to set specific amounts of time for working on tasks, which can help them get started and stay focused.
  6. Practice mindfulness: Instead of getting stuck in negative thoughts or feelings, individuals can practice mindfulness to become more aware of their emotions and respond to them in a healthy way.
  7. Seek support: Instead of struggling alone, individuals can seek support from a teacher, counselor, or mentor to help them overcome task avoidance.
  8. Set SMART goals and celebrate small wins: Instead of setting unrealistic goals that feel impossible to achieve, individuals can set achievable goals that feel challenging but doable. This can also help with shame spiraling, which only goes to further reinforce task avoidance.
  9. Prioritize tasks: Instead of feeling overwhelmed by a long to-do list, individuals can prioritize tasks based on their importance and tackle them one at a time.
  10. Practice self-care: Instead of neglecting their physical and emotional needs, individuals can practice self-care by getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in activities that help them feel refreshed and energized.

Task Initiation and Task Avoidance

Don’t we all avoid tasks, chores, and errands that we just do not feel like doing? We put it off, find other “more important” things to do, rationalize, and keep moving it to another day on our to-do list.

So, really, we all can relate to this behavior, right? As adults, we cognitively know the ramifications of such behavior. This is why it is so important to equip our students with strategies so they don’t fall into task-avoidant behaviors that will negatively affect their education and; hence their success.

There are some common attributes to these students. They don’t want to try anything new, will procrastinate, or sometimes exhibit undesirable behavior to escape the task at hand.

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This is their survival skill, something they have always done as a way to cope with either the difficulty or feeling of being overwhelmed at the prospect of the task. This can also become not only a detriment to the student but serve as a distraction to the other students in the class.

Individuals with ADHD can struggle with task avoidance, or another term, avoidance procrastination. Focus is a major struggle for these individuals. It is important to provide students with strategies early on so they can transfer them as time goes on to use in daily life.

Individuals with ADHD can be overwhelmed by daily tasks and sometimes cannot see beyond that to realize how good it will feel to just get the task accomplished. Part of this is physiological, a person with ADHD could be releasing less dopamine so it is hard to get excited about completing a tedious, overwhelming task.

We are born with the desire to learn, we start doing it from the first moment we arrive here! However, as time goes on and certain areas of the brain just won’t cooperate and learning or the executive planning needed just fails us, we learn to avoid it. It really is a natural reaction, a survival skill.

Add to that, going to school and watching others be able to do what you find difficulty in doing or being told if you tried harder you’d be able to do it, only increases this desire to simply avoid the task.

So as teachers, we have to realize this is real to our students. It is not simply disobedience or defiance, it is a response to a physiological occurrence in the brain. We need strategies for our students to put in their toolboxes to replace those task avoidance behaviors and bravely push forward with their new survival skills.

Thanks again to Special Education Teacher Linda for her help with this article.

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Linda Gilmartin is a high school special education teacher, an adjunct college professor for future teachers, and the Administrator of the social media group Transitioning Teens/Adults with Special Needs Life After High School, and Author of Transitioning Special Needs Teenagers and Adults. 

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