Parenting Resources

Teaching Elementary Age Children to Take Initiative


By this age, many habits are already formed---both good and bad (productive and unproductive). But don't worry if your child is not yet showing initiative. Their brains are still developing, so it’s a perfect time to learn behaviors that will contribute to a life time of success.

One of the tasks of the elementary age child is to complete homework assignments. You can use this task to help foster character development in taking responsibility as well as initiative.

  • For 1st - 3rd graders, allow children to decide which homework project to tackle first.

If some assignments are given days or weeks in advance, assist her by having a calendar to show her when each project is due.

  • For 4th & 5th graders, encourage them to decide when they will fit their homework into each day’s schedule. Immediately after school or dinner may not be the most productive for all children – and may not fit into the family’s schedule.

Learning how to schedule “work” time will also help them recognize the importance of completing a task so they have more ‘free time.”

  • By 6th grade, children should be able to decide where and when they will do their homework, and they should be able to plan ahead for necessary supplies. Ask your child to review homework projects each week and let you know in advance if any supplies will be needed.

Last minute shopping to help a child finish a science project teaches the child there is no need to plan ahead – or take initiative!

  • When your child comes to you with questions about his homework assignment, don’t rush to answer. Instead, ask them to reread the directions and take some time to think. Encourage them with your words, “I have seen you tackle problems like this before. I think you can do it all by yourself.”

Chores are also a useful way of teaching children responsibility and initiative.

  • Offer your child a rotating choice of/variety of chores on a weekly basis for which there is no reward. The child is contributing to the family, just as parents do.
  • However, if the child sees something that is not on his list and does it, praise for the effort – especially given in front of others – is clearly appropriate.

Remember, praise states what you can see, not how ‘wonderful’ the child is. “I sure liked coming home and finding the garbage was already taken out. That showed initiative. You saw a job that needed to be done, and you did it. Thanks so much!” 

  • Research supports the fact that children often work harder for verbal reinforcement than for tangible rewards. However, an occasional reward to reinforce the development of a character trait may be helpful.
  • Once a week have a family “meeting” to discuss individual responsibilities, as well as how and when they can be accomplished. Show appreciation for productive suggestions, especially when your child offers to help.

Role modeling
Be a role model in taking initiative and in allowing for mistakes.

  • Let your children see you - picking up litter on the street, staying behind to clean up after a meeting, asking a friend what you can do to help, collecting all the balls after soccer practice, cooking a meal and taking it to a family with a new baby. Your children can help you with these tasks, as you teach them the value of taking the initiative.
  • Acknowledge mistakes. Let your children know when you have made a mistake and talk about ways you can correct it. “Oops, I just took a wrong turn on the way to school. Oh, that’s ok, because I can just make a U turn up ahead.” “Look, the pancake batter is watery. I must have put in too much milk. I think I will add a little more flour.” Or – better yet, “What do you think I can do to solve this problem?”
  • Volunteering as a family in a community project is a wonderful way to encourage and role-model ‘taking initiative’.

Problem solve together
You may want to further the concept of initiative by having a family meeting to discuss some problem your family would like to address – whether internal to your own family or external in the community. A discussion during dinner might be the best time, as the family is together and you have a ‘captive’ audience. Eating together also reinforces family cohesiveness.

Brainstorming should allow everyone to contribute ideas, no ideas are ridiculed, and creativity is encouraged. Then – follow through with one or more of the suggestions.

  • When something needs to be done around the house, ask your child for suggestions: For example: You don’t seem to have enough keys to the front door (older children can have keys made and find a safe place for them outside); 
  • Children can help with repairs. In one family, the faucet was leaking and the son replaced the washer leading to his feeling of accomplishment as well as reinforcing his initiative
  • In single-parent families, older children often have to take the place of the absent parent. This can cause frustration and resentment, but can also be an opportunity to reinforce responsible behaviors.