Rewards & Consequences

Nudge, Don’t Nag: 9 Ways to Motivate Your Child to Do Well

Nine ways to get your child with ADHD to the starting line — and to finally cross over the finish line of assignments, goals, and day-to-day tasks.

“She could do it if she only tried” or “He’s just lazy.” How often have you heard people say this about your child, or thought it yourself? Your child seems capable, yet getting him to do assignments or homework is like having to move mountains.

Attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) has been called a disorder of motivation. Some experts believe that ADHD affects motivation more than attention.

The reason children and teens with ADHD have difficulty getting started and completing tasks is neurologically based. ADHD usually involves executive function deficits — not being able to organize one’s thoughts or getting started, for example. In addition, those with ADHD have lower dopamine levels than their neurotypical peers. Dopamine allows us to regulate emotional responses and take action to achieve specific rewards. It’s responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. With ADHD, dopamine is not transmitted efficiently, so a child doesn’t have the motivation to complete tasks.

What can you as a parent do to motivate your child to start assignments, finish homework, and just get stuff done? Here are some simple solutions that have worked for me, as a mom and a teacher:

  • Monitor your child’s medication. Medication for ADHD improves neurotransmitter function. Check in with your child’s doctor to be sure the dosage is optimal. Also make sure that the medication is active during times when she needs it for homework and other schoolwork.
  • Elevate your child to a decision-maker. We are less motivated when someone else tells us what to do. No one likes to be nagged to start a chore or an assignment. Giving your child a sense of control will encourage him to start and finish a task. Ask your child how long she thinks a task will take, and have her compare the actual time with her prediction. Encourage her to come up with solutions for getting started sooner.

[Free Webinar Replay: Tips and Tools to Help Your Child Start — and Finish — Homework]

  • Set goals. Research shows that setting goals makes it more likely that they will be achieved. Have your child create a “vision board” at the beginning of the school year. She can cut out pictures from magazines or print photos from websites, and make a collage showing where she wants to go and what she wants to be at the end of that grade or beyond. Ask her to write down one specific observable goal that relates to that vision. The goal should be time-limited—like read 10 pages in a book in one week. Agree on a time for her to report on her progress, so you don’t have to nag her.
  • Use “if… then.” There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. We all want our children with ADHD to do something because they are interested in doing it, not just to earn a reward. But until they internalize the pleasure of accomplishment, students with ADHD may get more done with external motivation — namely, rewards. Research has shown that giving material rewards works best with short-term activities, not long-term achievements. Instead of rewarding your child for a good report card, reward him for completing assignments due the next day.

  • Make it into a game. Have your child choose his favorite tune, and ask him to practice all of his spelling words before the tune is over.
  • Connect uninteresting activities to areas of interest. When my son was in third grade, his teacher told me, “He’s just not interested in learning!” I had observed him since birth and knew that the little boy who tamed butterflies was curious and loved to learn. The subject needed to be interesting to him. If your child is interested in baseball, relate math to sports activities, such as calculating a batting average. If he likes cooking, show him how to use fractions to measure ingredients for a favorite recipe.

[Free Resource: Transform Your Teen’s Apathy Into Engagement]

  • Keep him moving. Allow your child to stand while working. Punctuate school assignments or other quiet tasks with short movement activities, such as yoga poses or “musical chairs.”
  • Be realistic. When your child experiences success, he will want to repeat that experience. Determine how much your child can complete in a given time, and ask him to take that on. When my son was a young teen, I had a list of chores for him to complete that never seemed to get done. I nagged him. Finally, I took a close look at what he could realistically get done. We talked things over and he chose one chore he was willing to do — the laundry. Apparently, that held more intrinsic interest to him than taking out the garbage. Once we determined how often the laundry needed to be done, he took charge. I still had to wash the dishes and take out the trash, but he finally experienced a sense of accomplishment from doing his own laundry, and that translated into future success in school.
  • Praise effort over ability. Studies show that students do best when they believe that improvement is due to putting in lots of effort rather than to fixed intelligence or innate ability. When a parent praises a child for doing a task, she is underscoring a child’s control over the task.

SHARI GENT, M.S., NCED, works at Mind Matters Educational Therapy and is an educational therapist in private practice in Fremont, California. You can reach Shari here.

[How to Motivate (Not De-Moralize) a Student with ADHD]

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