Executive Functions

Why Is It So Hard to Motivate Kids with ADHD?

Traditional carrots and sticks don’t motivate students with ADHD – that much is clear. But the neurological underpinnings behind this behavior still mystify many parents and teachers. Here, understand why the ADHD brain is tough to motivate, and how you can adjust your teaching and/or parenting accordingly.

A dad works with his daughter on ADHD motivation techniques.

The ADHD Brain Processes Rewards & Consequences Differently

Traditional motivational techniques — namely, rewards and consequences — don’t work for children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). This truth we hold to be self-evident. But why is it so? ADHD brains differ from neurotypical ones in a few important ways that impact motivation:

  • The parts of the brain that manage executive functions and emotions have different levels of activity.
  • Electrical activity differences make it harder for ADHD brains to filter out irrelevant stimuli, and focus on the task at hand.
  • ADHD is linked to low dopamine activity, which impacts desire — and reactions to rewards, success, and failure.

These differences mean that kids with ADHD have to work harder to acquire information and pay attention. That can mean kids with ADHD experience more frustration and failure than they do success, which negatively affects self-perception and increases stress – only further paralyzing the brain. That can look like:

  • Lack of Desire: “I don’t want to do this.”
  • Irrelevance: There is no value in doing this!”
  • Shame Avoidance: If I do this I will look/feel stupid (again).”
  • Success Avoidance: If I do this boring task correctly, I’ll just get more of it“
  • Desire to Retain Control: You can’t MAKE me do this.”

A child’s negative perceptions about his or her ability to complete a task may become a barrier to getting started — and result in less efficient processing because all that stress makes the brain shut down.

[Free Resource: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

Therefore, kids with ADHD require a different approach to process stimulation, jump-start motivation, and manage the emotional effects of their challenges. Not because of an attitude problem – but because of their neurobiology.

How to Help Your Child Identify Motivational Problems

Fixing motivation is a long process that begins by helping your child understand his brain chemistry and the challenges it creates. From there, you must learn to position tasks in a way that makes them relevant for your child’s unique neurochemistry.

The three-step process for parents, teachers, and mental health specialists is as follows:

  • Name it. Make sure your child knows she has a condition that can make certain situations more difficult or challenging. Help her understand that ADHD is real, but her fate is not sealed.
  • Explain it: Teach your child that certain challenges are related to his condition, for example: getting organized, starting a task (initiating), keeping a flow of competing thoughts in the background, or completing a task.
  • Frame it: Your child’s motivational difficulties are not related to intelligence. ADHD is a neurological difference. Say, “This doesn’t mean you’re not smart. It means your brain is working differently.” ADHD can present a challenge, but it doesn’t have to be a disability. It’s a skill deficit that can and must be overcome if students want to achieve greater success and live up to their fullest potential.

Some people with ADHD can independently address and overcome their challenges. But for most children, it takes guidance, education, and practice.

[The Mystery of ADHD Motivation, Solved]

In order for a student with ADHD to successfully tap into his motivation, he must have or develop self-awareness and self-advocacy. That means a student is able to say the following:

  • I have this condition.
  • I can explain my condition to other people — and that what looks like poor motivation is often related to my ADHD.
  • I understand that my cognitive style and my biochemistry are unlike those of others.
  • This makes tasks that are manageable for others very difficult for me.
  • I may be more motivated by some tasks than others. This has to do with my history of experience with the task, and my mindset.
  • Yes, I want to strengthen my ability in this area. I don’t want to be like this. It’s OK that I have ADHD, but I don’t want to deal with the consequences. I want to get better at this thing.

How to Help Your Child “Fix” Motivational Problems

  1. Help your child develop new skills. Give your child the opportunity to acquire and use metacognitive strategies that can help her override disorganization and distraction — and improve executive functioning. She wants to be able to say, “I am working on this, and I am improving because of the effort I put into it.” Help her get there.
  2. Find a mentor or coach — as in sports, or acting, or just about any skill — most people don’t become proficient on their own. This coach could be a parent, teacher, or counselor, any adult the child trusts.
  3. Teach the value of honest self-appraisal, and how to accept and use feedback from other people. Compare your child’s current performance and use of skills to his previous efforts. Then, help him use the skills he’s learned in the past to propel him further in the future.One of the simplest things we can do is ask our kids to rate the difficulty of the task being put before them on a scale of one to five – one being really easy, and five being really hard. Second, you should ask, “How capable are you of doing this task?” After helping your student complete the task, ask him to rate it again.
  4. Find a community of support for students, a group of others (of different ages) working on the same life goal – in person or online. A great resource for this is Eye to Eye, a non-profit that provides mentee/mentor program to schools across the U.S.
  5. Log accomplishments. The brain wants to avoid failure, but it finds success addictive. So keep a record of “wins” for your child (like the ribbons and trophies on the wall of an athlete). That’s part of what keeps people going. Our kids don’t have a lot of trophies; let’s think of how to turn that around.
  6. Focus on process, not product. The former will lead to the improvement of the other.
  7. Cultivate a growth mindset (ala Carol Dweck). I can and I will vs. I can’t so I won’t.” Get your child to externalize what her brain is saying to her at the beginning of the task, and see if you can help her change that message at least for that task.
  8. Build in many opportunities to experience the joy (and the good “brain juice”) that comes from success in an area of strength (sports, music, theater, electronics, dance, lyrics, poetry, et al). Let your child do the things that he does well. It will build good brain chemistry, which in turn makes his brain more ready and able to take on challenges.

[Motivating Kids with External Rewards]

This advice came from “How Parents and Teachers Can Use Brain Science to Increase Motivation in Children with ADHD,” an ADDitude webinar lead by Jerome Schultz, Ph.D. in August 2018 that is now available for free replay.

Jerome Schultz, Ph.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.