Dear ADDitude

Dear ADDitude: What If Rewards Don’t Work?

“My son fights every step of his morning routine, every day. Sticker charts and rewards like extra tablet time just don’t work with him. He takes Focalin XR, but his school day is long so I give it to him after breakfast. What can I do?”

ADDitude Answers

I went through this fight for years. I found that the key to stress-free mornings was to prepare everything the night before. The backpack should be ready and at the front door, clothes (including shoes and socks) should be laid out, breakfast should be simple, and pre-prepared, if possible. Have some bags of cereal ready. If your son doesn’t have time for breakfast, have cereal to go. Think about using a timer: “You have 10 minutes to brush your hair and teeth and get dressed.” Sometimes, trying to beat the clock stimulates your child to get moving.

Posted by Eileen Bailey
Freelance writer, author specializing in ADHD, anxiety, and autism

ADDitude Answers

Mornings are often tough for families with ADHD.

Checklists and reward systems didn’t work for my son, except this one morning checklist I created that felt like a game to him and had an immediate reward — it was also very simple to use for him. Here are the details: Wake Up and Smell the Calmness

Most individuals with ADHD struggle a lot with executive functioning – those skills that are needed to get through the morning routine on one’s own. These articles have some strategies that might work for you:

Posted by Penny
community moderator, author on ADHD parenting, mom to teen boy with ADHD, LDs, and autism

A Reader Answers

I feel your pain. Our mornings are still not “easy,” nor do I think they ever will be, but a couple of years ago I implemented the rule that morning tasks are what count toward earned game/TV time each day.

I started by saying that, in order to earn game time that day, my son had to be ready to leave the house by 6:50 a.m. He got into that habit, and now he aims for that without me saying anything. He takes pride in saying, “I made it! It’s 6:49 a.m.!”

The next step was to tell him that we needed to apply that rule to getting out of bed, because his inclination to hit the snooze too many times or to simply turn the alarm off and roll over was creating a time crunch, and that was again making mornings stressful.

[Get This Free Download: Routines for Morning and Night]

So, I occasionally apply the rule to different parts of the morning, but as long as he’s ready on time, that’s the ultimate goal. It has worked, for the most part, because earning that game time each day is the only thing that works for my son. I have to make modifications here and there, but you get the idea.

It sure beats putting his clothes in the car and telling him he would have to get dressed on the way to school!

Posted by JAMurphy

A Reader Answers

In order to avoid a time crunch or arguing in the morning, I get up earlier and get completely ready. Then I wake my son up a little earlier to give him enough time to get up, eat, and get dressed without rushing. I tell him he cannot touch any toys until he is dressed. I even leave a few minutes free for us to just sit there together. You have to plan for extra time. Once you feel rushed mornings become really stressful.

My son also knows from experience that if he does not get dressed in time before we have to leave, he goes to school in whatever he slept in. I only had to take him to school in his pajamas once for it to never happen again. Not every morning is perfect, but I have found that not being rushed or stressed lets both my son and I feel calmer at the start of the day.

Posted by SDAJ

A Reader Answers

We have the same problem in my family. Some things that have helped make our mornings easier:

  • Have him sleep in the clothes he’s going to wear to school.
  • Give less time in the morning. It actually works better for my son than hours to spread out a few tasks.
  • Cut down on things to do. My son has five things to do, that’s it: take medication, eat breakfast, get dressed, brush teeth/hair, and put on shoes.

I give my son his medication as soon as his eyes are open, or we would never get out the door. Try that, and shove food in his hand to start eating. You could cook eggs before you wake him and wrap them in a tortilla, or buy high calorie granola bars or protein shakes. While he eats, his medication starts kicking in.

[Click to Read: The Benefits of Breakfast Are Real — and Delicious]

The night before, find your son’s shoes and backpack. Put them by the door for the morning. And yes, you will need to do this for him for quite awhile. Yes, there are still reminders, battles at times, tears at times, but some days he does it all by himself with a smile on his face. If my son leaves the house at times with unbrushed hair or teeth, I have learned to let it go.

The hardest part is thinking they are old enough to be consistently responsible when they’re not. Remember, kids with ADHD are less mature, and in the evenings after medication wears off, it’s rough. Hope some of these ideas help! Good luck!

Posted by PdxLaura

A Reader Answers

Our child psychologist has told us that defiant behavior is often a reaction to the amount of processing going on my son’s head, which can be overwhelming and frustrating. Often my son does not know how to sort out all the tasks ahead of him it out so he either becomes very angry or non-responsive.

My son is also not interested in rewards, but he does love to have races with me in the morning — who can get dressed faster, who can make the bed more quickly, etc. I usually stack the deck against myself, like throwing in a shower and makeup when all he has to do is just get dressed. With his struggle with executive functions, it’s usually a close race!

Posted by Sabine

A Reader Answers

Our current therapist recommended a solution earlier this year that has worked wonders with our 6 1/2 year old son with ADHD. Our son has a behavior notebook where he gets stickers for both morning and evening behaviors. The most he can earn is 4 per day. If he gets 3 or 4 stickers, he gets to pick out of a “treasure chest” (just a big box).

What really makes this incentive work is the tweak the therapist suggested — each prize is put into a paper bag, so that he can’t see what is going to be in there! The novelty never wears off this way and he always has something to look forward to.

Posted by lyren

A Reader Answers

Try simplifying the daily routine, to start. He may be having a difficult time with too many tasks in the morning. If he lays out his clothes the night before, there is no decision in the morning. Have him shower the night before, and put his backpack and shoes by the door.

There’s also a fair bit that can be done to “pave the path” for your child so there are fewer opportunities to get sidetracked. For example, we set our 11-year-old’s preferred breakfast ingredients out for him along with his medication well in advance of him getting to the kitchen.

Posted by K44

[Read: The Secret to No-Nag, Never-Late Mornings]