Executive Functions

Reach Your Goals in the Classroom and Beyond

Does delayed executive function maturity make it hard for your child to achieve his goals? Here, tips for practice, patience, and perseverance for children and teenagers with ADHD.

Close up of rubik's cube belonging to child of ADHD working towards longterm goals
Close up of rubik's cube belonging to child of ADHD working towards longterm goals

The ability to set a goal and to work toward it without being sidetracked is critical to a child with ADHD’s success at school. A first-grader can complete his classwork to get to recess. A teenager can earn and save money over time to buy something he wants. This is one of the last executive function skills to mature, and parents and teachers often become impatient with kids as it develops. Until goal-directed persistence kicks in, youngsters will be influenced mostly by the here and now. If a child hasn’t grasped that homework affects report card grades, which affect the college he will attend and the job he will get, then he will be drawn off-task by anything of immediate interest.

Reaching Goals in the Classroom

Ask students to set small, achievable goals. “I’m going to see if I can finish my math paper with no more than two mistakes” or “I’m going to keep my hands to myself in line on the way to lunch.” The specific goal is less important than the act of setting it. Help kids make early goals small and realistic, so they can experience success.

Demonstrate goal-setting. “Today I’m going to work on noticing when kids are working well,” you might tell them. “Can you catch me doing that? Why don’t you give me a thumbs-up when you hear me making a positive comment to someone about the work they’re doing?”

Setting — and Achieving — Goals at School

Praise children for working hard on difficult tasks. “You’ve told me you hate writing,” you might say, “so I was impressed that you were able to fill half a page!” Or “You stuck with that math problem until you figured out the answer.”

Have a class discussion about overcoming obstacles. Ask kids to think about times when they hit a roadblock in trying to achieve something. Did they give up or did they find a way around the roadblock? If they gave up, can they think of something they might have done to fix the problem? Use athletes as an example. Are superstar athletes born talented? How did they get so good? Talk about realistic versus unrealistic goals — the ones we have control over and the ones we don’t.

Have the class set a common goal. A good class goal might be 85 percent of the class turning in homework each week. Have students talk about what each can do to help achieve the goal. Agree on a class reward if they meet the goal — or a bonus if they exceed it.

Make a personal connection with kids before setting goals. Look for ways to help the ADHD students in your class feel valued and liked. Learn about each one’s interests and engage him in a conversation. Once you’ve established rapport, talk with him privately about something he may be struggling with, and ask him if he’d be willing to set a goal with you. “I’ve noticed that it takes you longer than other kids to settle down when you come in from recess. Why don’t we keep track of how long it takes you each day for a week, and then see if we can beat the time next week?”

Setting and Meeting Goals at Home

Use your child’s interests as a jumping-off point for setting a goal. You can teach task persistence by encouraging him to save money for a toy or an activity he wants to do.

Create rewards your child can earn quickly. A common mistake is making the child work harder and longer to earn the reward than she’s capable of doing. For young children, a good approach is to schedule 10 minutes of doing homework followed by 10 minutes of playing video games, then gradually increase the amount of time they have to work (or wait).

Assign chores. For kids with ADHD, the chore may be quick and easy to do, and you may need to supervise him doing it. Time and effort can be increased gradually.

Create incentives to encourage your child to keep working toward the goal. If she is working to save up for a toy, take a picture of the toy and cut it into a jigsaw puzzle. Each time the child gets a step closer to the goal, give her a puzzle piece. When the puzzle is complete, she gets the reward.

Don’t confuse your goals with your child’s. Don’t say to a child who hands in 10 percent of his Spanish homework, “I’d like you to commit to completing every Spanish homework assignment.” Suggest that increasing homework completion in Spanish might be a worthy goal and ask him how much Spanish homework he thinks he can realistically do. Then ask if he’s willing to set a goal for completing Spanish homework, starting low and working his way up.

Set a family goal that everyone can contribute to. Hold a family meeting to discuss a problem that needs to be solved. Get input from all the family members about how to solve the problem, how goal attainment will be monitored, and what the reward might be when the goal is met.

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