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How to Encourage Your Child with ADHD to Read — Willingly and Voraciously

Children with ADHD typically don’t respond well to delayed gratification and the promise of long-term benefits. With this in mind, it pays to introduce a little instant gratification into the reading process. Over time, these small wins can turn books and magazines into a lifelong habit.

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King

The charm of a good book is undeniable. But so, too, is their slow and quiet nature — not always appealing to kids with ADHD on the hunt for a quick hit of dopamine. As a result, they too often miss out on the magic.

While our kids mature and train their brains to respond to longer-term gratification, there are plenty of ways to introduce a little instant gratification into the reading process. Over time, these small wins can turn books and magazines into a lifelong habit.

The following expert strategies come from Holly Duhig, author of A Book About ADHD (#CommissionsEarned) and Marley and the Monkey (#CommissionsEarned); and Hannah Rix, special educational needs teacher and founder of Readingmate.

How do I get my child to read?

Holly: Playing up the book-search experience is one great way to get your child interested in reading. Taking your child to a bookshop or library to pick out new books is a novel, tactile experience that can be extremely motivating for kids with ADHD.

Go one step further and allow your child to pick out books based on their interests rather than what you think they “should” be reading. Even if the books they choose are for younger children, they will still learn a lot from them without feeling overwhelmed by the task of reading.

[Read: 11 Every-Night Ways to Build Stronger Reading Skills]

Don’t worry too much about “challenging” your child’s reading abilities outside of the classroom. Allow your child to read for pleasure, and let their school do the hard work!

Hannah: To encourage reading for pleasure, it’s imperative that children feel like they have control over the experience. Home in on your child’s preferences so that the reading material is entirely on their terms. Let your child read wherever and whenever they choose – a child with ADHD may really struggle to sit still for prolonged periods, so if your child prefers reading whilst upside down, in a rocking chair, or even on the move, allow it.

Fidget toys or sensory materials can help tremendously with concentration, especially when reading aloud. These items can help channel this anxiety and restlessness away from the act of reading.

Reward your child for reading whenever possible. Readingmate has an inbuilt habit tracker as well as regular rewards for every milestone reached. Children with ADHD are extremely incentive driven, so praise and reinforcement is beneficial for progress and continuity.

[Read: Book Smart: Literature for Children with ADHD and Learning Disabilities]

How can books compete with screens, films, games and other media that delivers instant gratification?

Holly: It’s worth noting that not all children with ADHD will be reluctant readers. Some will consume books voraciously because they feed their curiosity and need for novelty. When I was growing up, I would read constantly because it was the most instantly gratifying source of escapism available to me. However, my ADHD meant that I still struggled with attention regulation, and I would often read to the detriment of other responsibilities like homework, sleep, and socializing.

But even children who do enjoy reading may opt for screen time over books nowadays. That’s because reading is more labor intensive than all the other forms of media vying for your child’s attention. While other mediums can provide educational and enriching content, reading has been shown to have so many benefits that TV and YouTube can’t substitute, such as building vocabulary, strengthening cognitive processes, and developing critical thinking.

In this era where screen time reigns supreme, it is important to deliberately set time aside for reading. It’s also important for you to practice what you preach and lead by example. So, why not have family reading time where everyone sits down and reads for 15 to 30 minutes before bed? The mere presence of another person (referred to as “body doubling” in ADHD coaching) doing a task with your child can make it is easier for them to partake in it.

Hannah: It sounds counterintuitive, but reading regularly will actually decrease the hold screen time has over us. Start small – set aside a reading slot for your child, and have them read for no more than 10 minutes in a screen-free room. (I’m also of the attitude that you’re never too old to enjoy being read to!) With time, you’ll notice a real difference in their patience and attention span. Make sure to incorporate reading time as part of a daily routine that builds other good habits and holds them accountable.

It may be tough at first, but remember – children with ADHD sometimes just need a nudge to get started.

What if my child refuses to read?

A child’s reluctance toward reading can be attributed to several factors. Some of them are more within our control than others.

Holly: Your child may be reluctant to pick up reading because they associate it with school and their academic performance. Taking this pressure off is important to encourage reading and make it a long-term habit.

Schools will often assign reading for homework, which makes children see it as an obligation. Structured reading as part of the curriculum is important, but it arguably caters more to neurotypical kids. (As I’ve mentioned, I loved reading as a kid, but did I ever fill in my reading log?!) Children with ADHD are also likely to hear more criticism and negative messages about their academic performance than other students. If they associate reading with performance, they may worry about being “judged” and “getting it wrong.” Consider using reward charts, like those available on Readingmate, which track time spent reading rather than their reading ability.

Lots of kids with ADHD also have sensory processing issues – this is especially true of children who also have an autism diagnosis – that can make it tough to engage in a demanding task like reading. Tweaking your child’s environments to ensure that they are sensory-safe havens can improve their reading experience and willingness to pick up more books independently.

Hannah: Reluctant readers are often lacking in confidence. Having a gentle conversation with your child about what’s holding them back could lead to some breakthroughs.

It’s also important to assess whether you’ve inadvertently placed expectations around reading that are holding your child back. As mentioned before, let your child choose a book on a subject that interests them, whether it’s a graphic novel, or a book you deem too “easy.” If your child senses that they will be judged based on what they pick up, they may avoid disappointment by not reading at all.

Finally, if your child is not responding to these strategies, and if their struggles with reading extend to these symptoms of dyslexia, talk to your child’s teacher and pediatrician.

Which books are best for children with ADHD?

Holly: Books that are part of a series are good for keeping children in the habit of reading – they will want to find out what happens next! Also, they are already familiar with the world and characters, which gives them a head-start. For older children, unless they are already bookworms, avoid getting them books as gifts, as it might enforce the notion of reading as an obligation.

Books are also a good way for children to learn more about ADHD and other unique parts of themselves. If they find their ADHD diagnosis interesting, then they might enjoy books that further their understanding of it. Marley and the Monkey, a picture book for younger children, and A Book About ADHD, a non-fiction read for older kids, are both works of mine designed for children who want to know more about their condition. I Have Bees in My Brain (#CommissionsEarned) by Trish Hammond and Journal of an ADHD Kid: The Good, the Bad and the Useful (#CommissionsEarned) by Tobias Stumpf are also great books!

Hannah: While no two children with ADHD are the same, I would recommend books that are short, illustration-heavy, and, most importantly, centered around their interests and hobbies. I’ve found books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid (#CommissionsEarned), Horrid Henry (#CommissionsEarned), Dog Man (#CommissionsEarned), Dirty Bertie (#CommissionsEarned) and the David Walliams books (#CommissionsEarned) to be the most engaging for many kids!

How to Get Kids to Read: Next Steps


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Updated on May 24, 2021

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