Executive Functions

No Motivation? 5 Steps to Build Drive and Confidence

Teachers and parents can take advantage of these strategies for training focus, combatting procrastination, and prioritizing effectively to achieve the success that drives future motivation in their students with ADHD.

Warm-toned portrait of bored teenage boy using smartphone while lying on bed or couch at home, copy space
Warm-toned portrait of bored teenage boy using smartphone while lying on bed or couch at home, copy space

Lower levels of dopamine in the pleasure and reward systems of ADHD brains make it difficult and even painful for kids and teens to muster energy for tasks they find boring, overwhelming, or unachievable. Especially when students feel no immediate satisfaction from completion, the urgency and pressure of deadlines (along with the accompanying stress hormone cortisol) are needed to kickstart doing homework, studying for a test, or writing a long essay.

When kids with ADHD are unmotivated, it’s often because they expect failure. They’ve given up on themselves because they’ve received and internalized so many negative messages. Ultimately, having self-motivation means you believe that you can do a task because you’ve got the necessary resources.

Use these strategies to collaborate with your child or student on tools that will inspire their participation and buy-in.

1. Choose Meaningful Incentives

Instead of threats or punishments, use earned privileges that link effort to satisfying accomplishment. For example, finishing half of the reading assignment earns a student a short snack break. Completing the full assignment earns them the privilege of chatting quietly with a friend, drawing, or shooting hoops.

  • What does your child love? Make a list together of small and big incentives.
  • Link the “have-to” tasks to the “want-to” activities. Assign preferred activities to follow specific, unpreferred tasks.

[Download: 9 Teaching Strategies for ADHD Learning Hurdles]

2. Measure Capacity for Focus

Focus is the spotlight of attention. Many kids with ADHD are aware when they return from drifting off, but not when focus begins to fade.

3. Improve Initiation

It’s tough to get started on a task that seems impossible or insurmountable, so begin by meeting your student where they are — noticing and rewarding effort as much as outcome.

[Read This Next: How to Motivate (Not Demoralize) a Student with ADHD]

  • Break down assignments and chores into smaller parts — a few science problems or a page of reading to warm up. Set realistic goals.
  • Create, laminate, and post steps for getting started that explicitly lists the resources and tools needed to complete a task. Instead of repeating instructions, refer students to the list, which should include visual cues.
  • Present information in bite-sized chunks to avoid overwhelm. Ask your kids to repeat back what you are asking them to do.

4. Confront Procrastination

Procrastination is the sometimes debilitating byproduct of anxiety and negative thinking. Many kids with ADHD give up before they start trying. Procrastination is an attempt to limit mistakes and reduce future shame.

  • Encourage your child to do a small portion of a daunting task without editing, erasing, or throwing it away.
  • Address negative expectations based on past struggles and explore what’s different now. Notice all efforts positively.
  • Decide which tasks are easy, medium, and hard. Establish an order for approaching tasks that make the most sense to the student.
  • How long can your child sustain attention before becoming distracted? Have them work for this amount of time, take a quick break, and return to the task. Tie a few of these together until a longer break is necessary. Use analog clocks and timers to assist.

5. Teach Prioritization

When students become overwhelmed and immobilized by the length of their to-do lists, help them organize their brain dump based on urgency and importance.

  • Highlight or number urgent tasks — those with time pressure — and anticipate interruptions to their progress that may seem urgent but actually don’t require immediate reactions.
  • Draw attention to important tasks that reflect your child’s interests, purpose, and fulfillment. Which to-do list items are both urgent and important? These go to the top of the list. Save the important-but-not-urgent items for a time when your student is in a productive and/or creative flow.

Motivation for Learning with ADHD: Next Steps

Schoolhouse Blocks: Foundational Executive Functions

Access more resources from ADDitude’s Schoolhouse Blocks: Foundational Executive Functions series exploring common learning challenges and strategies to sharpen core EFs at school.

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