Rewards & Consequences

Q: “What Rewards Will Motivate Good Behavior from My Child?”

For many children with ADHD, rewards for good behavior are only motivating if they are new, interesting, and personal. Use these evidence-based pointers to help you devise effective rewards right now.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich:
Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich:

Q: “How do I keep my child interested in rewards for good behavior? He seems to lose interest in rewards after a few weeks, even if they were greatly appealing to him at first. Does ADHD have anything to do with it? How can I ensure that rewards remain effective and motivating over time?”

It’s not in your head — there is growing evidence that children with ADHD differ from their neurotypical peers in their sensitivity to rewards. For many children with ADHD, a far-away reward won’t work to reinforce desired behaviors. That means you’ll almost certainly have to adjust how you approach and set up rewards to encourage desired behaviors in your child.

The more you understand about ADHD brains and the factors that influence reward effectiveness therein, the better you’ll get at troubleshooting and engineering effective motivators for your child.

Rewards for Kids with ADHD: Guidelines and Quick Tips

1. Rewards come in many forms.

  • Material rewards comprise tangibles like money and toys.
  • Activity rewards center on preferred, enjoyable actions.
  • Social rewards include reinforcers like praise, smiles, high-fives, and other forms of encouragement. They are perhaps the most powerful reward type.

Each reward type has its pros and cons, and what is effective for your child may not work for another. Ask yourself the following questions as you select and craft rewards:

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  • “Does my child care about this reward?” Rewards must be meaningful to inspire change. If your child’s behavior isn’t changing for the better, then it may be that they don’t find the reward all that rewarding. Depending on your child, activity rewards may be more effective than, say, external rewards like toys and money. Ask your child what kind of payoffs they find appealing.
  • “Could I leverage my child’s desired activities?” Activities your child genuinely enjoys can serve as effective, appealing rewards that reinforce behaviors your child may otherwise struggle to do. (Your child might be more motivated to do chores, for example, if they know they’ll be rewarded with a trip to the park.)
  • “Am I making good use of social rewards?” Harness the power of encouragement. Use social rewards on top of other rewards if possible. Pats on the back and “good jobs” are easy to access and deliver, and they have long-enduring appeal.

2. Children with ADHD respond to immediate rewards.

Could your rewards be losing effectiveness because they take too long to kick in? A reward loses its appeal if it’s collected far off in the future, so be sure that your child can tolerate the gap between behavior and reward. Consider the reward’s ease of access and delivery. Could you close the gap on any otherwise appealing rewards to maximize their effectiveness?

[Read: The Science of Reward and Punishment for Children with ADHD]

If rewards are not immediate, ensure that they are at least highly desirable and worth waiting for.

3. Waiting for a reward should be awarded, too.

Waiting is an onerous, effortful task, especially for children with ADHD.1 We know from research that children with ADHD will often engage in what looks like misbehavior to try to distract themselves from the fact that they are waiting.

Unfortunately, waiting isn’t typically a behavior we acknowledge, yet alone reward. Remember that waiting is a desired behavior. Social rewards are especially useful for rewarding a child’s patience.

4. Match all task/behavior demands to your child’s abilities.

The behavior you seek or task you demand from your child may be incredibly difficult for them to act on, even with a powerful reward at the end. Your child may even experience that task as punishment – a formidable problem considering that children with ADHD are more sensitive than their neurotypical peers to punishment.2 3

We don’t often think of homework as punishment, for example. But if the material is outside your child’s ability level, or if focusing on homework for extended lengths of time is far too difficult, they may begin to experience homework as punishing. Despite the promise of a reward after completing homework, they may avoid the task altogether.

If a reward isn’t working, examine the desired behavior and consider ways to bring that behavior within reach. If you recognize that the task or behavior in question demands lots of effort, be sure to dole out lots of rewards along the way.

Rewards for Good Behavior: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “The Power of Positive Reinforcement: Why Rewards Trump Punishments for Students with ADHD” [Video Replay & Podcast #420],” with Gail Tripp, Ph.D., which was broadcast on September 8, 2022.

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View Article Sources

1 Tripp, G., & Alsop, B. (2001). Sensitivity to reward delay in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 42(5), 691–698.

2 Furukawa, E., Alsop, B., Sowerby, P., Jensen, S., & Tripp, G. (2017a). Evidence for increased behavioral control by punishment in children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 3(58), 248–257.

3 Furukawa, E., Alsop, B., Shimabukuro, S., & Tripp, G. (2019b). Is increased sensitivity to punishment a common characteristic of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder? An experimental study of response allocation in Japanese children. ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders, 11(4), 433–443.