School & Learning

The Roots of ADHD Motivation Problems — and How to Get Students Engaged in Learning

Motivation in children with ADHD is tied to how the brain perceives challenges, among other factors. When we create learning environments and activities that help students feel safe and confident, we reduce their chances of experiencing failure and increase their chance at success — factors that increase motivation and make learning more fun.

unmotivated student: concept illustration of a student standing on his teacher's palm and reaching for the stars.

Lackluster or inconsistent motivation is one of the most common and challenging problems for students with ADHD, who often struggle to turn on and tune in to schoolwork they find less than captivating. Difficulties with motivation often result in poor academic performance, further decreasing motivation and contributing to a self-defeating cycle.

But motivation in children with ADHD is complex and often misunderstood. Motivation may seem attitudinal, but it is closely tied to the neurobiology of ADHD, and how the brain perceives challenges.

Though ADHD motivation problems are real, it is far from impossible to engage children with ADHD. Read on to understand what’s behind motivation problems in children with ADHD, and the strategies that can help break the cycle of low motivation in the classroom.

Understanding Motivation and ADHD: A Scientific Approach

Neuroscience and behavior science can help explain motivation, and why children with ADHD in particular find it difficult to initiate, sustain, or complete tasks. Understanding the science of motivation can inform our approaches toward improving it.

First, What is Motivation?

Motivation is the general desire or willingness of someone to do something. It often explains why a person acts or behaves in a particular way.

[Get This Free Download: 4 Secrets to Motivating Students with ADHD]

All of us do — and don’t do — things based on how they correspond to our needs. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, basic, primary needs must be met before we can attend to needs of a higher order. Among the most important needs for students with ADHD are safety and esteem, which includes security, confidence, feelings of achievement, and the respect of others.

Why else do we “do” things? The need to survive motivates us, as do rewards, which can be either tangible and extrinsic (like toys and money) or intangible and intrinsic (joy, the thrill of success, improving our status, avoiding the unpleasantness of failure).

We are generally not motivated to do things that we perceive to be uninteresting (“Why should I learn that? That’s boring to me”), unproductive (“I don’t need that”), and/or a “threat” to our safety, status, and wellbeing.

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

Motivation in Children with ADHD: Critical Needs Unmet

Children with ADHD often struggle to develop a positive sense of self in school. If a child does not feel positive about what they can do or achieve, that can be an impediment to learning.

Students with ADHD are more likely than their neurotypical classmates to encounter bumps in their learning. They may be less likely than their peer to experience success — which strengthens self-esteem and increases motivation. What’s more, children with ADHD have difficulty storing and recalling past experiences of success when it is attained. Neurologically speaking, fear and failure leave a bigger footprint than success.

Over time, these negative experiences of repeated failure or limited success accumulate and lead to a lack of confidence and feelings of incompetence, even when rewards are offered and earned. The brain, as it latches on to these bad experiences, recalibrates and tries to protect itself. As a result, many students with ADHD eventually develop an “I can’t” mindset, which has a negative impact on thinking and motivation.

Motivation in Children with ADHD: Increased Fear Factor

The brains of people with ADHD differ from neurotypical brains, specifically in how the prefrontal cortex (PFC) — the front part of the brain implicated in planning, decision-making, and, indeed, motivation — processes and connects information to other parts of the brain, including the primitive survival center (the fear zone). These differences in wiring ultimately impact the way students with ADHD make sense of and interpret new tasks and challenges.

The act of learning becomes all the more challenging when parts of the brain aren’t effectively “talking” to one another. Without efficient integration of messages within the brain, the ability to perform these related tasks can be seriously compromised:

  • Assess the complexity or difficulty of a task
  • Make connections to prior learning (e.g. every task becomes “new” and stressful)
  • Organize a plan of action
  • Execute and evaluating a response
  • Store the experience for later retrieval

It’s easy to see why students with ADHD may not experience success as often as other kids. Their history of failure primes them to assume that any new task is too difficult and therefore stressful. And stress gets in the way of effective learning. This reactive response, reinforced by  an “I can’t” attitude and low self-esteem, causes students with ADHD to perceive academic environments as unsafe and threatening. People (and animals as well) who do not feel safe and secure do not learn well.

When children feel threatened (e.g. afraid of looking dumb, weak, and incompetent), their “fear factor” increases. The brain’s survival center, believing it is under threat when it encounters something it doesn’t know (in this case, schoolwork), essentially says, “Well, if you can’t do it, you better get away from it because it’s dangerous.” This process effectively shuts down the PFC in the interest of survival — and “powers down” the very cognitive abilities students need to stay motivated.

When the fear factor goes up and cognitive abilities suffer, children become even more inefficient as learners, and their desire to “escape” from the situation increases. It’s a destructive, cyclical process. But at its core, it’s protective. It’s how our brain protects us from harm in our environment. But in this case, schoolwork has become the threat — the predator.

This is why we sometimes see students who are almost aggressively passive, opting not to engage in any schoolwork at all. These are the students who may sit in the back of the classroom with hoodies up and earphones on — a defensive move that helps them avoid ridicule and shame. “If I don’t do it,” they think, “nobody really knows whether I’m smart or stupid.”

In sum, a lack of motivation is generally attributed to neurobiologically-imposed challenges related to a student’s perception of the difficulty of the task and her ability to do it, These perceptions are shaped by a history of success or failure in a related task. The desire to avoid “dangerous” situations leads to a self-defeating cycle: “I can’t do this, so I won’t do this.”

Unmotivated No More: How to Increase Interest in Learning

1. Talk About the ADHD Brain

Teaching students about the neuroscience of stress and fear, and how it impacts motivation in ADHD brains, will help them understand that it’s something else inside them — i.e. not attitude or some personal default — that is behind their motivation problems. Armed with this explanation, students are less likely to use ADHD as an excuse and more likely to develop a better sense of control over the situation.

2. Use Success Rating Scales

How a student perceives the difficulty level of a task and their ability to take it on is more important than anything a parent or teacher says. (That’s why comments like, “I know you can do this. It’s easy. You’ve done it before,” while well-intentioned, don’t always work on a student who is trying, but finding it difficult, to experience success.) It’s important to know how students perceive a task in order to determine how to support them. That’s where success rating scales come in.

For a given task, students can indicate difficulty and ability perceptions on a scale of one to five, where one means low difficulty or high ability, and five means extreme difficulty or low skill/ability.

  • A 5:1 ratio (hard task: lots of ability) is a great combination that indicates high motivation
  • A 5:5 (hard task:low ability) is a no-go ratio, meaning that the brain is perceiving something to be too difficult
  • A 3:3 ratio (moderate task:moderate ability) is optimal for learning

For classwork and homework, students can rate their initial difficulty:ability rating at the top of the page, and their final rating at the bottom once they complete the assignment. Students might find that what they perceived to be a 4:4 task, for example, was actually a 3:3. This difference can be the basis for discussions between students and teachers about how to get into a go-go zone at the beginning of a learning activity. Teachers and parents should keep a work file to be used as an objective track record of the student’s growth and success.

How worthwhile a student finds a task is another important component to motivation that can be gauged with a similar scale. To increase motivation for a task that a student finds “boring” or irrelevant, teachers can create a learning activity related to a student’s life or interests. This way, it’ll allow the student to achieve or demonstrate the intended target skill on a more personal level. For example, if a student isn’t interested in writing an essay about a book, they might be interested in writing about a video game they enjoy playing.

3. Maximize Assets and Minimize Barriers

Teachers and parents should help students analyze their asset profile. In other words, what skills they have going for them that might make it possible to do a task well.

Many students might be quick to say that they have “nothing” going for them, which is untrue. In this moment of low motivation, teachers and parents can use a “competence anchor” — a reminder of an activity or time in which the student experienced success — to help them re-establish a positive mindset and reduce the fear factor. Pull a similar task from the student’s work file (mentioned above), for example, to prove that they have persevered, checked their perceptions, and been successful before — and that they can do it again. Remind them of non-academic activities they stuck to as well, like the time they spent hours learning how to play an instrument, or trying to beat a difficult level in their video game. Demonstrating that a student has the stamina and drive to complete a task, can help to dispel the myth of the “lazy” kid.

A competence anchor works because success is a powerful motivator for the brain, which, as we have said, is unfortunately quite good at holding on to past experiences of fear and failure. (The thrill of success explains the popularity of video games, which are designed to give children early exposure to success at lower levels of performance, and only increase the difficulty level based on performance.)

Finally, it’s also important to help a child analyze the barriers to success. Apart from lack of skill, impediments could include things in the child’s immediate environment, like noise, or movements outside the window, that interfere with focus and motivation. A fix for this particular issue, for example, could be moving the student to a quieter area or eliminating the distraction. Parents and teachers may need to offer suggestions to students until they are able to independently troubleshoot.

Teaching kids about the neurobiological basis of stress and motivation can help to put them on the pathway to increased success. When we create learning environments and activities that help students feel safe and confident, we are reducing their chances of experiencing failure and increasing their chances at success — factors that increase motivationand make learning more fun.

Unmotivated Students with ADHD: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Motivating Your Child with ADHD: What Ignites Interest in and Energy for Learning [Video Replay & Podcast #364] with Jerome Schultz, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on July 20, 2021.

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