How to Help Motivate a Child with ADHD

Elaine Conrad

ADHD, ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, adolescent ADD, children, school, learning, motivation, parenting, caregiving

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have trouble paying attention and managing impulsive behaviour. This is why motivating a child with ADHD to succeed in school can be a tough task. How do you help them find their homework, much less complete it? As a psychotherapist and teacher, I’ve worked with numerous students and parents to help alleviate the stress of ADHD and school. Here are a few of my favourite tips to help navigate their journey:

1. Praise good behaviour

As a teacher, this is my motto. I spend every opportunity I can looking for the strengths in every single student, because every student has them. Helping your child/student find their passion and strength goes a long way toward building self-esteem.

You can do this in a variety of ways. It may be as simple as noticing that the child has great energy when leading a game in gym class. Or maybe they have a great sense of humour or can create amazing art. Perhaps they are kind to younger siblings or children at school. Whatever it is, play to their strengths and don’t forget to vocalize it when they do well. They’ll hear enough about the negatives. Be the person that motivates them by catching them doing something good!

Taking the time to teach children with ADHD how to manage their emotions and organize their lives can help improve their grades, their relationships, and their self-esteem.

2. Help them stay organized and focused

Losing what’s required to complete an assignment, paper, or study for a test can be very unmotivating. Help motivate the child by teaching them to stay on task and get organized. For example, have them create a list (with words or pictures) to help them remember what to put in their backpack in the morning. Or if they need to remember something important, get them to leave a sticky note somewhere they will be sure to see it.

Another strategy is getting them to place things in the order they will require them for school. This is always helpful and can be used in a classroom or locker. Dry erase checklists on a younger student’s desk can also be helpful because they can erase tasks as they are completed. This will keep them on task throughout the day. You can also use music to help with memory, so try making up fun songs to help kids remember things. I still do this, and I’m just slightly older than a teen.

3. Teach them how to manage large tasks

Children with ADHD are often intimidated by large tasks and therefore avoid starting to work on them. This is why it’s helpful to show them how to take a large task and break it down into smaller ones. Help them with a chart/sticky note system on their bedroom wall to break the task down into small steps and remove a note or cross off each step as they complete it. They are motivated by seeing that they have completed something, which can be helpful for their sense of accomplishment.

Children with ADHD need to be shown how to take a large task and break it down into smaller ones.

4. Practice calm communication

Kids with ADHD have difficulty managing and regulating emotions. As adults, we’ve had lots of practice with this so we can give them a helping hand. One of the best ways to do this is by giving the child feedback in the moment when they use an inappropriate tone with you. For example, if a child says, “I want dinner right now!” reframe it by saying, “I think what you mean to say is, ‘I’m hungry. Is dinner almost ready?’” Ask them to repeat it back to you. Remember, kids need us to model how to regulate emotions.

If your child is having difficulty stating their feelings in a positive way, help them use the sandwich method:

  • Positive (top crust)
  • What they need or want (filling)
  • Positive (bottom crust)

For example: “Jane, I really like hanging out with you. Sometimes when we hang out, you don’t let me do anything I’d like to do like play video games. I’d like to keep hanging out with you because you’re fun to be around. Can we find time to do some things I like to do?” Practice this with the child using as many scenarios as you think they need to help them communicate their needs, especially with teachers.

5. Teach them how to calm down

For many children, instant gratification is at the forefront of their minds. As adults, however, our brains have developed further, and we have learned (hopefully) to delay gratification and wait our turn. We will sleep on it before we buy something expensive or send a hurtful email. Children, on the other hand, need our help managing impulse control, especially those with ADHD.

Teaching kids skills like counting to ten, deep breathing, and the importance of giving themselves a “time out” by walking away from a situation to deal with their emotions are important and will help keep them out of sticky situations. Other skills such as creating a pros/cons list for older children is helpful when it comes to making decisions about going to a party, buying an expensive item, deciding to break a playdate with a friend, etc. You can read more ideas on how to help a child calm down in this blog.

If a negative impulsive behaviour has occurred, it’s not too late to do some damage control. Sitting down with your child/teen and nonjudgementally asking why they made that choice, what the consequences of that choice were, and what they could have done instead is a great teachable moment. It won’t change the choice, but it will help them gain a new tool for next time.

Navigating life with ADHD is possible. Taking the time to teach children how to manage their emotions and organize their lives can help improve their grades, their relationships, and their self-esteem. Finding and building upon a child’s strengths helps create the confidence necessary to face life’s challenges.
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Elaine Conrad, MEd, RP
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute
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