Nearly every parent we work with asks the question, at some point, “Why can’t my kid just _…_!” You can fill in the blank with a variety of phrases: …get his homework done? …listen to me? …stop talking back? …get out of bed in the morning? The reality is that they can’t just …__! The ADHD brain needs to be genuinely interested in something in order to take action.
For people who have no real challenges with executive function, this can be one of the hardest things to understand, even though it’s simple science. The presence of a motivator is what fuels the neuro-pathways in the ADHD brain. Motivation is a powerful tool that helps people with ADHD and other challenges of executive function take action!
When neuro-typical people are faced with something they really don’t want to do, they simply press an imaginary “just get it done” button, and voila! They are able to make it happen. In the ADHD brain, the challenge is that the “just get it done” button has a glass box around it! They can see it, but they have a very hard time accessing it.
Motivation is essential to help a person with ADHD get something done, and there are five things that tend to motivate the ADHD brain. Not everyone with ADHD is motivated equally by all of them, but here are some clues to help you identify what will work for your child:
- Interest. The ADHD brain seeks stimulation, and things that it finds interesting are stimulating. Parents often complain that “my child won’t do anything he doesn’t want to do,” and to some extent, that’s because it’s not compelling enough. Students do well in classes with teachers who are engaging, and in subjects they find interesting. While “boring” is kryptonite for an ADHD brain, “interest” ignites a power-chamber of fuel.
- Urgency. People with ADHD often wait until the last minute to do things — whether it’s starting homework or getting ready to leave the house.
This is because the frontal lobe of the brain (where the executive functions reside) is sluggish, and isn’t properly stimulated to get things done. Urgency shifts to a different part of the brain – the primitive brain – which provides the chemical incentive to take action. Deadlines can be really effective motivators for people with ADHD.
- Novelty. The ADHD brain is stimulated by things that seem new or different. This can be simple as simple as a distraction (“Ooh, it’s shiny!”) or as complicated as all of the changes that come with the beginning of a new school year. Many students will start off strong, motivated by new teachers, classmates, and schedules. As the school year progresses and is no longer novel, their engagement starts to wane. This is why new places to do homework, or new strategies can be helpful – effectively, new is interesting.
- Play/Creativity/Fun. Humans are inherently motivated by things that are fun, or pleasurable, or enjoyable. This is all the more true for people with ADHD, who need some kind of stimulation to engage or take action – and there is no better stimulation than something that is fun, or playful, or creative. Fun can tie into other motivators, like being interesting or novel or competitive. Mostly, it’s a motivator in and of itself. Want to get a kid with ADHD to get something done? Turn it into a game, and you’re half way home.
- Competition. Competition is great way to offer the ADHD brain the stimulation that it seeks. In fact, it builds on many of the other motivators listed above. Competition usually offer the possibility of a reward, and often plays to someone’s strengths. Competition can provide interest, urgency, novelty and play. However, since people who struggle with anxiety can be stressed rather than motivated by the chemical reactions that come with urgency, competition doesn’t work for everyone.
As a parent, start by identifying what motivates your child and helping your child to understand the role that motivation plays in her success. Over time, work with your child to identify what she sees as her motivators; and eventually, your child will learn to identify her own motivators. When that happens – when your child begins to understand the concept and create tools to help himself — that’s when you’ll know you’ve taught a lifelong lesson.