“Special Note: We are NOT recommending you use daily donuts as a reward strategy. This is one family’s story of what worked, and a caution to choose your rewards wisely!”
The Krispy Kreme® Donut Shop in Kansas City has been the single most successful behavior management tool we’ve ever created for our son. It’s no coincidence that it is directly on the route to my son’s school.
Five years ago, we switched our son with ADHD and Autism to a fabulous private school that specializes in working with kids who have learning disabilities, behavior challenges, and executive function deficits. Deciding to send our son there was (and still is!) a huge financial and time commitment for our family – it’s about a 45-minute drive during rush-hour — but it was so worth it when we saw how he flourished in this supportive & dynamic environment.
It may shock you to know (ha ha) that getting a child with ADHD up, dressed, and out the door in the morning can be somewhat challenging. J We thought we’d tried everything to be on time for school: check lists, picture charts, standing next to him for each transition, and finally, yelling. Nothing worked. We were all cranky, frustrated & exhausted. Most mornings we physically dressed him while he flopped around, still half asleep in his bed, and then carried him to the car so we could leave early enough to get all 4 kids to school on time. By the end of 2nd grade, our son held the dubious school record for being late 80% of the year. We needed help.
According to our very own Elaine Taylor-Klaus, there are 3 simple steps to creating a successful reward system.
- Identify the behavior you want to change. Make it specific.
- Identify your child’s motivators. The ADHD brain will not do anything unless it is genuinely interested or motivated.
- Start a feedback loop. Make sure that you have a way to measure progress or determine whether your child is engaging in the desired behavior.
So, we created a plan that looked something like this:
- Desired Change: Get to school on time.
- Child’s Motivators: E-time (computer games, ipad, xbox, etc)
- Measure Progress: Pretty simple – he’s either on time or late.
We tried it for a while, and discovered it needed tweaking. It turned out that an E-time reward at the END OF THE DAY meant nothing to him at o’dark thirty in the am. The Reward Was Too Far Away!! The ADHD brain only recognizes the ‘Now’ and the ‘Not Now.’ For a 9 year old, rewards that don’t show up till 9 hours later are definitely in ‘not now’ land.
How we found the ‘NOW’ currency
As you know, sometimes kids with ADHD who are on stimulant medication don’t like to eat. In those days, our son was so thin I could count the ribs on his skinny frame from across the room. We were desperate to get calories into him, and terrified he was starving his brain. By the time we got him into the car for school, his medication had kicked in and he didn’t want anything we offered for breakfast. We didn’t know he had Autism yet, we only knew that every food item ‘tasted funny,’ ‘felt weird,’ or ‘smelled disgusting.’
One fateful morning, in a moment of pure desperation, I saw the ‘Hot Donut’ light on and pulled into the Krispy Kreme® drive-though on the way to school. I watched in awe as our little guy scarfed down 6 (SIX!!!!) hot glazed donuts. He also polished off an entire bottle of chocolate milk. And we made it to school on time.
Smug parents that we were, we told ourselves we’d solved 2 problems with 1 sweet stop. We told our son that if he wanted to have hot donuts for breakfast, he needed to be dressed and in the car by 7:30. We set our expectations appropriately, figuring that if he made it once or twice a week, he’d be on time for school at least 40% of the time – a massive improvement from last year’s performance.
Well, dear friends, here is where our perfect reward system had its own consequences. During that first month following the Krispy Kreme discovery, our son arrived at school on time 19 out of 22 school days — a whopping 86% of the time! HUGE, right?
On the one hand, we couldn’t have been more thrilled! He was getting out the door on time, getting over 1000 calories in his body, and arriving at school on time!! On the other hand, our then 9-year old was putting away an average of 5 donuts/day (plus milk, thankfully!), and it was costing us $8.14/day. We had a system that worked, but it had its costs (literally, and nutritionally).
As parents of complex kids, we are always making trade-offs. I know the “experts” may think its horrible that I allow my son to eat donuts in the morning, and there are days that I wish we’d found a different incentive, but in the grand scheme of things we have found a way to work with it. We get his cholesterol checked every year, he gets an hour of exercise every day at school and he’s weighed every 3 months at his med checks. I’m happy to report he’s healthy, happy and finally reaching the 50th percentile on the weight chart.
So I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that, 3 years later, we are still known faces at Krispy Kreme for breakfast. That’s all going to change this fall, however. We’re transitioning our guy to the public middle school that’s 5 minutes away from our house. We’re optimistically terrified about this exciting next step, but we’re also confident he’ll be up and ready for school on time. We now know that the solutions are in our successes, and even if there’s not a Krispy Kreme en route, there is a Dunkin’ Donuts ® 2 minutes in the other direction……! 😉